Building Operational Excellence

How to get the most out of attending a meeting

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As designers working in a team with others, we know that a fair chunk of our time will be spent with other people – gathering information, generating ideas and debating problems – in forums like meetings, workshops or sprints. 

With that in mind, I always think it’s crazy how we spend so much time learning about our design craft, yet when it comes to learning about how to negotiate the often tricky world of meetings, workshops, sprints or even informal catchups with our colleagues, we are often left firmly in the dark, and having to just ‘learn on the job’. 

As a junior designer in my first proper role in a company (hey JustGiving!), I vividly remembering entering my first proper meeting with a product manager, some developers and a project manager, and feeling completely at sea. Skills that seem second nature now, like how to be prepared for a meeting, how to take useful notes, and how to follow-up afterwards, were firmly out of my grasp. Even worse, I remember the first time my lead designer asked me to facilitate a workshop for some of our developers. I was in such a panic to prepare that I spent a number of evenings and a whole weekend researching on the internet and ended up with a workshop that probably was perfect for the person who initially came up with it but that had absolutely no relevance to what I was trying to achieve. 

I think we can do better at preparing designers to get what they need out of meetings.

So, across a series of posts, I’m going to cover some of the things I’ve picked up along the way, that have helped me attend, organise and facilitate better meetings.

This first post in the series will specifically cover attending meetings.

Do I need to go to this meeting?

✉️“Ding!” I look down at my inbox and there it is. A brand new, shiny meeting invite. How exciting, somebody wants to invite little old me to attend something that they’ve organised! I don’t even really care what its about, I’m just happy to be validated as an employee important enough to be invited!

✉️“Ding!” I look down at my inbox and there it is. A brand new, shiny meeting invite. Thank GOD. Something I can accept to fill up my calendar. The more time slots that are blocked out in my calendar, the busier I am. And the busier I am, the more important I am!

✉️“Ding!” I look down at my inbox and there it is. A brand new, shiny meeting invite.  It’s probably because they absolutely need me to be there, otherwise why would they have bothered to invite me? I better click ‘Accept’ otherwise they’ll be really annoyed and wonder why I don’t want to come to their meeting. Then I might get fired. Or worse, people might start talking about me.

There are many reasons why millions of people every day click ‘Accept’ on meeting requests. Above is just a small selection of some real-life reasons that have whizzed through my head as I’ve mindlessly accepted yet another 2 hour meeting that I didn’t need to be at.

Particularly at the earlier stages of my career, it was very important to me to accept any and all requests without ever critically evaluating if I needed to or not. And to be honest, it probably never occurred to me that there actually was another option available to me – declining it altogether.

Nowadays, when a meeting pings into my inbox, my default response is always “Why should I give up my time for this?” Every meeting request is a demand on your time that needs to be carefully evaluated by you. We have limited time available to us in a day, and every inappropriate meeting that we sit in takes away from that time, so we need to be really diligent about making sure that all of our time is as well-spent as possible.

Here are some questions I ask myself to help figure out whether I should go to a meeting or not:

Is there a description of what the meeting is about?

Unfortunately, it seems to be a common occurrence to receive a meeting invitation without any details about what is going to be covered in that meeting. Without a description, how are you expected to know what “UX Meeting” involves? How can you evaluate whether it’s appropriate for you to attend “Hold for Meeting” for 3.5 hours on a Friday afternoon?

So, if I get a meeting request through without a description, or indeed if there is a description but its so vague I still have no idea whats going on, I simply reply back to the sender to ask for clarification. Here is something you can copy and edit for your own use: 

Hi [Sender], Thanks for your meeting request. Please could you let me know some brief details about what you’re expecting this time to cover so I can plan my calendar appropriately. Thanks, [Me]

Does this sound useful for me to attend?

Once I have a description, the next step for me is to assess whether or not, based on that description, I feel like its useful for me to go. There may a number of reasons why it’s useful to attend a meeting – the subject matter is relevant to my project, the person is useful to have face time with, and so on.

Sometimes, somebody else (your boss/the meeting organiser) might think it’s useful for you to attend but you can’t really understand why. In these situations, don’t keep quiet and hope it will all reveal itself in the meeting.  It’s always beneficial to check with the person who is asking you to go what they’re expecting you to bring out of that meeting and how they feel you might be able to contribute. It might be that through that conversation they also realise that you’re absolutely not needed, or you realise that there is something useful you’ll be getting out of it after all.

Is this a priority for me to be spending my time on right now?

So, if the meeting is deemed useful, the next question I ask is whether I need to be focusing on it right now. Just because something is useful doesn’t mean that its worth giving up 3 hours of your time this week for. 

The aim at the end of these questions is for you to have a clear idea about why you need to attend this meeting, or not.

Be thoughtful with your acceptance or declines and you’ll find your calendar to be a much healthier space because of it. 

How to accept an invite

So you’ve figured out that you do indeed want to accept a meeting invite. Well, it’s just as simple as pressing ‘Accept’ right? Well yes, sometimes that would be perfectly adequate but you’re here to excel at this meeting stuff so lets dive straight through to the gold-level.

Here are some examples of different ways I’ve accepted invites, depending on what I want to get out of it:

If you want to make an impression

Sometimes in your career, you need to go a little extra to make yourself shine. If you’re invited to a meeting by someone who you’re looking to connect more with or impress, grab that opportunity! Some examples:

Thanks for sending this through – I’m looking forward to having the chance to discuss [WHATEVER] with you in person. 

Thanks for the workshop invite – Let me know if I can help you set up, I have some free time beforehand.

If you want to piggyback

Sometimes, a glowing opportunity comes up for you to progress your career development. For example, your senior designer has invited you to a workshop and it’s one of your career objectives to actually help facilitate a workshop. So, example:

Thanks for the invite! If you need an extra pair of hands, let me know! Its one of my career objectives this year to get better at creative facilitation so if there is anything I can help you with, I’d be really up for it. It could be as simple as sitting in a planning session with you or even keeping time on the day. Let me know!

If you need to get more information

Sometimes you’re invited to a meeting or workshop where it really pays to be prepared. Maybe there’ll be important stakeholders in the room, or you have a tight deadline to turn something around to a client and this is the key meeting for your team to deliver. You may need some more information from the meeting organiser, so be proactive at asking for what you need and don’t just assume it’ll be covered elsewhere:

Thank you for this. It would be really useful for me to get some additional info before coming to this meeting so I’m fully prepared: [BULLET POINT YOUR QUESTIONS HERE.] Thanks so much!

How to decline an invite

On the flip side, sometimes you’ll know that the meeting you’ve been invited to is not for you. Congratulations on reclaiming back some of your time! But now you’ve got to refuse the invitation. Sometimes, just pressing ‘Decline’ will be enough, especially if it’s in a situation where it’s not a personal invitation.

But in some situations you might need to be a bit more delicate. In my experience, keeping it short and to the point works way better than anything too long or grovelling. Here are some ideas:

For when you can’t go but secretly happy that you can’t make it

Thank you for this. Unfortunately I won’t be able to attend as I’ve [got a prior work commitment / have a meeting that I’m unable to move]. (OPTIONAL – Let me know if there’s anything you’d like to catch up on this beforehand or afterwards). Best,

When you actually wish you could go but you can’t

Thank you for this. Unfortunately I won’t be able to attend as I’ve [got a prior work commitment / have a meeting that I’m unable to move], but I’m really keen to [ find out more about this / follow up with you / get involved ] outside of the meeting. Can we get together [before / after ] to chat? Best,

Showing up at the meeting

So you know the meeting is valuable, you’ve accepted the invite, and now the meeting is here!

Come with your undivided attention

It’s a problem as old as time (or at least as old as the portable computer). We’ve all witnessed it, and we’ve likely all even participated in it.

The problem is when people turn up to a meeting, laptops or phones in hand, and then spend the entire meeting immersed in their device, rather than giving the meeting their full attention. This problem is made even worse when you are the person presenting – you are fully aware that not everyone is properly listening and it can feel quite disrespectful to the time and effort you’re putting in to presenting to the room.

Although everyone is busy and has lots of things to do, I believe we’d have more productive and respectful meetings if everyone brought their attention to the room. If you’re that busy on something else that absolutely can’t wait, I’d suggest its so important that you wouldn’t want to disrespect that work either by splitting your attention. 

It can also be tempting to look around the room and see everyone else on their phones/laptops and think to yourself “Well everyone else is doing it, why not me too?” or “Wow everyone else look so busy, I don’t want to look like I’m sitting here doing nothing!“. Please please resist these urges! 

Finally, you might be using your laptop/phone to take meeting notes. I always appreciate this being stated at the start of the meeting so people know you are paying attention. I also think your attentive body language when actively listening while taking notes says a lot to the presenter, compared to the disinterested body language of someone who’s multi-tasking.

Or, if it’s not useful, leave

Okay, its all very well me saying come with your full attention, but what if the meeting isn’t actually useful? I’ve definitely sat through many a meeting where I’ve realised there’s no need for me to be in it.

Especially in my polite English culture, there’s something very scary about leaving a meeting in the middle. But there are ways to do it – if the meeting is rather large, it can be easy to slip out. If the meeting is smaller, I’ve seen people politely say something along the lines of “Sorry, I’ve realised this I’m not adding any value here right now” or “Sorry, this is less relevant to what I’m working on than I realised!”. 

Speaking up in larger meetings

It can be incredibly daunting to be faced with a large room. Particularly if the other attendees are more senior than you / longer tenured at the company / or just plain intimidating with their huge intellects and extremely confident opinions.

It’s important to remember that these are normal human emotions. And with everything, as you gain practice and experience, it will get easier. 

One strategy is to start small. Ask a question. Or if you agree with someone’s point that they’ve already made, make a follow-up point in support of them.

If you’re wanting to make your own point, Jamie Parkins, Senior Product Manager at JustGiving has some great advice:

Decide on ONE thing or point you want to say or make and in advance, perfect the delivery of that point (however small). Nail that one point. No ambiguity. It’s important when lacking confidence you believe the thing you want to say 100%. Be bullet proof. 

Jamie Parkins

Taking good notes

Recording information discussed in a meeting is really useful. Here are some strategies I use to manage my meeting notes:

  • Keep notes brief, to bullet points
  • Anything that I note down that will need a follow-up on, I circle (if in my notebook) or highlight (if on my laptop), so I can easily see actions at the end
  • Use coworker initials instead of full names for faster capture
  • I use Evernote to keep a central repository for notes. I have folders for various projects/meeting types where I store notes, so that everything is easily accessible and findable. If I have handwritten important notes, I’ll type them up in Evernote afterwards.
  • Take photos to capture visually! If people have used whiteboards, post-its or similar to work in the meeting, I make sure to take a picture of these outputs on my phone at the end and attach them to the relevant Evernote. I’ve also been known to take pics during people’s Keynote presentations rather than needing to take the actual notes myself.

Next time, I’ll be sharing some strategies for organising meetings. Please comment if you have any questions about this post, or to ask questions in preparation for the next!

Design lead, watermelon addict, Leuchtterm notebook obsessive. I just enjoy designing great experiences for people that just work, writing about my craft and connecting with designers everywhere. Find me on Instagram, Twitter and Google+.

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