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How to run an efficient meeting

Recently, some of our colleagues asked Will to share some tips on running effective meetings. Many people spend a significant percentage of working time in meetings, and without structure they can waste time. Will pulled in Alex and together, we led a training and Q&A with others at 18F and collected some highlights below. We hope you enjoy!

Before the meeting

Planning

Your meeting should have a clear purpose. It could be to share information, make a decision, resolve an escalation, or something else, but without a purpose you will not be able to plan. Holding the meeting should be a more effective use of your time or your team’s time (and the taxpayers’ dollar) than not.

Here are some of the meetings Will attends regularly and their purpose:

  • A daily five-minute stand-up to share current work efforts on an 18F product
  • A weekly 30-minute one-on-one with a manager to plan project next steps and share feedback as needed
  • A weekly 45-minute check-in with senior management to escalate blocked tasks for action and provide status updates on known risks

Your meeting should have clear roles that help fulfill the meeting’s clear purpose, and each person attending the meeting should know their role. Here are some common roles:

  • Leader: whoever convened the meeting and will end the meeting when the agenda is completed. There should be a obvious backup in case the leader is away.
  • Timekeeper: the “enforcer” who will help to keep the meeting on track and on time if the leader is focused elsewhere.
  • Notetaker: the person who produces a record of the meeting. Not assigning this role is the most common mistake we see meeting organizers make. However, anyone attending meetings has the authority (and responsibility) to correct this: If you find yourself in a meeting where it’s unclear who is taking notes, ask!
  • Stakeholder: someone with decision-making authority who can make a decision or help make a decision in or after the meeting.
  • Information recipient: someone whose job is to listen and ask clarifying questions. Meetings with people in this role are often about information dispersal.
  • Observer (optional): attends the meeting and provide feedback about your presentation and facilitation skills.

As a general rule, once you get into the double digits of attendees, you need to take a hard look at your list and see if everyone truly needs to be there (information dispersal meetings will almost always be the exception to this rule). If you have people on the attendee list without clear roles, ask yourself if they can read the notes afterward and take them off the invite. They will appreciate you.

Your meeting should also have a helpful calendar invite. Don’t assume all meetings have to be 30 or 60 minutes; we often book 15- or 45-minute meetings so that participants have time to breathe before or after. A side benefit of a 45-minute meeting: the “unused” 15 minutes are generally available as flex time if needed. Invites should have links to agendas and conference call information; if hosting guests in a building, consider including directions to the meeting room.

Agenda

Your meeting should have a complete agenda. The agenda both has the content of the meeting and tells you when the meeting is over. When the agenda is completed, the meeting should end.

Depending on the nature of the meeting, the format might be a short list of topics in the meeting invite or a detailed document listing speakers and subjects. With a clear agenda, you will be able to stay on track during the meeting and avoid filling time when topics are exhausted. Withholding an agenda is sometimes a valid tactical choice if you want a more free-flowing discussion, but the meeting organizer should still have a list of essential topics.

Your agenda needs to be delivered with sufficient advance notice to be useful. For some groups, that might be an hour’s warning so that people walking to the meeting can prepare themselves while en route or while waiting for the meeting to start. For other groups, you will need to allow more time — especially if you will expect others to present or lead discussion. For recurring meetings, a consistent time for distributing the agenda will help your participants build a habit of preparation and avoid the “I’m sorry, this is all new to me. Can we start at the beginning?” syndrome when people jump into a meeting cold.

Your agenda may need clear guidance for presenters and the audience about your expectations. That may be a quick timing note such as “Topic A: 5 min” or a guide for participation such as “Topic B: Discussion and Decision.” If you have items on the agenda that are announcements and not for discussion or decision, make that clear. Many times, questions can be asked elsewhere, keeping the meeting more efficient and useful for everyone.

Your agenda should say or ideally link to where notes will be taken. That makes sure that you don’t have to scramble when the meeting starts and makes note-taking easy to pick up if the notetaker isn’t available. Sometimes, you can take notes within the agenda, which limits post-meeting paperwork; other times, it will be appropriate to split out agenda and notes. Do what makes sense and stay consistent.

Here’s an example meeting invite to show how easy it can be to include everything needed:

Meeting title: Federalist Sprint Planning

Location: <Video Call Link / Backup Teleconference Line>

Invite text:

  • Let’s do sprint planning as usual!
  • Will Slack leads and takes notes (notes location: <link>)

Agenda:

  • First half: recap top priorities and gather feedback.
  • Second half: scope work efforts for sprint for each team member

Holding the meeting

Right before the meeting

A few minutes before your meeting, send a reminder ping out with the agenda, mentioning anyone by name that is particularly needed. Even well organized people will find these pings helpful.

If running the meeting, you need to be early; arriving at the start time means you’re late. This will give you time to check your technical setup and make sure the phone, projecting, or videoconferencing equipment is working. This is both considerate to remote employees and makes you appear more competent — no one looks classy when futzing with cords and remotes.

Starting

To build good habits, you need to consistently start your meetings on time. If you start late, people will shift their own schedules in response, and you’ll find that people will be comfortable coming later and later. If starting on time is difficult for your team or agency’s culture, consider moving the official start time to five minutes past the hour — your punctual teammates will thank you.

Start your meetings with pleasantries and establish a friendly tone. You don’t know what your meeting’s participants were doing before the meeting; some deliberate tone-setting helps “cleanse the social palette” for your attendees. Will often tells a quick story about something that happened to him that day. As needed, cover any technical backup plans: if anyone is at risk of losing WiFi or cell coverage (18F has problems with our large meeting tools sometimes), make sure that there’s a known contingency plan. Generally, that plan will be carrying on with the remaining folks, but that may not be appropriate. At 18F, we try to hold conference calls with internal attendees dialed in together from a Google Hangout.

Next, establish your meeting’s purpose and ask if anyone has items to add to the agenda. Spoiler alert: people will typically not have additions, but this helps establish your authority and prevent future attempted derails. After this, establish your meeting’s roles. This is when you should name a timekeeper and notetaker, and appoint someone to these roles if needed. If you are attending a meeting, you should feel empowered to ask who is taking notes or start taking them yourself.

Tip: You don’t have to be a stenographer to take good notes! Capturing dialogue verbatim isn’t as important as capturing the underlying meaning of comments and presentations. Passages can be left incomplete in order to capture all major points if the meeting moves quickly, then revisited on the same day of the meeting to clean up and flesh out anything unclear while it’s fresh in your memory. Be sure to pay special attention to capture specific decisions and assigned tasks; those are the crucial details.

The last area to cover: any tools your meeting is using. That could be a Slack channel, the location of the slides, the location of the notes. One of the best tools for difficult meetings is the parking lot. You can use the parking lot to visibly capture off topic questions or comments for future follow-up, either with a specific section in the notes or a predefined area on a whiteboard. Using a whiteboard allows you to acknowledge and close a topic of discussion simply by writing it on the lot and smoothly moving on.

After you’ve covered other introductory material, and have an assigned note taker, you can do introductions of your participants. This is especially key if the meeting has people that weren’t on the invite, as is sometimes common in government. Your notetaker should be able to check people off of the meeting invite or add other attendees to the list as needed. Pay special attention to the titles of people in the meeting, since this is often your only chance to capture that information without feeling rude. If your meeting is too large for introductions, have your notetaker quickly run through the expected attendees and capture anyone not on the list. Also, if there are too many people for introductions, plan a next step to check your attendee list for people you can cut — good meetings will usually not need more than 12 people.

Staying on track

As you get into your agenda, make a conscious effort to respect and uphold your agenda. This will help the room stay on track. If you need to depart from the agenda, do so deliberately “I know this isn’t on the agenda, but let’s spend five minutes on this given the timeliness.” This will help you get back on track when possible and maintain your leadership of the room. If you struggle with timekeeping, consider empowering a separate timekeeper to help track and enforce the agenda.

If people show up late and need to get up to speed, kindly and firmly refer them to the agenda + notes before answering their questions so that the room’s time isn’t wasted. Rewarding someone who shows up late harms a culture of timeliness.

You should work to develop a presentation style through iterative practice and feedback that allows you to speak with confidence and nicely keep the meeting on track and free of distractions. Use the parking lot liberally and set time limits at the start of a tricky discussion so you can depersonalize the decision to move on a few minutes later and stay on track. Your meeting’s participants will respect your efficiency and good use of their time — especially managers and executives.

When leading a discussion, pay attention to who has a loud voice in the room and elevate other voices to ensure the meeting is useful to everyone. You can seek feedback with a show of hands and call of people that didn’t talk as much in the meeting. When moving on from a topic, be deliberate and don’t allow someone to keep the conversation frozen because they are emphatic — that rewards their insistence and harms your authority.

Members of the 18F team at a workshop meeting.

Wrapping up

If you’ve planned your meeting correctly, you should always aim to end the meeting a little early. People will remember and appreciate you for giving them a moment of respite before the next item on their calendar, and they’ll be more likely to show up to future meetings since they know their time won’t be wasted.

When you are ready to end the meeting, go through the meeting notes and parking lot to establish all next steps. Every action item needs a goal, an owner, and a timeline, such as “Alex will get the statement of work drafted by December 10.” This will be easiest to recap if your notetaker is consciously building the due-outs section during the meeting; otherwise, use this time in the meeting to build the list of due outs with participants.

You MUST have enough time to cover these next steps verbally with all accountable attendees. This avoids miscommunication, makes them enforceable, and is crucial for any bureaucracy wrangler. Ask if you’re missing any follow-ups, thank everyone for their time, and enjoy the satisfaction of another meeting run well!

After the meeting

When the meeting is over, actually end the meeting and make sure people leave. “Meetings after the meeting” are tempting but often waste time without clear structure. They are also unfriendly for any remote attendees.

After the meeting is over a bit early, use your extra minutes to process the notes for inaccuracies while everything is fresh in your head and save yourself future headaches. Then, send your notes and action items out in writing, with explicit owners and timelines for all next steps in the notes — also crucial for any bureaucracy wrangler.

With all of that done, you’ll revisit the next steps as appropriate and ensure they’re accomplished! Sometimes, that’s in the next recurring meeting, but reminders are often helpful to keep next steps flowing and ensure that your plans and ideas can keep moving towards delivering value to America.

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