[Management 101 Podcast] How to run effective meetings
[Transcript from original podcast episode edited for clarity]
Hello and welcome to podcast episode three. I'm your host, Max Wenneker. And thanks for joining us today. And by us, I mean me. Today we're going to be talking about how to run meetings. Certainly team meetings, but I think meetings in general. I find that a lot of first time managers and also experienced leaders might be great people managers, but sometimes they don't really effectively run meetings. I was meeting with a founder the other day who actually called this out. He said, “I feel like I'm a really good manager. I'm great at helping my team be successful. But I feel like when we all get together in a group setting there's not really much direction to the meetings. I don't feel like we come away with really good plans, action items, outcomes. I don't feel as though we're building a team culture.” I think his experience is a very universal one. It is not a natural thing to be an effective meeting host and it really requires some practice and also just requires knowing some best practices.
I've been very lucky, I guess in part, to have been in a lot of meetings in my life, but also to have had some training in this area both in school, as well as leadership development training in some of my previous companies. So I'm going to talk through this stuff today. I hope it's useful.
Goals of a team meeting
First let's talk about the overall goals of a meeting, a team meeting in particular. I think there are four. The first is communicating really important information that people might have questions about. The reason I say that it's for information that people might have questions about: really important information or just general information that is straightforward should be an email or a Slack message or some other non-realtime communication channel. The reason is that meetings inherently take up a lot of people's time. And if you're going over things that don't really require discussion, they can easily be a waste of people's time. So I like to reserve meetings for communicating information that people might want to learn more about or have questions about, or isn't necessarily super clear.
In one of my previous Uber roles, I was going through a reorg with my team where we were changing what people's job descriptions were and who they were reporting to, and what all of the teams within my org were focused on. I wanted to tell people about why and how that would happen in a meeting. I think if I had done that over email, it either would've been an incredibly long email, or it would not have had some of the necessary information or given space for people to ask questions and ultimately would have resulted in people being scared and potentially having a lot of their concerns unresolved because it was an email. So it made sense in that case to have a team meeting.
Another good reason for having a meeting with your team is to just remind your team about why you are here. It is very easy for individuals in a team to get caught up in their day-to-day, “this is what I'm working on and I'm just focused on this specific thing that I need to do.” Sometimes when you get caught up in your day-today, it is easier to lose sight of the way that your work fits into the bigger picture. Why is your team here, beyond all of you just doing individual work? Why do you exist as a group? Why does the work that your team does matter to the company or the end user, be it external or internal?
And so it's helpful to get together and remind people what you’re doing, why you all have jobs, and why it's important. You can talk about what the goals are for the team, where you’re trying to get to. Shine some light on that North star for the team, help them understand where you’re trying to go. If you can get everyone rowing in the same direction, you'll move a lot faster.
Another reason for having a team meeting is to update the team on progress towards those goals or major milestones. For example, the OKRs, or objectives and key results, that your team has for the quarter. You might be looking at some of these metrics as a manager every single day. You might be seeing these user engagement metrics going up or down or going towards goal or away from goal. That’s not necessarily the case for your team. It's not a great assumption to believe that they are also looking at these metrics day in and day out. It is helpful to come together and just say what your progress is in the quarter so far towards this metric vs. where it needs to be. You could also discuss how you’re thinking about what the team can do to get to where it needs to be, or ask for ideas on other things that the team could do to get there. It's good to talk about that progress because then it helps people keep in mind what's important.
The other reason for having a team meeting can be helping people understand what's going on in the larger organization, creating that connective tissue. Going back to that second point of reminding folks why they're here, it's also helpful to remind folks or teach them for the first time about what else is going on in the business. I remember there were many times when I was working in an operations role where I had absolutely no clue how the sales team did its job. And one time we brought in a sales team member to just give us the pitch on the product that they gave to external clients. And I remember I, myself, as well as a lot of members of my team, were floored. We had never seen that sales pitch before. We had no idea how external clients were thinking about our service. And there were actually some really good connections we were able to make between what the sales team was selling and what we knew to be the case internally. We were able to provide some good tidbits to the sales team to enhance their sales pitch, and it definitely energized the team because they saw how what they were doing impacted the business; it was literally being sold to people who would pay us money and pay their salaries. So I really like bringing in people from other parts of the company to help my team understand what is going on in the other parts of the organization. As much as you as a manager probably have some visibility of what else is going on in your organization, you might imagine that people farther down in the org are much less connected to it, or simply don't have time to be thinking about that as much unless offered that information more proactively.
Sometimes I also like to have a rotating project presentation as part of my team meetings. I'll have one of my managers, or even someone who’s an individual contributor who's working on a project, come and just present for three minutes or so on what they're doing and why, and what the results have been. There have been some really good presentations by folks who maybe aren't super comfortable even just with public speaking in front of their own team of 10 or 20 but are willing to try it. They say they’re working on this thing, and people have some amazing questions. It builds camaraderie and it also builds a better understanding of what everyone's doing, such that everyone can help each other in more impactful ways.
Now there's another goal of a meeting, at least in my mind that's not related so much to a team meeting, but just a meeting between people in an organization. Of course, that's to make decisions. Sometimes decisions can't easily be made over email or Slack. As soon as you start seeing more than a couple responses to a question around something that needs to be decided on, you can be pretty confident that that probably needs to turn into a meeting rather than something that's happening asynchronously, or where people themselves are not able to understand each other's tone.
Options for meeting content
What content can you use in a meeting, and how do you present it? This is something I've seen a lot of leaders struggle with as well. I once worked at a company where one of the leaders would literally share just a plain-text Word document as the presentation and it was up on the shared screen the whole time on Zoom, and we couldn't really see each other's faces. We were just faced with this wall of text and it was very distracting, and also very hard to follow. It's not fun to try to read a book while you're also having a meeting, let alone if you're being told something on top of that text, right? The reason I give that example is just to serve as a reminder that it's not just what you say, it's also how you present it. And in general, the more text, the worse the presentation is. So let me just start with the best practice: do not toss lots of text in front of your team. It is both distracting to the conversation and to the presentation. It's also potentially discouraging in terms of people feeling like they are not able to grasp some of what you're offering.
So we're not going to put walls of text in front of our team. That naturally turns to something like PowerPoint or Google Slides or Keynote. I think of presentations as not the main focus of a meeting, but rather a visual aid to help people better internalize what you're talking about. So when I'm talking about rolling out a new hiring process or a new interview process, it's one thing to hear me say it in the order of the steps that we've set up, it's another to hear me talk through the order and then see on the screen a set of boxes with arrows that show the order in which something is happening. So I like to think about a presentation as being a follow-along guide where you don't need to be reading from it in order to understand what I'm saying, but it aids you in the understanding of what I'm saying, it enhances it. I really like graphical slides. They don't have to be fancy to be clear; I am both colorblind and aesthetically not gifted whatsoever. And I still believe, and maybe I'm a little biased, that I make effective slides, even if they're quite simple. It can be as simple as a few boxes or shapes with arrows to describe something you're talking about, even just a graph. A data point or metric that's visually represented can be very impactful. Compared to just saying “this increased by 50% since last year,” it's another thing to see it with two different bars on the screen.
When a slide does have text, I think at most you can have five to six lines of text such that it doesn't become an overwhelming experience to read it and people stop paying attention to you. You can feel free to split that text amongst bullets in terms of quantity or bullets in terms of length of each bullet, but keeping it to five to six lines at most, such that it's a pretty easy read and easy thing to digest is really helpful.
Oftentimes, managers are subject matter experts in something. That's often why they've become managers. And they feel the need to communicate all of the information in their brain to their team. If you take away one thing from this entire podcast episode, it is that that is never a good idea. People have limited attention spans. The way I would think about it is not “what do I need to communicate to them?” Start with “how much space do they have to internalize information?” Then, “what is the most important information that I need to communicate to them that fits into that space?” If you’ve got two and a half hours worth of information to present to your team, and they need to know all of it, you're definitely not going to be successful. I've never been in a meeting for two and a half hours straight where I was able to pay attention the whole time. If you have two and a half hours’ worth of content, I strongly advise thinking about how to abbreviate it, and what's really necessary for people to know such that you can fit it into a smaller window that more matches with your team's actual attention span.
Slides generally should be things that you reference. I have often seen and given this feedback to managers, and I've probably been guilty of it in my day as well, text on a slide that the person running the meeting just reads to their audience. You don't need to read off of a slide. All of your team members, I'm assuming in most corporate settings, are capable of reading those slides themselves. Hearing your voice talking through those slides, that literal text is not going to be useful at all. So slides are really things you point to, to reference. Good example: “talking through this chart here, we grew by 50% last quarter.” Bad example: “Let me read this whole bullet to you.” Just use it as a reference point.
It's very reasonable, while you're talking, to present information in a screen-share format. If I have some slides or a graph, I share my screen such that others can see it as I'm talking through it. But as soon as it comes time for people to ask questions or discuss a topic because you're there to figure something out, I believe it is best to stop your screen-sharing such that you can see each other's faces and have a more normal conversation as if it were in person and so that you're no longer distracted by this text or slides. It is a little awkward at first, but I have found it to be a definite best practice that as soon as it comes time for people to start asking questions or for there to be a discussion, I stop sharing my screen. I look at faces and everyone's able to see each other. And then once we move on to the next topic that we need slides for again, or a visual aid tool, I will go back to screen sharing. I might go back and forth a few times in the meeting. It's a little jarring, but each individual piece of that process works a lot better.
The last thing I'll call out in terms of content presentation is just that graphs are really nice. Graphs help turn metrics or data from things that analysts understand into things that everyone can understand. Graphs are really good translators of information to visually show people what you're trying to refer to when you're talking through specific data points. I think it's best to assume that your team members on average probably have a lesser understanding of all data and metrics that make up your organization's performance than you do. Therefore it's really important to present that data in a very clean and easy to understand way, such that they can internalize it. You've had a lot of time to look at these metrics and digest them and maybe even have some training in it. It's not likely that every single member of your team has had that same amount of time in training. So if you can go in, assuming that everyone has a little bit less or a lot less of an understanding of all of the data that you have in your brain, it'll be helpful for ensuring that you are communicating all that information in a very simple way.
General meeting best practices
The last topic as part of running meetings that I want to talk through is just some general best practices. I'm going to talk mostly about team meetings here because they're ones that happen very frequently and are recurring. But I think these probably apply to pretty much any type of meeting.
In no particular order: first, team meetings should never, ever be longer than 30 minutes. And that's a little bit of a controversial opinion, but I'll tell you why. I have actually tested this with multiple different teams where I set a team meeting for 30 minutes, for 45 minutes and for 60 minutes, and in every single case, the meeting took up that amount of time, regardless of whether it was 30, 45 or 60. I like to think of it as air takes up the space it is given. So do meetings. There must be something psychological going on where you feel like there's more time and therefore can go deeper into topics or talk through more things or talk more slowly. I don't know what it is, but I can tell you that meetings almost always take up the amount of space that they're given. In order to hold people's attention, it's best to keep them short. There is only so much information that you can communicate at one time. So you might as well do it in as short of time as possible and minimize the amount of it that you're communicating such that it maximizes retention.
The other thing to think about is: whenever you schedule a meeting, that costs your company almost literally money. Your time has some value on it. Every member of your team, unless they're volunteering, has some value on their time. And so every time you schedule a meeting, think about it in terms of this is the cost in all your team’s salaries. And if I make it 30 minutes versus 60 minutes, a 60 minute meeting is literally double the cost. It could end up being thousands of dollars more of the company's time that you are taking up with this meeting, so is there a way to reduce it to 30 minutes?
Another good practice: record meetings. Not everyone can make it. I had a team of 60 in my last senior leadership role. I didn't have 60 members of my team available at the exact same time every single week. People were on vacation, people had urgent meetings, you name it. Recording the team meeting enables people to watch it without having to necessarily be there. And it's not an excuse for not being there. But rather, it just makes sure that people don't miss out on information. When you were sick in school and you missed out on a class and you suddenly had homework for it, it kind of sucked, right? It was a little bit hard because you were lacking context. Well, why don't you just record that session and then people can watch it if they weren't able to make it? Also, people can go back to it. You can save it and document it for posterity to then refer back to when you need to and say, “look where we've come from. This is what we were discussing six months ago. Now we've accomplished it,” It really helps people see progress.
Don’t monopolize the conversation
I know I'm saying this as a lone podcaster, and you've literally been listening to my voice for over 20 minutes, so I guess do as I say, not as I do. But next time you're running a team meeting, have multiple people talk. In my first team meetings as a manager, I was the only presenter because I thought that the meeting was for me to communicate information to my team when I was the only presenter. Even if it was just for 20 minutes, I would watch the team's eyes glaze over. I guess I have a voice that kind of lulls you to sleep. Or maybe I just have a face for radio, as they say. Have multiple people talk, it's a lot more engaging. One, it's less pressure on you as a presenter if you're not comfortable with running meetings. Two, it helps keep the meeting more dynamic to have multiple people talking. There are multiple cadences of speech. There are multiple topics to go over. People have different levels of comfort with different members of the team. If you have multiple people talking, it will be better for everyone.
Plant questions to create comfort
If you're running a team meeting and you've generally experienced silence in your meetings, plant questions. I know this sounds a little weird, but sometimes people are afraid to speak up until they see other people doing so. And oftentimes people have a lot of questions or concerns that they feel maybe others don't share, and so they're not comfortable bringing it up. If you plant questions, sometimes you're going to be right on the mark with exactly what people were worried about, but you will also enable others to be comfortable asking their own questions. So it's totally okay to plant questions as long as they're not softballs that make you look good, but actual things you think the team might be worried about. Ask a manager of yours to ask a question or someone you trust in the team. Good example: I once had a team where I had to announce to them that we were changing the whole team from part-time to full-time. This was a huge change and I think generally it was a pretty good one.
Folks wanted to go full-time and so they should have been excited about it in theory, but it was total crickets when I announced this change. I was pretty confused. I came up with an idea in that moment. I messaged someone through Slack who was on my team. I said, “Hey, can you ask about this specific benefit that I just mentioned? Just ask for some more information about it.” She asked about the benefit, I answered the question as if it was her question. Then suddenly, after she asked that question, the floodgates opened and there were a lot more questions. By the end, we'd answered a lot more of people's concerns that I wouldn't have thought of myself and that really needed to be brought to light. But people were not comfortable asking them until they saw someone else asking them.
Keep it light
The last thing I'll mention about meetings: keep it light. I find that sometimes meetings are boring or intense for really no reason. Everyone works hard, right? You have a team full of hard workers. Everyone deserves to have a little fun coming together as a team or really just any interaction in a company. It might as well have a bit of levity to it. It might as well be a team-building exercise. You can think about every meeting as an opportunity to further build trust and relationships and belief within your team, or within the group that you're working with. If you can bring a little fun to it, everyone's going to be happier.
I remember once I set up an initiative where every manager on the team would present a slide on themselves. This is just an idea I had to make it a little more fun, and they would answer very weird and random questions like, “what's your favorite fast food?” or “if you weren't doing this job, what would you be doing instead?” It really sparked conversation. I watched people start smiling a lot more. I even saw a few laughs occur. It took only a couple minutes for each of these managers to present a slide on themselves once a week, and we rotated throughout the whole team eventually, but it really changed the dynamic of the meeting from one that was just discussing what's going on in the team to “we’re here to have some fun.” I think that really builds long-term culture and buy-in and love of a team.
I've been talking for 25 minutes. That is plenty about team meetings and meetings in general today. Thanks so much for listening. If you have any thoughts on best practices for meetings, I also run a blog and I'll certainly talk through meetings at some point and would love your feedback. Thanks for listening and I hope you have a wonderful week ahead.