Three Techniques for Keeping Meetings Brief

Written by Aaron Stannard

When I was in college I had to endure painfully long meetings for all of my student organizations; every presenter at every meeting had some sort of self-important need to prattle on and on about every irrelevant piece of minutia. This resulted in endless, agonizing, uninteresting meetings.

From that point onward I always looked at meetings as inescapable personal productivity sinkholes. However, once I got into the driver's seat and ran a couple of meetings I figured out a few ways to keep meetings short and to the point. Here are a few of the techniques that I'm familiar with:

1. Time Boxing

Time boxing, when it comes to meetings, is a pretty literal concept: use other events to box your meeting into a fixed, inflexible window.

But flexibility is good, right? Not when it means having a 30 minute staff meeting run for an hour past its deadline because two of your managers are long-winded.

The idea behind time boxing isn't to limit the number of discussed items; it's to coerce the meeting's attendees to get to the point quickly.

All of these meetings use the same conference room; neither the staff meeting nor the sales meeting are going to be able to run long, given that the people in subsequent meetings are going to be pounding on the door trying to get in. The first meetings are boxed in by the subsequent meetings, thus they can't really spill over into someone else's meeting.

This is my favorite technique simply because there is no "bad guy" when you have to cut someone off from speaking any further; you're simply the peace keeper between your own meeting and the next one.

2. Moderation

Well-run organizations self-moderate, where the attendees and presenters help each other stay on track and keep things short without any nudging from the meeting organizer. If someone is running too long then the attendees simply say "we need to move on" or something along those lines; moderation, if anything, is an implementation of brevity-seeking mentality.

Other organizations have the meeting organizer handle all of the moderation himself. Moderation is often employed in tandem with general time limits for meetings.

3. Discussion Limits

Larger organizations limit discussion time for large meetings, Congress being an example. Discussion limits can work in one of two ways:

  • Before the meeting is held the agenda is distributed to all attendees and any attendee who wishes to speak during a certain agenda item must say so beforehand and will be allotted some time to speak accordingly. Each action item has a fixed amount of total discussion time and that time is divided among the speakers.
  • There is no planning beforehand, but each agenda item has a fixed amount of discussion time; the discussion will continue until time runs out and a decision is rendered.

Discussion limits might be overkill for smaller organizations, but they are essential for really large meetings.

Once your meeting runs beyond a certain time threshold then each additional minute becomes less productive than the last; keeping your meeting framed under real-world time constraints is essential to ensuring productive meetings.