23 Sep 2022

Formal meeting etiquette

One of the greatest sins in the world of work is to summon or convene a meeting for which there is no reason. Many people loathe meetings – from the prolonged wait for latecomers and unnecessary formality and pomposity, to the repetitive speeches and the irrelevant subjects that are raised under ‘Any Other Business’.

No meeting, therefore, should take place unless there is a good reason for it. It should be well planned, with careful attention paid to the number of people invited to attend, what should and shouldn’t be included on the agenda, and the length of time necessary to cover that agenda. If colleagues leave a meeting you have convened feeling that you have wasted their time, then you have done them a disservice.

Clearly, there is a huge range of meetings – from small informal get-togethers in the department, to video meetings, to large conferences. 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.

Preparation

Every meeting has an organiser, a chairperson, or convenor. If you are calling a meeting and taking responsibility for organising it, then there are a number of matters that you must attend to before that meeting takes place.

Firstly, you have to decide who should attend and every person coming to the meeting must be given reasonable notice – explanatory emails and online calendar invitations are very useful tools when organising get-togethers for large numbers of people. Online calendars will also perform the useful task of reminding attendees about upcoming meetings.

Most meetings that are part of a regular series will include on their agenda minutes of the last meeting. Someone has to prepare these, and this should have been made clear to the person allocated the task before the last meeting, not after it. Minutes of last meetings should be as brief as possible.

The Venue

Most meetings are held regularly in the same venue – a boardroom or conference room, or the office of one of the attendees. If, however, you have arranged a meeting in a room that you haven’t used earlier for such a purpose, then you should check the room before the meeting takes place.

Any room used for a meeting should be warm, well-ventilated, comfortable. Small group meetings may take place around a desk; the more formal the meeting, however, the better it is to sit everyone attending at a table.

If you hope that people will take notes at the meeting, then it’s a good idea to supply pads and pencils at each place. This will indicate clearly that you expect those attending to jot down the salient points.

If your meeting requires a white board, perhaps for collaborative thinking or brainstorming, or a screen for PowerPoint presentations, check beforehand that these resources are available, and in the case of the screen, functioning.

If you fear that the meeting is going to be protracted, it is a good idea to supply glasses and a large carafe of water, and perhaps enlist the help of a friendly colleague to bring in coffee and tea at some point in the proceedings.

Agendas

An effective agenda is a secret weapon for all meeting-conveners. It sets out the goals for the meeting, identifies who is responsible for leading discussion on specific topics, and states what decisions need to be made. It should be circulated before the meeting, as it will give team-members a chance to prepare themselves.

Duties of a Chairperson

Chairing a meeting calls for patience, a sense of humour, diplomacy, an ability to arbitrate, and preparation.

Once everyone has been greeted and placed around the table, the chairperson should get the meeting underway at the correct time. It may then be appropriate to introduce those present, or to ask each person to introduce himself or herself. If there are outsiders at the meeting, as chairperson you should make sure that everyone is well briefed and that you know the names and roles of each person present. It is bad manners to appear not to know whom you have invited. 

Once the meeting is underway, the main duty of a chairperson is to make sure that it proceeds at an efficient rate, that everyone has the opportunity to voice their views, that those who probably have something important to contribute but are shy or hesitant are encouraged to speak, that nobody hijacks the meeting for their own purposes, and that slanging matches are avoided. All this has to be achieved with the right mixture of humour, firmness, impartiality and efficiency.

Once discussion is underway, you will have to check that it adheres to the agenda, doesn’t wander from the point, or become repetitive. You have to do all this without appearing to favour one side over the other.

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.

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.

Attending a Formal Meeting

You should prepare for the meeting by reading the minutes of the last meeting and any other relevant notes, and planning what you need to say. If you have been asked to bring figures or materials to a meeting, you should make sure they’re ready. If you have been asked to send reports in advance of the meeting to those attending, then you should make sure they are sent in good time.

If you are likely to be late for the meeting, then the usual rules about lateness apply. You should get word to the appropriate person as quickly as possible. It is permissible in such circumstances to ask whoever is chairing the meeting to change the order in which items on the agenda are discussed, but you can’t insist on this.

Once at the meeting, it is simply a matter of deciding when to speak and when to be silent. At formal meetings, all contributions should be channelled through the chairperson, though this procedure may be relaxed as discussions carry on. How well you make your points, how well you attract support for your cause, how triumphantly you carry the day will depend on a great many things – personality, preparation, confidence, timing. But it does help to have clear in your mind what your objectives are.

Under no circumstances should you talk over other people, no matter how impassioned you feel. Listen to the person who is speaking, and then interject with a polite ‘Bill makes a good point, but I have to say I disagree with his projection….’

If you feel you are not being given a chance to put forward your point of view, then you may draw the chairperson’s attention to this, if the meeting is being conducted on formal lines. Whenever you are taking a line that is against the general feeling of the meeting, it pays to be doggedly persistent, rather than emotionally enraged. If, after a meeting, you do feel that you lost your temper unjustifiably or behaved in some way that was ill mannered, then you should send a letter of apology to the chairperson as soon as possible. You should not apologise for your views, but only the way you expressed them.

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