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As the new year begins, many of us can look forward to hours and hours of time spent sitting in conference rooms staring at PowerPoint presentations. Can anything be done to make meetings more useful and less dull? People who have looked into this issue have some suggestions that might make your work life a little easier.

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In 1992, Carol T. Nixon and Glenn E. Littlepage studied the question of what makes a meeting work. They surveyed 67 people working in a variety of organizations, from an appliance manufacturer to the psychology department of a public university. First, they asked questions about meeting procedures, like whether all members participate in the meeting, and whether there’s a written agenda. Then, they asked if the group was successful in meeting its goals and whether the respondent was satisfied with the decisions the group reached.

Once they crunched the numbers, they found that conducting the meeting in a formal way, using an agenda, and reviewing the previous meeting’s minutes weren’t particularly helpful. What did help? Among the most important items were:

  • Starting and ending on time
  • Having clear goals
  • Committing time and energy to the meeting
  • Receiving necessary information
  • Exploring multiple options before settling on a course of action
  • Putting decisions into writing and acting on them in a timely manner

Of course, different kinds of organizations may need different kinds of meetings. Looking at staff meetings, in an article aimed at library directors, Elisa F. Topper suggests:

  • Considering whether you could avoid a meeting entirely by using email, phone calls, or individual conversations instead
  • Using a timer to keep updates brief
  • Considering meeting outdoors during warmer seasons
  • Offering treats like fresh fruit and scones

Writing about the more hierarchical world of law firms, Jenny B. Davis has some other recommendations:

  • Rely on the meeting’s leader to keep things on course by firmly redirecting meandering conversations back toward the agenda
  • Have committees hash out complicated issues and bring a simple recommendation to the law partners
  • Assign homework in advance so all participants understand issues being discussed
  • When discussing a controversial issue, assign someone the role of neutral ombudsperson to control the debate

Taking the articles together, and reading between the lines, the biggest takeaway may be that long, pointless meetings are a special kind of hell. If your meeting drags on too long, fails to yield a concrete result, or could have been avoided altogether, chances are you’re doing something wrong.


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Journal of Business and Psychology, Vol. 6, No. 3 (Mar., 1992), pp. 361-369
American Libraries, Vol. 35, No. 9 (Oct., 2004), p. 70
American Library Association
ABA Journal, Vol. 87, No. 9 (SEPTEMBER 2001), pp. 72-73
American Bar Association