As Democrats, we love meetings. The tussle over competing ideas for a big fundraiser. The crispness of an agenda sliding off a freshly printed stack. The absolute glory of Robert’s Rules of Order….
Ok, so we don’t all love meetings. But maybe we could? Maybe we could at least like them!
In this blog we’ll suggest some simple ways to elevate dreadful meetings to tolerable. We’ll take infuriating meetings and make them effective. We’ll take the worst meetings you’ve ever experienced and make them moderately less horrible.
These pro tips can help you with any meeting － from a small sub-committee meeting with three people to a monthly business meeting with huge turnout.
Are you ready? Grab your legal pad and let’s go!
Know what you’re doing
Imagine for a moment that you’ve been given two big responsibilities. The goal of the first: plan a birthday party for your best friend Kelly. The goal of the second: eradicate mosquito-transmitted disease on the African continent. You’ve assembled a team for each － the members all love Kelly, and they all hate mosquitos.
Unfortunately, it probably doesn’t make much sense to combine these meetings. This is frustrating － you all love Kelly, you all hate mosquitos, and most importantly you personally would like to attend as few meetings as possible.
But not everybody needs to be involved in both meetings. As a local leader, you may be involved in planning numerous events and working with multiple committees, but everybody else does not need to be involved with every piece just because you are.
So do your best to limit the scope of each meeting to a small set of clear and achievable goals. Be mindful of the people who will be in attendance and limit diversions that won’t apply to them. Think carefully about what is best suited to a committee meeting, and what really needs to be covered at your regular party meetings.
Make an agenda
The best way to limit diversions and focus a meeting is to make an agenda. And by agenda, I don’t mean the Merriam-Webster definition:
a list or outline of things to be considered or done.
I mean the Harvard Business Review definition:
An effective agenda sets clear expectations for what needs to occur before and during a meeting. It helps team members prepare, allocates time wisely, quickly gets everyone on the same topic, and identifies when the discussion is complete.
In this spirit, we recommend following these guidelines every time you write an agenda.
- One person is responsible for the agenda － If you have an elected secretary, they will probably handle the agenda for the general membership or business meetings. Every committee, sub-committee, and working group should designate one person to create the agenda for each meeting.
- Label each agenda item in one of three ways:
- Report/Update － when someone will provide an update on a certain project or committee, but no discussion is expected.
- Discussion － when you intend to have a discussion.
- Decision/Action － when you want to make a decision by the end of the meeting. Sometimes you’ll have a discussion about an issue and take action on an issue at the same meeting － we recommend listing the discussion and action as separate agenda items.
- Every agenda item should have one owner － they’re responsible for preparing anything necessary for that part of the meeting and leading the discussion.
- Every agenda item should have a realistic timing － timings help you avoid overstuffing your agenda. It also will help you keep people on track during the meeting.
Keep track and keep time
You’ve got the agenda made, you’ve sent it out to all of the attendees (at least a few days in advance!), and you can’t wait to get nestled into a folding chair and get stuff done.
Before you get ahead of yourself, make sure you have somebody prepared to take notes and somebody prepared to keep time.
Your note taker should write down the points made during discussion (including who made them) and the outcomes of any decisions or action items. They should also take note of any tasks that are assigned, who is responsible for them, and how they’ll follow up once the task is done.
Then, have your timekeeper provide reminders about how much time is left for each agenda item to keep everybody on track.
If you feel you need more time for an item on your agenda, get democratic and put it to a vote! A few minutes extra on each agenda item can add up fast. Acknowledge how much more time you think you’ll need, and how that will impact your schedule:
“I move to extend our discussion on what flavor of cake to get for Kelly’s birthday by 10 minutes, changing our end time from 7:30 to 7:40.”
Rules of engagement
An effective meeting starts with effective norms. Most of us follow some norms without even thinking about it － like raising our hand to be recognized before we speak.
Setting additional norms can help everyone participate in a meaningful and effective way. You can add a few minutes to your agenda to explain these norms at the beginning of each meeting so everyone is on the same page. Some of our favorite norms are:
- Step up, step back － We’ll ask folks who tend to do a lot of talking during a meeting to be mindful of how much they’re speaking and “step back” and give others a chance to speak before adding their own comments. We’ll also encourage folks who tend to do less talking to “step up” to add their ideas to the conversation.
- One conversation － To respect one another and stay focused, we’ll avoid side conversations － even brief ones.
- Agreement takes 2 words － If I agree with someone, I only need to say “I agree.” Snaps work, too.
If part of your agenda is reserved for an open floor where anyone can speak, you can also set norms for how long each person has and what kind of announcements are appropriate.
Jazz it Up
Sometimes you need to give folks a reason to attend a meeting that would otherwise be very dull. There are three basic ways you add a little pizazz:
- Food － and we know we don’t need to explain this one. This is especially effective for long committee meetings.
- Add an enticing speaker － invite a speaker or presenter of interest to your business meeting － like a candidate, elected official, or representative from another organization with a shared vision. You can also schedule this right before or after the meeting so folks who are not involved in the business can choose to show up for the part that matters to them.
- Get social － My local party takes “jazzing it up” pretty literally － we actually head to the local jazz club after many of our monthly business meetings. This gives party members a way to get to know each other better and gives folks who are uninterested in the meeting a way to connect with local Democrats. If jazz isn’t your thing, any kind of social activity will do － even a potluck!
Learn to say no
You might find that it’s hard to keep your agendas on track because there’s just too much to cover. So here’s our last piece of advice: learn to say no… without saying no.
“I actually think we’d accomplish more talking about that in our communications committee meeting than in our general membership meeting.”
“I don’t think there’s time in the agenda for you to give your stump speech, but I’d love to create space for people to talk to you and other candidates once the meeting has adjourned! Can you bring some lit?”
“It sounds like you’ve got a great idea. Why don’t you put all of your ideas together in a formal proposal to present at next month’s meeting?”
“I’m glad you brought that point up, but that topic isn’t on our agenda today. Let’s put it in the parking lot and come back to it at our next meeting.”
When creating an agenda or running a meeting, your job is to make sure that everyone’s time is used effectively. Saying “no” should never be about shutting people down － it’s about respecting people’s time and addressing every issue in an appropriate and constructive way.
Meetings don’t have to be miserable
With just a little bit of preparation and care they can － and should － be tolerable at a minimum.