Seven errors that cause meetings to fail

Introduction 

Meetings are a key part of any business: they are where deals are struck, issues resolved, plans laid, and bonds forged.
Properly running a meeting, however, is a difficult endeavor, full of potential pitfalls. In this report Stephen Newton, an Associate Consultant at Meridian West, lays out seven common mistakes made in meetings, and how to avoid them.

The problem with meetings

1. Calling a meeting for the wrong reasons

Meetings are very often perceived as one of the greatest “time stealers” in any firm. Most meetings fail due to one or more of the following factors:
1. They are called for the wrong reason
2. The “meeting process” is wrong
3. There is a lack of clarity about the goal of the meeting and/ or the decision required
4. There is a lack of commitment to act (often because none is sought)
5. There is a lack of follow-up (often because there has been no agreement to act)
6. There is a lack of information prior to the meeting (or far too much)
7. Participants have no clear understanding of the benefits to them of attending and/or of taking any decision (let alone of taking a particular decision).
All of these are avoidable errors and, when they are avoided, not only does the meeting experience improve greatly, so do the tangible results.
Many meetings are called in order to “pass information” or “to communicate”. However:

  • Most people read far more rapidly than they can listen
  • Most people (over 70% of human-kind) have a visual primary learning preference (i.e. they find it easier to digest information that is presented visually, for example using pictures/diagrams or expressed in visual terms; how things look for example)
  • Few people are effective in presenting information verbally and thus tend to “lose” the audience. This can occur for several reasons.

The transmission of information to the human brain by reading is essentially an electronic process involving the linkage between eyeball and brain. It is hence almost instantaneous. By contrast, the operation of the human ear is essentially mechanical (a membrane – the ear drum – vibrates, acting on linked bones). The process of translating that mechanical activity into an impulse that can be understood by the brain takes time.
We therefore “read at the speed of light but listen at the speed of sound”.

Rather than “talking through” information at the meeting (especially where the audience is receiving it for the first time), it will save considerable time to provide it in writing before the meeting. The participants can read it in advance. The purpose of the meeting can then become to answer any questions and take decisions. The result is:

  • To change the way in which the meeting is perceived by the participants (decision taking versus lecture)
  • To engender a greater level of engagement in the absorption of the required information and
  • To enable participants to decide whether they really need to attend the meeting and indeed whether they can make an active contribution, (the outcome of which will be to save time).

If most people have a primary visual learning preference, it will undoubtedly be more effective to present them with information in the form of graphics or pictures and to use “visual” language. However, in too many cases, “visual aids” are not well prepared and the “presenter” will simply read out what is on their PowerPoint® slides.
If the slides are prepared effectively (which means that the reader can “get the point” with little or no “voice-over”) and they are provided in advance of the meeting, the audience will be able to have a conversation in the meeting and take informed decisions rather than listening to what amounts to a lecture.
In some cases this approach will require a change of culture within the firm. This is because too many people (especially at senior levels) may have become used to doing little or no pre-reading and taking decisions “on the fly” based on what they have “heard” during a meeting. (Some may also use meetings as an opportunity to show other participants “how clever they are” – the “sound of his own voice” syndrome).
Understanding based on what is heard in a meeting is quite likely to be flawed or incomplete. The outcome is that decisions will likely be flawed and that, at the least, re-work will be needed to correct problems. In some cases, the flaws may be so great as to be “business fatal”.

2. The meeting process is wrong

Most business meetings are run as a linear “information dump”. This breaches the four basic rules of communication:

  1.  Most people would rather talk than listen
  2. Too much information confuses – no decision will be made
  3. The best “listening time” in any meeting is the first 5 – 15 minutes
  4. The purpose of communication is to elicit a response NOT to pass information.

In most meetings, the majority of the talking is done by one or two people, unless there is an explicit effort to ensure that all participants have a chance to speak before a decision is taken. These strong personalities will often overwhelm the opportunity for others (who may have vital contributions to make) to talk. If information is presented during a meeting rather than beforehand, it is not simply the volume of information that is a problem but the sheer speed at which it is presented. This combination overwhelms the capacity of the participants to absorb it. This issue can be avoided by:

  • Providing necessary data in advance
  • Running the meeting as a conversation not a lecture

Conversation manifests as randomly broken word groups rather than sentences. Those word groups are separated by natural pauses, the benefit of which is to allow the listening capacity of the audience to “catch up” with what has been said and to allow for reflection to digest new ideas. This improves understanding greatly. It also allows participants to ask questions, which help to cement your ideas in their minds. The participants “buy in” to your ideas by talking about them…

 3. Lack of clarity about goals

Meetings need to be planned if they are to be successful.
Most meetings are run in a linear manner, based on some sort of agenda. However, an agenda will rarely enable the participants to understand, at the start, either the aim or what results the person running the meeting seeks. The participants therefore waste the valuable first few minutes of the meeting in mental wheel-spin.
If the aim and the results to be achieved are stated at the outset, this removes possible confusion and immediately aligns the participants around a common and agreed goal. If possible, send a pre-meeting email setting out the aim of the meeting plus the specific results to be achieved and ask the participants to think in advance about any questions you wish to ask in order to identify needs. Base that note on the planner. The result is to save a considerable amount of time and minimise friction so that the success rate increases dramatically.
Once the participants hear the stated aim and the results to be achieved, and they “nod and say “yes”” (as is usually the case), the hard part of the meeting is over, psychologically. The only issue that remains is how to achieve the agreed results. There should be no more than three Results for a given meeting, in order to avoid possible confusion. For example:
“My aim today is to talk about your business, so that:

  • I can understand what you feel are the most important factors that will drive your success over the next 6 – 12 months
  • In that context, I can outline some of the benefits that I can bring to you and
  • We can agree whether and if so how best to work together.”

If a specific decision is required, this should be stated clearly at the start of any pre-meeting email or note that provides background information, immediately after the aim and results statement. Outline the decision required in one or two sentences. The decision statement should if possible be in a “binary” (yes/ no) form. If there is a question of degree (example how much money should be committed to a certain project), this should form a second element to the decision. For example:
“To take part in the XYZ Trade Show to be held at New York next June – and if so to commit a budget of up to XXXX”.
This should be followed by a summary of the information on which the meetingparticipants are asked to base the decision and by a recommendation as to what the decision should be.
Research undertaken in the 1950s indicates that most human beings are unable to hold more than about nine items of data in short-term memory at any one time (the magic number was 7 +/-2). Therefore it will likely be counter-productive to provide more than nine “key points” for the participants in the meeting to consider and decide upon. More recent research indicates that the number of data items may in fact be far smaller: 3 – 5.

4. Lack of commitment to act

Many meetings end with the participants having no clear idea if action is needed and if so whether they themselves are required to act, what is to be delivered, by when, what is their span of decision (including budget if any) and how success is to be judged.

Each meeting should therefore end with a short “Next Steps” session that clarifies:

  • What is to be done (and how success is defined)
  • By whom
  • By when
  • What resources are available 
  • How any problems are to be reported if they cannot be resolved and
  • Follow up and reporting process

Once the relevant individuals have agreed to their allotted actions, the person running the meeting should circulate a written note of what has been agreed that covers the relevant points. That note must go to each person that took part in the meeting. It may also be circulated more widely. However, that wider circulation should be done on a “rifle shot” rather than a “machine gun” basis – to inform the relevant people only.

5. Lack of follow-up 

This issue typically stems from Avoidable Error no. 4 above. However, even if that error is avoided, lack of follow up may occur in one of three ways:

  1. The person who has accepted responsibility for an action simply fails to deliver it
  2. The person who has accepted responsibility for an action encounters problems and for some reason fails to report this fact to the relevant individual(s)
  3. The person who ran the meeting at which the action was agreed fails to check that it has been achieved on time and that the success criteria have been met.

In reality, the last of these is the most likely cause of problems and the most insidious. The person who led a meeting must follow through on ensuring that agreed actions are indeed carried out in a timely manner and to an appropriate standard. This is a basic senior leadership issue, but one that is too often overlooked.
The result can be the development of a “blame” culture where individuals feel uneasy in escalating problems because the “messenger is shot”. The flip side of this can be that non-delivery, especially by senior people becomes accepted as “a fact of life” because those people are “just too busy”. This in turn can engender a lack of respect for the individuals concerned and damages not only their own credibility but that of the senior leadership in the firm. Another possible outcome is a “CYA” culture where email trails are used as a personal protection mechanism and/or to avoid actual action.

Call it “follow through”, “closure” or what you will. The capacity to complete a project or an action that has been agreed is the fundamental essence of implementing your own or your firm’s business strategy and achieving your business aims at the tactical level. It can also be thought of as basic “professionalism”. Sadly, experience indicates that this is not always present in all firms. To develop this is both a test and a requirement of leadership.

6. Lack of information 

In order to save time by focusing the meeting on results and hence on decisions, it is essential to provide adequate information to the participants sufficiently far in advance of the meeting to allow them to read it and think about any questions they may have. The benefit is to shorten the meeting by anything up to 80% with the result that a concrete decision is far more likely to be taken.
How can the necessary pre-meeting information best be provided? It will be helpful to have in mind three pieces of information:

  1. As noted above, we “read at the speed of light and listen at the speed of sound”. Therefore it will be both more efficient and more effective to provide any necessary information prior to the meeting in written form rather than “talking it through” during the meeting or indeed by “socialising” it verbally before the event.
    o In the latter case, most people will simply not remember most of the information they are given even though the socialising process is helpful in gaining prior agreement to a “difficult” concept or decision
  2. Most of human-kind (>70%) has a primarily Visual “Learning Preference”. In other words they find it easiest to assimilate information that is presented in a visual form – pictures, graphs etc.
  3. Research shows (as also noted above) that the vast majority of human beings are unable to retain more than nine items of data in short term memory at any given time and there is limited ability to handle more than a handful of decision points.

In many cases the required information can best be provided in the form of a visual presentation (example a PowerPoint® “deck”). However, most such decks are far too lengthy and the slides are not well designed.
If you use more than nine slides in a given deck a psychological phenomenon called “recency” takes effect. This means that the reader will “lose” slide no. 1 as they see slide 10; lose slide no. 2 as they see slide 11 etc. (This is why an experienced waiter will reel off a long list of “Specials” in which the last two or three items are the most expensive: they are usually the ones that the majority of customers will remember…).
Some basic rules will help to maximise the effectiveness of each slide and of the deck as a whole:

  • The main body of the deck should consist of not more than nine slides (including the title slide and any “agenda” slide).
  • Any detailed data such as financial information or spread-sheets can best be presented in an appendix.
  • You can have as many pages in the appendices as you wish (although you will need to know your way around the appendices in order to answer any questions in the meeting, as these will likely relate to detail points rather than the key ideas)
  • The appendices should therefore be “tabbed” so that one tab relates to each of the “main body” slides.
  • Each slide in the main body of the deck (your nine critical “selling” slides) should make its point immediately, without the need for a “voice-over” explanation.
    If you choose to use a document or report format to provide the required information rather than a PowerPoint ® deck, you can still follow the same basic ideas
  • Keep the main “ideas” section of the document as short as practicable and with not more than nine key ideas (and ideally not more than seven)
  • Use bold, italics and underlining to draw the eye of the reader to key words and phrases in order to make the document easier to read
  • Allow plenty of “white space” in the document in order to make it seem less intimidating
  • Keep sentences and paragraphs short (20 words or so to a sentence and paragraphs of not more than three sentences or five lines in length).
  • Use simple language so far as possible. (For example, use “start” rather than “commence”) and avoid jargon unless it is common currency for all present.

Whether using a PowerPoint® deck or a document, follow the same format as you would in planning a meeting. In other words,

  • State the aim and the results you seek at the start.
  • If a decision is required, outline the decision in a couple of sentences as the next point, followed by
  • A short summary of necessary information, the options available, if any and
  • A recommendation as to what decision is to be taken including the benefits and the outcomes that will result
  • Add detailed data as appendices and refer to these in the main body text.

7. No understanding of benefits

This concept is so simple that it is often overlooked in all kinds of meetings.
People in general are prime examples of the phenomenon of inertia. They will (usually) act, say “yes” or take a decision only if they are suitably motivated. This means that they must understand the benefits to themselves of taking such actions and the results that can be expected.
These benefits can best be expressed in the form of “IBRs” or Idea, Benefit, Result. For example: “we should state the aim of the meeting and the results we seek at the start. The benefit is to gain the psychological buy-in of the client to these results up front. The result is to save time and maximise the likelihood of success”.
The benefits and the expected results must be linked both to each other and to the initial idea. Ideally, they will be expressed using the word choice that best reflects the psychological drivers and learning preference of the client.
We can gain clues to these factors by asking questions in the early part of the meeting and filtering the answers through our understanding of the concepts of learning preference (visual, auditory or kinetic) and of “buying decision preference” and “emotional drivers”.
Decisions are almost always based on emotional factors. These may include factors such as a need for personal acceptance or recognition, a need for power and control or a desire to “save the world”. These can be called “psychological needs”.
The factors that will be uppermost in the mind of the individual in taking any decision can be thought of in four broad categories:

  • Transactional (they will talk in terms of speed of delivery and price)
  • Informational (they will ask about process and how things will work)
  • Relationship (they will seek to get to know you before moving forward) and
  • Partnership (they will ask how the relationship can become a win for both parties).

We call these “buying decision preferences”.
If you are able to adjust your word choice in describing the benefits and the results of your ideas to reflect what you perceive to be the psychological needs, learning preference and buying decision preference of the individual in question, their willingness to accept your ideas will rise significantly. The benefit will be to increase your “hit rate” in meetings and the result will be to save time in achieving your own business aims. You will also differentiate yourself in the minds of your clients from most others in your field.

By Stephen Newton.