In our working lives we are likely to encounter a range of meetings – from small informal get-togethers in the department, to video meetings, to large conferences or board meetings. However, the rules governing the way meetings are run and how you should behave during them do not vary greatly. All meetings should be efficient. Everyone should come away from any meeting feeling that it has been worthwhile.
At the formal end of the spectrum meetings are characterised by certain practices and expectations, which may be overlooked or dispensed with in less formal settings. If you familiarise yourself with formal meeting etiquette you won’t be overwhelmed by the proceedings and will be able to make a useful contribution.
• Be punctual. Ensure that you, as chairperson, get the meeting underway at the correct time. Sometimes it’s permissible to wait for any important late attendees, apologising to those present for the delay and explaining why this is necessary.
• Make introductions. It may then be appropriate to introduce those present, or to ask each person to introduce himself or herself. The more formal the meeting, the more the responsibility for introductions lies with the chairperson.
• Maintain meeting momentum. The main duty of a chairperson is to ensure that the meeting proceeds at an efficient rate, that everyone is given the opportunity to voice their views, that nobody hijacks the meeting for their own purposes, and that slanging matches are avoided.
• Preserve impartiality. As chairperson you may put your own views before the meeting, but this is best done after everyone else has done so. It should never appear that you are setting out to predetermine the way the discussion takes place and the results of that discussion.
• Keep focused. Once discussion is underway, you will have to check that it doesn’t wander from the point, that people are not simply making the same point repeatedly, that everybody is having the opportunity to put their point of view. You must do all this without appearing to favour one side over the other.
• Stick to the agenda. Most people like to see the meeting moving towards its close as swiftly as possible. However, there is always the risk that your meeting will be attended by someone who likes the sound of their own voice and enjoys raising ‘points of order’. You will need to identify this person and be firmly repressive.
• Close proceedings. Once the agenda has been discussed, the chairperson should bring the meeting to an end, thanking all present and, if necessary, fixing the time and place of the next meeting.
• Prepare ahead. The agenda and any supporting documents will normally have been circulated in advance, and it is a working assumption that all attendees will have read and understood these papers.
• Arrive early. Try and arrive 15 minutes before the meeting is due to start. You can exchange greetings with colleagues, have a coffee, get settled in and arrange your papers before the meeting commences.
• Switch off. All mobiles, laptops etc should be switched off and stowed away. Switching your phone to silent and putting it on the table in front of you is an unacceptable compromise. You need to make it clear that you are not contactable during the meeting.
• Observe the social niceties. At the beginning of the meeting handshakes, polite greetings and some civilised small talk are absolutely essential. Even if you’re anticipating impassioned debate and disagreement, you must always stay courteous.
• Respect the chair. Only one person can run the meeting effectively, so you must always accede to his/her directions.
• Listen carefully. Don’t half-listen while you plan your next interjection and give your colleagues space in which to speak and be heard. If you want to speak, wait your turn and put up your hand to attract the chair’s attention. If you interrupt someone while they’re speaking, they may lose their focus and time will be wasted.
• Watch your body language. Sit up straight, engage in eye contact with colleagues, look at the person who is speaking. Don’t fidget, doodle or turn away from the table. It will make everyone around you feel uneasy.
• Be aware of your audience. When it’s your turn to speak, keep concise and focused – the meeting should be orientated to decision-making and should adhere to a schedule. Don’t try and impress fellow attendees with your extraordinary grasp of minute detail – they will be much more interested in your ability to summarise a position succinctly and clearly.
• Accept disagreement. There will be many arguments before consensus is reached, and you may find that your ideas are challenged or even ridiculed. Approach these disputes robustly, and don’t allow yourself to become over-sensitive. If tempers are running high and voices are raised, it’s wise to apologise immediately and explain that it is not your intention to cause offence.
• Be concise and action focused. Minutes should be circulated within 36 hours of the meeting (for very formal meetings, a separate minute-taker should be present who is not a participant in the meeting). Take your assigned actions seriously and conclude them in a timely fashion.
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