An effective meeting needs two things: an objective and a receptive audience. A room of laser-focused individuals eager to achieve can move mountains. Sadly, most are filled with people who’d rather move back to their desks.
Why the apathy? The answer lies in understanding how your coworkers feel. There are countless articles out there on how to be a better speaker, or design a better PowerPoint. But that’s only half of the solution. Meetings are a communal exercise. As the facilitator, it’s your responsibility to bring out the best in your participants.
At Poll Everywhere, we’re in the business of improving presentations. Some of us have a passion for improving our recurring meetings to make them more effective for everyone. Give their staff meeting ideas a shot at your work, and let us know how it went via @polleverywhere.
David Politi, Designer
1. Help people mentally switch gears
You should always be mindful of what people were doing before your meeting. Chances are they still have a lot on their mind when your meeting starts. Consider giving them a strong context switch, like a palate-cleanser for the mind.
When I present, I like to engage people really early, even before I introduce myself. I may ask something like, “Quick show of hands: how many people mentor other designers?” It’s not an interesting question, but it gives people a chance to brag so they’re more likely to engage. Next, I’ll ask, “Who wants to mentor other designers?” and “Who wants a mentor but is too afraid to ask?”
At this point, everyone in the audience has raised their hand at least once. They’ve also completely forgotten about whatever they were thinking about before. Now I have everyone’s attention and am ready to start the meeting proper. That’s when I introduce myself and what I’m going to talk about.
2. Ensure your eye-line rests on the audience
Always makes sure you’re facing the audience when presenting slides.
Don’t face away from them, or turned to one side. Ensure the eye-line to your content is similar to the audience. Otherwise, you’ll have to break eye contact with them when you check your slides or notes. And when you break eye contact with the audience, they break eye contact with you. It’s an invitation to the audience to tune out of your presentation because you’re no longer speaking directly to them. Your notes or slides or whatever you’re looking at are now more important.
Think about how a teleprompter is set up on TV. It’s always on the same eye-line as the camera. That way the speaker is always speaking directly to, and engaged with, the viewers at home.
3. Use positive reinforcement to drive participation
Positive reinforcement takes many forms. You can use prizes, gamification, immediate praise to whoever gives the first idea, and so on. This is good for two reasons: right off the bat it sets the stage for people to get that little serotonin release, and it lets people know that the facilitator will reward them for participating. It is a signal that now is the time to pay attention – this is not a part of the meeting you want to skip out on. You should participate because you might get something, and people love getting stuff.
For example, Poll Everywhere employees now understand that when I facilitate a meeting there will be prizes, it will be fun, there’s gonna be toys, and they know that, whether they’re introverted or extroverted, it’s a safe space for them to participate in. They don’t have to worry about being too loud or self-censoring, nor do they have to worry about being heard.
4. Provide small toys for big stress relief
A person’s tolerance for participation is variable. There’s a rule of thumb that states you can get someone to pay attention for 38 minutes before they basically check out. This is a good expectation, but it’s hardly reliable. You never know how people are feeling before they entered your meeting. Maybe they had a bad day. Maybe they just took a bunch of cold medication. Maybe they have a date later. All of these distractions can eat away at your 38 minutes.
Because of this, it’s a good idea to provide scheduled and structured opportunities for each person to check out and fidget as needed. That’s why I provide little toys – tops, rubber bands, robots – for people to enjoy during meetings. Interacting with these items gives people a chance to vent any pent up frustration or excitement without speaking out loud and disrupting the meeting.
5. Always have something to fill the silence
Silence is bad for meetings no matter who you’re working with. Introverts can feel very awkward in silence. That awkwardness can lead to introspection about how people are perceiving them, how their body looks that day, and so on. All this internal noise disrupts their concentration.
On the flip side, extroverts may feel the need to fill silence with small talk. You do not want small talk anywhere near your meeting. It is a divergence from the purpose of the meeting, and wastes valuable time.
If you need silence during a meeting so people can read or work individually, always provide some sort of noise or sensory input. I use a small device called a Buddha Machine that fills silence with meditation white noise. This sound helps participants focus without being distracting.
Sam Cauthen, COO
6. Make time for reading before, or during, a meeting
How to handle required reading is a big divide in the communication world. Should you send it out beforehand, or fit it in during the presentation? Personally, I love the pre-read. It saves you precious time during your presentation, and lets you jump straight to the heart of the matter.
Of course, you can never be certain that everyone will actually read the material. One solution comes from presentation expert Edward Tufte, who asks the audience to spend the first 15 minutes of his presentations reading. This gets everyone on the same page, and ensures they have a contextual baseline for what you’re going to discuss during the presentation.
7. Know that whoever speaks first sets the tone
Pay special attention to whoever speaks first in a meeting. How they talk and what they talk about will rub off on everyone else. They set the tone for the rest of the proceedings.
This means you can tweak the temperament of your group to improve the results of a meeting. Here’s an example: let’s say your staff meetings tend to feel slow and drawn out. Try picking someone who speaks quickly and succinctly, and have them go first. This sets a positive example the other attendees will naturally emulate. You can even work with this person beforehand and coach them a bit on what you’re looking for as well.
8. Know how to resolve conflicts before they start
There are few things that ruin a meeting more spectacularly than a protracted shouting match. In these moments, you need a clear path to conflict resolution that everyone has agreed upon. Whether you have one person decide, put the issue to a vote, or try to reach a consensus across the group, everyone needs to agree on the path and understand why it was chosen. This needs to be done before disagreements happen.
Once you have your path, call out any deviation from it and address why it happened. There’s zero point in choosing a path if you’re not going to follow it. People can disagree, but once the conflict has been resolved both parties must respect the decision.
In a letter to shareholders, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos called this idea “disagree and commit.” It means you don’t throw up your hands and surrender when things don’t go your way. Instead, you agree to disagree and continue to support the group to the best of your ability.
9. Build camaraderie with a shared moment of Zen
Set aside a few minutes for everyone to learn something new. It could be a fun fact someone read in the news, or an inspiring quote. Poll Everywhere’s customer support team, for example, presents a few notable comments made by our presenters each week that the company reads over together.
This creates a ritualized context for something that’s cool and interesting for the entire team. And because everyone is seeing and absorbing this information for the first time, it’s a great way to start a conversation. Everyone is on the same page. There are a lot of podcasts that do something like this as well, and The Daily Show is really good at it with their moments of Zen.
10. Find creative uses for shared artifacts
If you’re running a presentation with multiple speakers, try tossing a teddy bear across the room. A physical object that denotes whose turn it is to speak is a great refocusing device. It’s a visual representation of where everyone’s attention should be. Tossing this object carries a certain energy as well, which pulls people back into the discussion. You just have to be judicious about giving the item to those who aren’t asking for it aggressively.
Google took this idea in an interesting direction. They wanted to cultivate a culture that instills trust by embracing failure – so they introduced Whoops the Monkey.
11. Hook the audience with a strong visual metaphor
In an article for the Harvard Business Review, presentation expert Nancy Duarte said, “Metaphors can help by tapping what learning theorists call prior knowledge to make a connection between what people already understand through experience and what they have yet to discover.”
In a presentation, metaphors can be visual or verbal. Personally, I have more fun with the visual ones. People expect presentation visuals to be all charts and bullet points. Subverting those expectations with a little humor goes a long way towards making your material memorable.
12. Each attendee needs a pressure valve
A pressure valve is simply a way of recognizing and addressing issues that, if left unchecked, could cause bigger problems within the company. At Poll Everywhere, we use a Q&A poll at the start of each weekly staff meeting to crowdsource discussion items from the entire company. The poll is presented from a web browser, people submit items from the privacy of their phones, and the results appear live for everyone to see.
This is a quick and easy way to crowdsource important announcements, coworker recognition, and underlying problems all in one place. It gives everyone a voice and gets important topics out in the open. It’s also far more reliable than the traditional method of using intuition to know when someone has something important to say.
Kelly Arbuckle, Sales
13. Let people leave if they don’t need to be there
Allow people to leave if they don’t need to be at your meeting. If your job has nothing to do with what’s being discussed, and you have nothing to contribute, then you shouldn’t stay just to stay. I’d much rather have somebody leave and go work at their desk than stick around and work through the meeting. It’s disruptive for the other attendees, and less productive for the odd-person-out.
This isn’t something I do in every meeting, but in larger ones I’ll definitely bring it up. Simply reiterate the purpose of the meeting up front – the objective – and kindly remind people that they can duck out if they have nothing to add. That’s all there is to it. No one should feel pressured or obligated to stick around for no good reason.
14. Set an agenda, share it, and stick to it
Meetings are very expensive. They take time away from people’s day-to-day duties, so it’s vital that you accomplish the goal of your meeting. This takes discipline. That’s why I try to create as detailed of an agenda as possible for my meetings. Agendas cut back on rambling, and help everyone stay focused. If someone has something they want to discuss right now and can see it listed later in the agenda, that steers them back on course.
Otherwise, if their topic isn’t already on the agenda, I make sure they can write it in. Keep your agenda in a place (Google Docs, for example) where everyone can collaborate. That way, each person can see what needs to be covered in the time allotted, and you can keep things moving at a steady clip.
Penny Yuan, Product Manager
15. Ditch the chairs if a meeting needs to go fast
If you want a meeting to go quickly, make everyone stand. People get fidgety if they stand for too long. They want it to be temporary – whereas sitting implies long durations of work. This is why “standup” meetings should require standing. Standups aren’t for extensive discussions. They’re for giving quick updates and assigning action items.
I’ve not done this personally, but I was once invited to a 15-minute meeting in a conference room only to discover the organizer had removed all the chairs. And you know what, it lasted exactly 15 minutes. Sure, some people had that ‘Wait, what?’ look on their face, but it went much faster. It’s also harder to mess around on your phone or laptop while you’re standing, so your attention is completely focused on what’s being discussed.
16. Be careful with the icebreakers you choose
According to Google’s Project Aristotle research, the key to an efficient workplace is psychological safety. This means creating an environment where everyone can voice their opinions without being fearful of being shot down. I like to do this with fun, simple icebreaker questions that get people thinking about a problem unrelated to work. Sometimes these icebreakers help people bond if they give similar responses to a weird scenario.
There are plenty of good icebreaker examples, so here’s one that didn’t work. At a previous company, we broke into small groups and spent five minutes each reciting statements about ourselves. Each statement had to start with, “I am…” or “My deeper truth is…” Guess what? It got really personal, really fast. Five minutes is a long time for personal facts. It was emotionally draining for everyone – which isn’t a bad thing, per se – but then we had to go right back to work. No cooldown. No camaraderie. As a result, it just felt uncomfortable.
Matthew Du Pont, Sales
17. Designate an advocate for remote attendees
A remote advocate is someone who is physically present in a meeting, but is experiencing it from a remote attendee’s point of view. They help remote attendees get floor time during conversations, and ensure the audio setup is functioning properly. In my experience, it’s common for people to speak fast or talk over each during meetings. These factors and others make it tough for people dialing in to know when is an appropriate time to speak. This anxiety can cause them to not speak up at all – benefiting no one.
The way we handle remote advocacy at Poll Everywhere is by having each remote join a video conference with their webcam turned off. When someone remote wishes to speak, they simply switch their webcam on. The remote advocate sees this and announces, “Jeff has something to add,” when appropriate. Having everyone keep their webcam off by default also saves bandwidth and is less distracting for all attendees.
18. Delegate timeboxing and choose a playful audio cue
Moderating a panel discussion can be just as tough as participating. You need to constantly ask yourself, ‘What’s the purpose of this event? Is the current discussion working towards that goal? Should I intervene or call on someone else?’ and so on. The more tasks you can delegate, the more focused – and effective – you will be.
A simple task all moderators should delegate is timeboxing. During Poll Everywhere’s regular planning meetings, we have an employee who delights in hitting a huge gong whenever someone exceeds their 90-second allotment. Choosing a cutoff sound or ritual that’s playful makes it feel more like a reminder, and less like a reprimand. It can actually build positive anticipation in the audience, which encourages contribution.
Jeff Vyduna, CEO
19. Create a S.T.A.R. moment for key information
If you want the audience to remember one thing from your presentation, then you need to spend an outsized amount of time on a single moment. That’s your S.T.A.R. moment. S.T.A.R. stands for Something They’ll Always Remember. It could be an unusual prop or emotional story – anything that breaks from the norm of your presentation and grabs the audience’s attention.
This concept was created by Nancy Duarte, founder and CEO of Duarte Designs. She helped Al Gore design his presentation for An Inconvenient Truth, which included a literal off-the-chart S.T.A.R. moment. In the film, Gore uses a machine to lift himself up above a chart showing global carbon dioxide concentration to illustrate how unnaturally high that concentration could get in the next 50 years. It’s a visually impactful way to drive home that piece of information.
20. Alter your presentation style every three minutes
Cognitive neuroscientist Dr. Carmen Simon suggests that presenters change their presentation every three minutes.
She calls this a “cut,” like cutting between shots in a movie. Variation is exciting. People will normalize experiences without variation. That’s why, when someone asks you to describe your favorite part of a boring movie, you say, “I dunno, it all ran together.”
You don’t want your presentation to “run together.” You want it to stand out clearly so that people remember – and act upon – what you said. This brings us back to “cuts.” A cut is a simple transition from one presentation style – lecturing, Q&A – to another. It mixes things up, thereby making each section feel more distinct.