8 ways to make your passive meetings participative

meetings participation
Friska Wirya


written on September 18, 2017

How can you make sure your meetings achieve their objectives? How can you keep them progressing forward? You need participation.

Have you ever felt that feeling of dread and resentment build to a crescendo, as you notice your time is getting sucked into yet another (seemingly pointless) meeting? I have often resisted the urge to poke myself in the eye with a pen just to stay awake. Don’t tell me you’ve never felt something similar.

Getting people to participate in meetings is a hard slog, and you are not alone. Sure, people turn up. But they clam up and zone out too. If you’ve ever chaired a meeting like this, it’s not a great feeling when you can only hear the velvety tones of… your own voice.

So how do you get participation?

First of all, some basics: avoid mid-afternoon time slots to mitigate the post-lunch energy slump (unfortunately this is not an option for global virtual meetings!).

Also, incorporate visuals to break up the boredom and practice my take on KISS – Keep It Short And Simple. People’s attention spans are limited, and meetings that drag on for over an hour encourage unproductive agenda creep. Visuals are especially important in virtual meetings where you can’t make eye contact (or see what attendees are doing). Incorporate a deck with compelling imagery, engaging video or use a virtual whiteboard to capture ideas in real-time. Go easy on the text.

You may be a bad-ass speaker, but audio alone won’t hold people’s attention. A good practice to get into is clarifying the rules of engagement. Do this at the beginning of the meeting, in the agenda, or through the invite. This manages and aligns expectations. Cultivate a framework for encouraging the sharing of ideas. This will reduce the chances of people withdrawing in fear of being insulted or embarrassed.

Here are eight tips:

1. Share the meeting objective in advance

Include in the agenda and distribute (at least) a few days’ beforehand. Be clear about your expectations – you want attendees to come informed and ready to discuss. I’ve found when the objective is also displayed on-screen during the meeting, it’s easier to get proceedings back on-track and kill off irrelevant discussions.

If the discussion does get side-tracked, stop, paraphrase what you heard and write it down for all to see. By doing this, participants are reassured they’ve been heard and you have an interest in resolving the issue they raised or exploring idea they’ve put forward – just not right now. By keeping the discussion moving and on-point, people will get engaged and continue to participate. When you veer off course, always circle back to what’s on-screen “Is this helping us to achieve our objective?”

2. Incorporate other’s contributions to meeting content

You know what inclusion and involvement does? It creates ownership. This is one of my favourite engagement tactics. Break up the monologue and get others to contribute to and present some parts of the meeting. You’ll find even after their part is done, they’re now pumped to continue to contribute and will speak up throughout your meeting.

3. Have a pre-meeting before the meeting

Yes, this takes time and is quite effort-intensive. For large groups perhaps use a divide and conquer approach. For example, if you have 30 meeting attendees and 3 team members, each team member identifies 2-3 stakeholders to meet with. In the pre-meeting, clarify what your expectations are, what you need from them in-session, and uncover what additional support they need from you, if any. If your meeting is a recurring one but you don’t have team members to share the pre-meeting load, select a handful of attendees to pre-meet with each time.

4. Ask open-ended but specific questions

Build opportunities for people to speak into the agenda. By asking specific and focused questions, you direct their attention and reduce the pressure on them to think of something off-the-cuff. For example, “How would you go about getting around the issue of x?” or “What do you see as the main obstacles in your region?”

5. Paired perfection

Ok, now you’ve asked a kick-ass focused question. Don’t just stand in stunned silence and wait for people to pipe up in front of their peers or managers. Alleviate their stress and fear of being singled out for an answer.

How? Get them to pair up (or group in threes, if a large group) so they can discuss the question. Give them time to form opinions, answers or multiple options which they’ll then share with the broader group. If the meeting is being run virtually, ask the question before the meeting – or let them mute themselves and use a live chat feature in pairs.

This allows each attendee to participate, contribute ideas and learn from their peers. Now call on a representative from each group to verbalize one of their thoughts. Use a round robin format to share the load and continue until the time allocated for the agenda item is finished.

6. Don’t underestimate the power of an icebreaker

The right icebreaker can lighten the mood and set your meeting up for success. People who are at ease will be more comfortable speaking up. Things to consider when selecting an icebreaker include number of attendees, authority level, level of familiarity with each other and what you’re trying to achieve. Don’t know of any? Ask your colleagues!

7. Recognise and acknowledge

Has someone contributed an idea which was executed? Reward them, for crying out loud! Positive reinforcement works. By bestowing recognition, idea contributors will want to say even more, and others will notice and be more comfortable voicing their opinions too.

8. Segment into bite-size chunks

Have a laundry list of agenda items to go through? Don’t drag on – assign ambitious times to each section and stick to it. The longer you stay with one idea, the more likely people will disengage. Doing this also helps prime your meeting for participation. Use the momentum (and discussion) from closing out the smaller topics to tackle the ‘meatier’ agenda items.

There you have it folks. What’s worked for you? And what hasn’t? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

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