The ultimate guide to design meetings

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November 18, 2014
The ultimate guide to design meetings.
The basic idea of a meeting is simple: it's when two or more people get together to discuss one or multiple topics. It can be in a formal or informal setting. It can be among people within an organization or between people in more than one organization. The concept of the meeting is ancient. At their most basic level, meetings are held to bring people together to talk about things. There can be good reasons to have meetings and bad reasons to have meetings, both of which we'll discuss. There are different kinds of meetings, too, some of which are inherently more productive than others.

When to have them

There are some great reasons to have meetings. There are plenty of times when a meeting is the best way to get something done. Sales and client meetings are an obvious time when meetings are necessary. Besides that, though, there are other good reasons for meetings:
  • Brainstorming sessions: These are often much easier to do face-to-face, even if that means virtually.
  • To build support for a decision: While meetings to make decisions are often time-wasters, meetings to build support once a decision has been made are sometimes a good idea.
  • To cover something important: Sometimes, a small meeting is a good way to cover something important with a key people. This can be particularly true if the important news isn't particularly positive. Face-to-face interaction is often a much better way to break bad news than something impersonal like an email.

When to skip them

Meetings are often incredibly inefficient ways of communicating with employees, team members, and even clients. They can interrupt the work day in ways that are very detrimental to productivity. They can take significantly longer than planned. And many times, they don't lead to any kind of productive conclusion. If there isn't a good reason to have a meeting instead of other forms of communicating, then it's better to explore other options for achieving the result you were hoping to get from a meeting. Here are a few bad reasons to have meetings:
  • Status meetings: These are often held just to inform people of what's happening with something, but in most cases, an email or similar communication is more effective and wastes much less time.
  • Update meetings: Like status meetings, update meetings are used when various team members need to update where they're at with a project. And again, emails or other text-based messages would be more efficient.
  • To let everyone be heard: These types of meetings often waste an incredible amount of time, even if it's managed well. Instead, ask everyone to submit their ideas or concerns, and then find ways to address them (which could include a meeting).
Now, of course, there are times when meetings have more to do with social expectations than with actually getting work done. This is particularly true when it comes to client meetings. Some clients feel the need for that "face time" with people they hire, and you may have to just deal with that or risk losing the client. In those cases, it's best to plan on some follow-up communication to clarify anything discussed in the meeting.

Who should be included

It's important that every person included in a meeting actually needs to be there, and that everyone who needs to be there is actually there. If you're meeting about a particular project, then everyone involved in that project should be there. If you're meeting with clients, then make sure actual decision-makers are there if at all possible. You want to speak directly to the person who actually makes the decisions, rather than another staff member you have to rely on to accurately relay what you've said.

The types of meetings

There are a lot of different kinds of meetings. Some are highly useful, while others are less so.

Internal meetings

Internal meetings, otherwise known as staff meetings or team meetings, are held within your organization. They may include your entire staff (rarely a good idea), or just specific key team members. Internal meetings can be held for a variety of reasons, but most often they're held when information sharing and discussion needs to occur within a group. There are some good reasons to hold internal meetings:
  • Brainstorming sessions
  • Goal meetings
  • Team-building (these are often held outside of the office, though not necessarily)
  • Big picture meetings (generally held only once a year or so)
Internal meetings tend to be the most prone to wasting time, however. There are often better ways to communicate and effectively work together than to have formal meetings, so beware of using them as a distraction.

Remote and virtual meetings

Virtual meetings are becoming more commonplace as more teams and companies employ remote workers. Some companies operate without anything but a virtual office, meaning that they almost exclusively have remote meetings. These are generally done via tools like Skype or other web conferencing services. There are also a number of other remote conferencing and collaboration tools out there, depending on what you need to accomplish. And of course, there's always the hallmark of the remote meeting: the conference call.

Sales meetings

Sales meetings are held with prospective clients, and are often more of a "getting to know you" kind of situation. The goals here are to get to know the client and convince them you're the right team for the job (or at least not the wrong team). Sales meetings might be held in your office, in the client's office, or in a third location like a restaurant or coffee shop. There are a few keys to sales meetings, especially if you're meeting somewhere public.
  • If you're hosting the meeting at your own office, provide at least some light refreshments like coffee.
  • If you're going to the client's office, be aware of the dress code of their place of business. While you don't necessarily need to match it completely, you don't want to show up in a three-piece suit when everyone there is in jeans and t-shirts, or vice versa.
  • Take your cues from your prospective client regarding food and drink if meeting at a restaurant. If they don't order alcohol, you shouldn't either. Even if you're client is drinking heavily, you shouldn't be. Stay professional!
  • Expect to pick up the tab if you take a client to a restaurant, coffeeshop, etc.
  • It's a good idea to think of a sales meeting a bit like a first date: you want to find common ground while also giving a great (and accurate) first impression.
Sales meetings are often looked at as a necessary evil. Some people thrive in these settings and can close a deal with a client without issue. Other people hate them and avoid them if possible. But unfortunately, some clients will insist on this kind of meeting before they're willing to work with you.

Meetings with existing clients

Sometimes a client you're already working with will want a meeting. This is often done to get updates on the project, or if the scope of the project needs to change. Sometimes you'll meet somewhere neutral, but these meetings are often held in your or the client's office. Again, like a sales meeting, you'll want to provide some basic refreshments if you're meeting at your office. The kick-off meeting is a very common type of planning meeting you may need to have for each new client. This is when the client and most or all of the project team meet at the start of a project to get acquainted with one another and discuss each team member's role. In some cases this won't be held with a client, and will be an internal meeting instead.

Annual meetings

Annual meetings are a little different, and are often more like conferences than what we tend to think of as meetings. An annual meeting will bring together everyone in an organization, and sometimes includes speakers, workshops, classes, and the like. These are most common in large companies with many offices, though they're also rather common among companies that have a distributed work force. It's a good way for employees who rarely interact in person to connect, and can strengthen the company's internal culture.

Surviving client meetings

Client meetings put more pressure on you than the average internal meeting. You have to make a professional impression whether it's the first meeting or fifteenth. There are quite a few things you can do to ensure that your client meetings are effective.

You need an agenda

Every meeting you have with clients should have an agenda, even if it's only in your head. Meetings are held for a reason, and there are certain things that need to be addressed. Ask your client what the purpose of the meeting is (if they've requested it) so that you have a clear picture of what needs to be accomplished.

Set key goals

This ties directly into the agenda, though it's not necessarily the same thing. Your goals for the meeting might be to clarify certain aspects of a project, or to get the client to sign off on an idea you have. In either case, knowing what your goals are going into the meeting, and knowing what the client's goals are, will make for a smoother meeting.

Ask good questions

In most client meetings, you want to gather information from the client, even if that information is feedback on your ideas or proposals. By asking good questions of your clients, you'll be able to get to the root of what they want, and what they really think. In some cases, the clients themselves might not know what they want, and only through asking questions of them will you be able to lead them to a conclusion.

Make sure the right people are there

As already mentioned, you need to make sure that the key decision makers on any project are present at your meetings. Without them, the meeting can't reach an actual conclusion or resolution, and you risk getting caught in an endless cycle of follow-ups. When setting up a client meeting, it's okay to inquire and even specifically request that certain key decision-makers will be present (if you know who they are). If you don't know who they are, then it's acceptable to ask whoever you're meeting with if there are additional people who are involved in the decision-making process, and see if they'll be attending.

Be prepared

Being prepared is two-fold. First, you need to make sure that you have all the information that you're going to need to properly present to your client. That includes visual aids if necessary, as well as any actual prototypes or mockups you might have. If you're not meeting at your office, be sure that you'll have access to wi-fi if you need to show online assets. Have a back-up plan just in case. Nothing looks more unprofessional than when you show up to a meeting and are unable to show them what you've promised. Second, it's inevitable that your clients will have some questions or objections to whatever you're meeting about. It's key to be prepared for those questions or objections. It can sometimes be a good idea to practice a presentation in front of others, to see what questions or objections they might have as a way to prepare.

Take notes

You should always take notes during any client meeting. You can't rely on your memory to remember important details or discussion points. Even just a broad outline of what was discussed can be helpful. One technique that can be useful if taking notes during the actual meeting isn't convenient, or if you're only able to jot down a few things, is to make some notes immediately after the meeting. If you've taken a few notes during the meeting, and then you take five to ten minutes afterwards to flesh those out and make note of any other ideas that come to you, you'll be less likely to forget something important.

Send a post-meeting summary

It's vital that everyone in the meeting is one the same page at the end. That's why the post-meeting summary can be an incredibly useful tool. Take a few minutes to write up a summary of the meeting, especially including any conclusions that were reached or any action steps that need to be taken.

Assign follow-up tasks

In all likelihood you'll leave a meeting with a list of things that need to be done next. Unless you're handling them all yourself, make sure that each task is assigned to a team member for completion.

Making internal meetings productive

Considering that $37 billion in salary costs are wasted each year in unnecessary and unproductive meetings for U.S. businesses alone, it's vital that you limit your meetings and keep them on track. There's a ton of possible ways for internal meetings to get off-track and waste time. It's why so many companies avoid them entirely. But there are some keys to keeping your necessary meetings productive.

Consider timing

When you have your meetings is a very important part of how effective they are. While the meeting itself might only last for 30 minutes, if it interrupts the most productive time of your employees' days, it's not a good use of time. Consider having meetings first thing in the morning (when many employees are going to waste time getting coffee and chatting with their coworkers, or doing menial tasks like catching up on email), or after lunch. Some of the worst times for meetings are right before lunch (everyone is hungry and wants to leave) and at the end of the day (people are more focused on finishing up their work so they can go home for the night). Mid-morning and mid-afternoon can be good or bad, depending on the work cycles of your employees.

Define a purpose and agenda

Every meeting should have a purpose, which should be defined prior to the meeting. On top of that, the meeting purpose should be shared with those attending the meeting so they know what to expect. Nothing causes more stress or more wasted time than a mystery meeting that employees don't know the purpose of. This is especially true if the company is undergoing any kind of changes or is having any issues financially or otherwise (or if it's rumored to be having problems). Employees are often left wondering if the next meeting is the one in which they'll find out about mass layoffs, big changes to department structure or job duties, or worse; the company itself closing. That takes away from their productivity prior to the meeting, as they're left worrying about what the meeting will include. An agenda for the meeting should be sent out prior to the start of the meeting. It should clearly outline what will be discussed, as well as the time and length of the meeting.

Stay on topic

Since you have an agenda, it's easier to stay on topic throughout the meeting. If attendees bring up additional topics, make note of them to discuss later, but don't veer from the agenda. It can even be helpful to ask a specific attendee to be in charge of keeping things on track. It's an important job, and one that needs to be handled if you have any hope of making your meetings productive.

Only necessary people should attend

Why waste the time of employees who don't need to be at a meeting? Only people directly involved in whatever the meeting's topics are should be present. Sometimes this means splitting up into more than one meeting, so that topics are relevant to each set of attendees. This is a much better idea than requiring employees who only need to be there for one small portion of a meeting from wasting an hour of their workday.

Adequately prepare

Once you have your agenda in hand, you can adequately prepare for the meeting. Make sure that you have everything you need, and make sure that any information your attendees need ahead of time is shared prior to the meeting's start. The last thing you should be doing when the meeting begins is looking through haphazard notes to try to figure out where to start or what to cover. This is also why it's important to share your agenda with those attending, so that they also have time to adequately prepare themselves.

Stick to the clock

Every meeting should have a start time and an end time. Those times should be adhered to. That means starting the meeting on time, even if not everyone is there. It also means ending the meeting even if not everything has been covered. Strictly enforcing this will make you more efficient, as you'll be less likely to veer off if you know you need to get through certain things in a certain time period. If someone is late, don't take time from the meeting itself to recap things for them. All that does is punish those who have made an effort to be punctual and waste part of the meeting. You also need to keep your meetings short. A meeting should pretty much never run more than an hour, and limiting it to thirty or even fifteen minutes is a much better idea. The shorter the meeting, the easier it is to stay on track and the less time you have to get off topic. It also creates a sense of urgency among those participating, and you'll find it easier to move through topics quickly. The one exception to the short meetings rule is for brainstorming sessions. But even these should be broken up into shorter sessions to prevent burnout. Brainstorming for an hour and then taking a break for a bit before coming back to it can be much more productive than trying to work straight for two or three hours.

Encourage participation

Meetings should engage those in attendance, so that they're more likely to actually pay attention and get something out of the meeting. Ask questions, ask for ideas, and ask for feedback at the end of the meeting. It can also be a good idea to ask for a post-mortem style report from employees after the meeting so that you can improve things next time. Giving employees the agenda and other important information before the meeting means they'll be better prepared to ask questions or offer insight when asked.

Take good notes

Someone in the meeting should be assigned the task of taking notes and then distributing them to the group after the meeting ends. While formal meetings might not be necessary, notes are always a good idea. Encourage each attendee to also take notes, though don't be surprised if some don't. Some people prefer to absorb during the meeting and pay attention to everything being said, and will make notes after the meeting ends.

Assign follow-ups

At the end of most effective meetings, there will be some tasks that need to be completed. This could include tasks that have arisen out of the meeting's agenda, or areas where more information is needed in order to reach a decision. Take a minute to assign each of those follow-up tasks to whoever is best-suited to complete them. By assigning them specifically, they'll actually get done, and someone will be accountable if they don't. Otherwise you risk the next meeting being less effective because not everything from the previous meeting has been handled.

Handling remote meetings

With more and more design teams decentralized and working remotely, the remote meeting is becoming more popular. While many of the same things apply to virtual meetings that apply to those held in person, there are some special considerations. First of all, you may need to figure out screensharing for some or all meeting attendees. Even if screensharing isn't necessary, you may need a virtual whiteboard or something similar to share ideas. You'll likely want to use web video, like Skype, to make your remote meetings more personal. This is particularly important if you're meeting with people you haven't met in person. In small meetings, you may want to disable the mute function to keep everyone more engaged. This can also be a distraction though, particularly if some of your remote attendees work from home and may have other things going on in the background. So consider it, but don't think of it as a hard and fast rule. Like real-world meetings, you should still stick to a set time and agenda, and make sure to start and end your meeting on time.

Resources for your remote meetings

Google+ Hangouts is a free service from Google that's a great way to talk face-to-face, and you can connect from any device, and even start a video call right from Gmail. hangouts Skype offers group video chat that's perfect for remote meetings. skype Yugma offers free and paid web conferenceing for large and small businesses. yugma WebEx, from Cisco, offers virtual meetings starting at just $19/month (though there is a free plan that lets up to 3 people meet). They even offer tools for web training and events. webex Voxwire is an easy web conferencing solution that works on mobile devices (including iOS, Blackberry, and Android), and doesn't require any downloads. voxwire Spreed offers screensharing, presentation support, whiteboards with PDF export, and more. spreed ReadyTalk offers web, audio, and video conferencing, and even offers "Simulive" automated webinars. readytalk Mikogo lets you host meetings, deliver presentations, or even provide remote support with both free and paid accounts. mikogo GoToMeeting offers video conferencing and screensharing for up to 3 people for free, with paid accounts for more users. gotomeeting GatherPlace is an easy way to web conference that offers a 14-day free trial. gatherplace BeamYourScreen offers easy screen sharing for online meetings, web conferences, and more. beamyourscreen Vyew offers real-time visual collaboration with no installations necessary. vyew Twiddla is a web-based "meeting playground" that requires no set-up and offers a 30-day free trial. twiddla is an online word processor that offers real-time collaboration features. syncin offers instant screen sharing with unlimited audio and other powerful tools. Campfire offers team collaboration with real-time chat. It lets you share text, files, and code in real time with transcripts. campfire Zoho Meeting lets you connect and screen share with others, and includes integrated audio conferencing. zoho meeting Fuze offers free ways to meet and share remotely, and works with a variety of platforms. fuze Huddle offers seamless collaboration tools for distributed teams, and is optimized for mobile devices. huddle offers easy meeting scheduling tools and integrates with Skype, Hangouts, and Lync. meetings MeetingBurner offers webinar and screensharing tools, and it's free for up to 10 people with no installation required. meetingburner


Meetings are a tricky subject that can either boost your business and improve your work, or suck away your productivity and create way more problems than they solve. Planning effective meetings and only using meetings when they're actually necessary is a good habit to get into, and one that's not particularly difficult. Featured image, meeting image via Shutterstock.

Cameron Chapman

Cameron Chapman is a freelance writer and designer from New England. You can visit her site or follow her on Twitter.

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