A Cranky Guide to Better Meetings

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Elon Musk recently said he was giving everyone at Tesla permission to walk out of bad meetings. I don’t blame him.

Bad meetings are infuriating.  They waste time, cost money, make co-workers hate each other and cause otherwise perfectly sane business people to start planning how to become forest rangers.

That said, if anyone walked out of one of my meetings, I’d be really mad.

Because my meetings are good. We get things done, reach agreements, settle on a course of action. We’re in and we’re out. And that’s because I was taught in my very first year of working that no good meeting happens by mistake.

Planning, people. It’s all about the planning.

Bad meetings are actually easy to fix (you don’t need an MBA to take action here). Whether it’s a regular one-on-one catch up, a 150-person company town hall, or a client work review, it’s always baffled me that people get it so wrong because the basics are so . . . basic.

Ready for your Meetings 101 primer? Here we go.

Write Down Your Agenda

Make sure everyone knows why you’re having a meeting, what you’re going to cover, and what they’ll get out of it if they make the effort to attend.  Make sure you’re clear on these things, as well:

  • Who needs to be there
  • What results you hope to achieve
  • Whether attendees need to do any homework beforehand

Don’t forget to send everyone on your attendee list a copy of the agenda before the meeting. That way they can come prepared and you won’t spend the first 5 minutes together uncomfortably shuffling papers with averted gazes as people try to figure out what they think. Having an agenda also keeps things moving along so you don’t spend half an hour debating the first thing on your list of 15 things to talk about.

Treat Your Audience Like They Matter

If you’re going to ask people to give you their time and their input, you should do your bit to make sure that you’re worth their effort. Not every single meeting needs to have a presentation, but at least have notes. Prepare, then prepare some more. Try to anticipate questions and concerns. Rehearse what you’ll say. Bring your proof.

Curate Your List

If you’re giving out gold bars at your next meeting, or exceptionally good pastries, then some people will be justifiably miffed if you don’t invite them. Otherwise, do everyone a favor and just ask those who really need to be there to show up. Some people will always feel like they should be at all the meetings because they are either insatiably curious or control freaks or think that meetings are a signifier of importance. Do what you can to stop that last one in its tracks. Meetings are not rewards. Meetings are things, like dental checkups, that must be attended when it is your turn. It is weird to go to the dentist when you don’t have to. Meetings should be thought of in the same way.

Meet Before the Meeting

Let’s say you’re about to drop some big news, or present a strategic challenge, and you just know that the minute you start talking, everyone else will start talking all at once uncontrollably, or there will be stony shocked silence. Either way, you’re derailed. My preferred solution is to take people aside beforehand and give them a summary of what I’m about to say. Let them sit with it for a while, get their buy-in, or hear their objections privately. It will make the meeting-meeting so much more productive.

The four simple tips above will improve meetings and save office relationships all over the world. You’re all welcome!

Now, here are two helpful hints for people who’ve been invited to a meeting. You also have a role to play in this mess, so listen up.


RSVP is French for PLEASE respond. When you’re asked nicely, you should act accordingly. Waiting around uselessly for people who never intended to come to a meeting in the first place makes my blood boil. Who raised you? It’s basic etiquette to reply to an invitation.

Lose the Plus 1

Don’t forward your meeting invite because you think someone’s missing from the list. Email the organizer and let them decide about that. If they’re good meeting organizers who have followed my four sensible tips, they’ve thought carefully about who should be there, so they can maximize the time spent and the content they’re trying to share. Don’t sabotage other people’s good planning if you can help it.

The Harvard Business Review says executives spend around 23 hours a week in meetings. Just reading that sentence makes me feel a bit crazed. If we reject lazy planning and sloppy manners, can you imagine the time we’ll win back from those meetings? We may discover that we, like Elon Musk, have the time to do things like launch rockets, redefine the transportation section and create brain-computer interfaces. Let’s all give it our best shot, shall we?

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