"People who enjoy meetings should not be in charge of anything."
--Thomas Sowell

Most of us can appreciate that sentiment. If your experience is similar to mine, you've sat in thousands of meetings throughout your work life--and lost thousands of hours you wish you could have back. But meetings can also be a great and open exchange of ideas, the opportunity to quickly communicate information and receive real-time feedback.

So how do you make sure your meetings are all that they can be? Here are 9 tips I've picked up through the years.

1. Send an agenda ahead of time.

As much as you want everyone in the office to hear the latest updates on your project, most of them simply don't need to know. Or if they do, they don't need to hear it in a meeting--a simple email will do.

Sending an agenda in advance gives your meeting specific purpose and direction, gets others thinking about what they have to contribute, and will help them determine if they need to be a part of the discussion.

If you're worried that certain participants (who you desperately need) won't show up, politely request that they attend. The fact that you really want them there might even motivate them to give more thought to the most important topics.

2. Define the right priorities.

Priorities may change between the time you send out the agenda and when you actually hold the meeting. Don't be afraid to reorganize your priorities (or even eliminate certain items from the agenda) to make sure the important things get covered first.

3. Ask good questions.

Don't accept anything at face value. Probe and challenge your team--get to know the why.

In addition, you'll have some introverted or shy team members who seem to never speak up, but they may have the solution you're looking for. Use discerning questions to draw them out and get them to share.

4. Listen.

Don't waste those good questions by mentally moving on to the next point while others are speaking. Or even worse, checking your phone.

As  a wise friend once told me: No one ever learned anything while speaking.

But you also need to...

5. Know when to interrupt.

In general, interrupting another person is bad practice. But sometimes it's necessary.

For example, I remember  years ago I was part of a meeting where a senior member of the team spoke for 20 minutes without interruption. We all wanted to do something, but no one had the courage to speak up.

Finally, another manager (who was new to the company) respectfully put an end to the speech, to everyone else's relief. I learned a lot from that episode.

Be a good listener. Be patient. But know when you need to step in, and you'll save a lot of time and resources.

6. Know when to say no.

Steve Jobs, known for his legendary meetings, knew the importance of saying no.

To illustrate, check out the 8:17 mark of the classic video found in this article. In a captivating exchange, we see a member of Jobs's team suggest that the order of the company's priorities should be changed. Jobs hears him out, followed by a vehement defense of the price point as non-negotiable. Most important, he explains exactly why price should remain priority number one.

Collaboration is good. To listen and openly exchange ideas is good. But learning when to say no helps keep you focused on what's important.

7. Start with quiet time.

I first learned this tactic from Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos some years ago. Before any discussion begins, Bezos and his team of senior executives spend up to 30 minutes in total silence, reading six-page printed memos. They scribble notes in the margins. And most importantly, they think.

I've used this tactic in my own meetings, and it's amazingly effective. Sure, it would be great to get team members to prepare before the meeting. But let's be honest; many times, that's not going to happen.

This method ensures that everyone is, um...on the same page. And that makes discussions more meaningful.

8. Set a time limit.

Without a time limit, discussions tend to go on forever. Not only should you set a time for your meeting, but also for each section or agenda point.

You don't have to be a Time Nazi, but general awareness and a gentle reminder or two will help keep the group on task--and hopefully stop those who love to hear themselves speak.

9. Outline the "follow-up".

If no one is assigned ownership of a task, it's not going to get done. If another meeting is needed, scheduling it at the end of the current meeting saves time in the long run and makes sure everyone is aware and available.

Applying these nine suggestions will help make your meetings worth everyone's while.

Published on: Nov 18, 2015
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