Many meetings fail because they try to do too much. It's the "and" trap: Organizers say, "As long as we're holding the meeting, we might as well cover this and that and the other thing and something else." The problem is that the meeting becomes so jam-packed with stuff that it has no focus; it's a messy closet where you can't find the thing you need most.

That's why the most important part of the meeting happens way before it starts. This is when you take time to work on two fundamental elements: Objectives and an agenda.

First, set objectives to create clarity about what the meeting needs to accomplish--your desired outcomes. Limit the number of objectives to one to three (and no more) outcomes that matter most. To do so, ask yourself these questions:

  • What do we need participants to learn during this meeting? What will they know afterwards that they didn't know before?
  • How will participants' viewpoints or perspectives change? How will their beliefs be affected?
  • What will participants be prepared to do after the meeting? How will they take action?

Good objectives, bad objectives
How do you know if your meeting objectives are effective? Of course, as with any type of objectives, the more specific and measurable, the better. But there's one aspect of meetings that sets them apart from other forms of communication: action.

Meetings are ideal forums for participation: After all, you've brought people together, in person or virtually, and now they'd like to do something. So if your only objective is to share information, choose another communication channel.

Good meeting objectives

  • Energize and inspire
  • Create learning about an issue that's vital to both the organization and to the individual
  • Solve problems
  • Brainstorm ideas

Bad meeting objectives

  • Disseminate information
  • Cover an array of topics
  • Review details

Second, develop an agenda to map out how you'll accomplish your objectives. Once you've set objectives, the best meetings are carefully designed to achieve them. The old-fashioned word for this design is "agenda", but you need to do more than create a bulleted list of content. Structure your meeting to have a flow that makes sense, build in opportunities for participants to . . . well, participate, and to manage time so that you get everything done.

As you develop your agenda, think about time differently than the way you usually do. Too many meetings squander almost all their time on presenting information, with just a few minutes at the end for questions or brief discussion. That not only creates a boring session; it's also ineffective for preparing participants to take action.

Instead, think of your meeting as a television talk show. Channel your inner Ellen. You'll need a dynamic host, interesting guest, supporting visuals, and opportunities for audience (participant) feedback. Your agenda becomes a guide that helps you:

  • Devote time to things that matter most
  • Set aside blocks of time for important topics
  • Allow adequate time for recharging, informal discussion, and relationship-building

Here's one key step: build your agenda to devote at least one-third of the time to participation. That means going beyond asking, "Are there any questions?" Instead, stimulate discussion by posing smart questions and allowing plenty of time to explore them. Here's a sampling of the kind of questions to ask to prime the pump:

  • What questions do you think people in your (region/function/area) will have about this program? What will confuse them? What will they want to know more about?
  • How will your customers (external or internal) view this program? What objections might they have? How can we overcome their objectives?
  • Based on your experience, how would you suggest we implement this initiative? What are some low-cost, proven techniques? How about pie-in-the-sky, out-of-the-box methods?

Yes, this approach to planning a meeting takes time and effort; you can't just dash into the conference room three minutes before the meeting starts and expect great results. But the investment is worth it, since you'll never run another bad meeting.