9 ass-kicking tricks to shorten your meetings

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I’m standing in the conference room as the members of the team I’m facilitating start to come in. The third one in the door says he has to leave early. “How early,” I asked. “3, he says.” Then there’s a 3:30 guy, and the 4pm at the very latest woman.


The meeting was booked until 5. We’ve had it booked for weeks.

I could have lost my cool. I could have freaked out. I had my lecture about commitment and obligation ready to go.

Instead, I decided to prove that any meeting can be shortened by 25%

Want to borrow my techniques to take a chunk out of your meetings?

1. Rearrange Your Topics

The first thing to do to shorten an agenda is to get the order right. Our original version had action plan updates in the morning and the more substantive discussions in the afternoon.

Flip. That. Order.

You want to flip that order for two reasons:

First, you want to have the difficult, conceptual, discussions when the energy is high; and

Second, you want to make sure you get to all the items that require decisions and ensure the things you don’t get to are the ones that won’t be held up by being dropped.

2. Start by Surveying the Territory

You’re used to starting a new agenda item and diving in.

Diving in is the wrong mental image. Diving in takes you deep in a single area, which can be totally inefficient. What if it’s the wrong area?

As you broach each topic, start by trying to understand the breadth of the issue you are discussing. Survey the whole territory rather than staying on any one spot. It’s snorkel, not scuba.

Diving in is the wrong image. Stay on the surface until you have mapped the territory.

Go around the room trying to unearth the different aspects of the problem that need to be considered. Each time someone goes deep and gives examples it will lure the team into a discussion of a specific aspect of the issue. Try to bring the conversation back up. “That’s a great example. Let’s hold that until we’ve got the full picture.”

Use the full real estate of the white board to physically map the ideas. Move from one section to the other to demonstrate visuall ywhen people are changing topics.

Providing a little organization to the conversation will allow you to move much faster and to prevent the team from spending 75% of the time of one part of the issue and running out of time for other parts.

3. Order the Issues

Once you’ve got the full lay of the land, decide the logical order to tackle the issues.

This seems like an easy one, but the order in which you answer questions can completely change the answers. For example, in one of our agenda items, the first question asked was, “Who should we invite to the monthly management meeting?” That put ‘who should attend’ before ‘what is the objective of the meeting’.

Answering who before what would likely lead to a different use of the monthly meeting than answering what before whom.

The order you ask and answer questions matters, so take a moment to get it right.

4. Solve One at a Time

Now that you have the right order for the questions, start with one section and don’t stop until you’ve run it to the ground.

Cover completely that section and don’t let folks wander off to other topics. If they do, simply park it. If someone starts asking with Paul should be invited, say, “we’re just answering what the meeting is about . We’ll talk who will attend in a minute.”

If you’ve got your mental map of the issue on the white board, just move to that section and jot down “Paul” to remind you to come back to that point. Then return promptly to the part of the board (and the issue) you were solving for.

Don’t stop on the first issue until you’ve documented any decisions, clarified expectations, and agreed on the owner and timelines.

5. Call Out Violent Agreement

One of the biggest time sucks in meetings is people chiming in with violent agreement.

For some, saying it in their own words is helpful in clarifying or demonstrating commitment. For others, they just like to hear the sound of their own voices. Don’t be shy to cut them off to ask, “are you in agreement with the direction?” and “do you have any concerns or other ideas to add.”

You can even set this up in advance by saying, “we’ve shortened our meeting time by 25% so we need to focus on where we disagree and use more shorthand when we agree.”

6. Use Closed Questions

Most of the time, I recommend big, open-ended questions to create curiosity and generate discussion. Use those judiciously in your meetings to get things rolling.

But once you’re getting near the crux of the issue, switch to closed questions to find out if people are ready to commit.

As the person prattles on about the opportunity to better engage customers, stop him and say, “Are you recommending that we host a customer event?”

7. Use a Timer

Timers work wonders. Now that everyone has a timer sitting right in front of them on their phones, it’s easy to put them to work.

It’s amazing how quickly time flies when you’re having a great discussion. Set a timer for 10% less time that you want to invest in the topic. Occasionally, update on how much time is left and invite those who haven’t participated to take their turn.

When the timer rings, let the person finish their sentence and then stop the discussion. Use the reserved 10% to go back over everything you’ve covered and document the decisions and action plans. You’ll be surprised how helpful this technique is in abbreviating your conversations.

The secret here is the 10% reserve. When you use this approach, you’ll not only get through your agenda faster, you’ll also find that your decisions stick. The 10% reserve is a great way to improve alignment and generate action.

8. Move Some Conversations Off the Agenda

Some conversations just require more time than you have available. This is particularly true for topics that are tabled without much preparation (see #9 Use a Primer).

In these cases, don’t just park the issue. Instead, use a brief section to orient people to the topic.

Set your teammates up to add the value you’re looking for. Provide context about the issue, be very specific about where you’d like input (and where you wouldn’t). Take time to answer questions so that when people do invest time later, their input is on target.

This technique improves the quality of your decision making. It also reduces the mindless, opinion-based, fact-free pontificating. Pontificating off the cuff is another huge time suck in meetings.

9. Use a Primer

The #1, super-duper, best, most effective strategy for shortening meetings is to improve the quality of the pre-reads. A good primer document provides context, lays out facts, and positions the questions that will be asked in the meeting.

Good primers do a bunch of things:

1. they reduce the amount of time the extroverts spend waxing poetic with half-baked ideas;

2. they encourage the introverts to chime in with their brilliance a little sooner than 2 minutes before you were supposed to be done; and

3. they tend to make the conversation more fact-based and less opinionated.

If you want to be more efficient, use a primer!!!

25% Shorter, 100% as Effective

I have to say that ending my Friday at 3pm rather than 5 was a nice treat. The team had really great conversations and came to some important actions. People had a chance to say their piece without the conversation dragging or becoming bogged down.

I challenge you to take 25% off of at least one meeting next week. I’ve given you a bunch of techniques to try.

Tell me your story in the responses. I’d love to hear what works…and what doesn’t.

Written by

NYT Bestselling Author, Keynote Speaker, Ph.D. Organizational Psychology, Conflict Doctor

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