12 Science-Based Tips for Better Meetings

In the U.S., we live in a culture of meetings. As many as 56 million meetings happen across the country every day. The typical worker spends six hours a week in meetings and managers average 23 hours of meetings a week — almost a full day. This is unfortunate because meetings are usually awful. Luckily, science is here to help.

Ideal Meetings vs. Actual Meetings

Academics have recently begun studying meetings, in part because they pose a puzzle: meetings are much better in theory than in practice. Meetings are wonderful, theoretically, filled with warmth and community. Employees gather around the hearth of a conference table to solve problems collaboratively and generate new ideas. They exchange information across roles and departments. Efficiency skyrockets. Employees connect as human beings.

And yet in practice, meetings are rarely like this. More often, they're time-sucks that waste money and drain morale. Organizations spend between $70 and $283 billion on ineffective meetings each year, according to calculations by Lucid Meetings. These meetings both tax our economy overall and sap employees' enthusiasm for their jobs.

Why such a gulf between soul-sucking real meetings and delightful imaginary ones? Most academic research on meetings — or "meeting science," a real and nascent field — investigates this exact question, from one angle or another. In a recent paper, a team of researchers from the University of Nebraska Omaha and Clemson University went a step further. They looked through 200 studies of meetings and put together a comprehensive array of science-based tips for leading meetings with meaning. Here are some of their key findings.

12 Tips for Better Meetings

In the planning phase ...

  • Set clear goals. What is the purpose of this meeting? "Togetherness" isn't quite enough.
  • Make sure this actually needs to be a meeting. Problem-solving, decisionmaking, and discussions work well in a meeting format, but for other activities, a shared Google doc or a mass email can work just as well.
  • Invite the key stakeholders. It's frustrating to come up with a "great" idea in a meeting, only to have it shot down by a manager who wasn't on the invite list.
  • Write and circulate an agenda so that everyone can come prepared.

During the meeting ...

  • Reiterate and stick to the agenda. No point in writing one if you're just going to ramble off-topic.
  • Keep it short and sweet, the exact way Michael Scott wouldn't.
  • Steer the conversation away from expressions of futility ("Nothing can be done," "It's hopeless"), and towards the posing of questions ("How can we improve [x] given that [y] didn't work?")

  • Encourage participation from everyone. When people just sit and passively receive information, they tend to tune out and wonder why the meeting wasn't an email.
  • Treat everyone's comments with respect. Mocking or minimizing an idea, even a terrible one, discourages other people from speaking up.
  • Joke around! An upbeat atmosphere is more conducive to collaboration.

After the meeting ...

  • Send out meeting minutes promptly. Two managers who remember a big decision differently can lead to a world of inefficiency.
  • Send out a quick survey soliciting feedback on the meeting — and use this to plan the next meeting. This turns even the worst meetings into learning opportunities.

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Intrigued by meeting science? Read up on it in "The Surprising Science of Meetings: How You Can Lead Your Team to Peak Performance" by Steven G. Rogelberg. It comes out in January and is available for pre-order now. We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Written by Mae Rice December 12, 2018

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