Most people believe that the way to start a meeting is by stating the meeting’s objectives. This is absolutely wrong, and can negatively impact not only the meeting itself, but people’s view of you. Here is a bit of executive coaching on how to start a meeting properly.
Starting a meeting properly is an absolutely critical skill, and unfortunately most people do it rather poorly.
The standard advice is the obvious: state the objectives of the meeting. And this advice is wrong!
Let me take a moment to explain why. Imagine I’m running corporate strategy in a large firm and you get time on my calendar.
(You should have sent me an agenda and objectives ahead of time, but let’s say my assistant dropped the ball on making you do that, and I’ve let it slide since I respect you.)
Now you are sitting in my office… and you start the meeting with your objectives for our time together:
“Well George, what I wanted to do is get your opinion on whether or not it makes sense for us to enter the market for turbo widgets.”
Can you see what is immediately going on in my head? Here are some of the things I am wondering about:
- Why are you in my office asking me this question now?
- What are the implications of my response?
- Who else have you spoken with?
- Why do you think we should be in the turbo widget market?
- Where is the pressure to do this coming from?
- Does this have anything to do with our growth strategy?
- What time frame is this going to play out on?
You see, I have all these questions, which means that I am immediately going to start drilling you with questions and that is going to take you way, way, off of your agenda.
THE KEY THING YOU MUST DO FIRST TO START A MEETING
What you need to do first, is set context.
Setting context well is something that every successful senior leader will do to start a meeting. Pay attention next time you hear a leader speak, it is absolutely true.
If you start a meeting without setting context first, all the questions in your audience’s head are going to throw your meeting into disarray… especially if there are multiple people in the meeting with different information.
The key to setting context is telling the audience the backstory as to what brings you here today. In this story, I want to hear the answers to all of the questions above.
Where most junior people go wrong is that they know the context really, really well. –And then subsequently take it for granted, thinking that everyone has that context.
They also are very fearful of wasting an executive’s time. The result is that junior people will hear this advice but compress the time they use to set context to as short a time as possible (e.g. under a minute).
This is not what you want to do when you start a meeting.
What you want to do is take your time and walk your audience all the way through the story of what is going on, answering the key questions for people. Usually you can do a good job of this in 3-5 minutes.
After you start a meeting by setting context you can talk about the objectives for the meeting.
KNOW YOUR AUDIENCE
The more senior your audience, the more likely they have a cursory knowledge of may things as opposed to a deep knowledge of a few things. As a result, taking that extra time in the beginning of a meeting orients your audience and also gives them an opportunity to get up to speed.
In my simple example about turbo widgets, setting context to start a meeting might involve saying things like:
“Before we get started, I wanted to take a minute and set a bit of context. I got asked to look at the turbo widget market by John Smith, the head of technology as a potential market we might consider entering….
… this would be important to the technology group and the firm because…
…I’ve already spoke with… and they are generally supportive but really wanted your opinion…
…the time table for this would likely be…”
You get the idea. When you take the time to start a meeting by really setting good context, the whole rest of the meeting can immediately get on the right foot. -And the best way to set context well is to deeply consider the perspective of the individual you are meeting with. What are their concerns likely to be? What is important to them?
If you do that, you can set the context in a highly relevant way and really start a meeting on the right track.
If you’re worrying about starting a meeting with a few minutes of context setting, here are a few things you can do:
- Observe what senior leaders in your firm do and mimic that as closely as possible (perhaps even timing their openings)
- Practice in less important meetings with your peers and subordinates
- Give it a shot. Your worst case scenario is that someone will ask you to get to the point more quickly. –Not a big deal.
I hope this helps you start a meeting on the right foot and delivers as great results for you as it has for me.
Best of luck.
For more info on performing in meetings, see my post: One way physicians torpedo their careers
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