How to Make Meetings Work

Take a look at your diary. How much time in the last month was taken up in meetings? If you are anything like me, the answer is almost certainly ‘far too much’. We all know that communication is important, and we can’t work in a vacuum. So why are so many meetings apparently unproductive, and what can we do about it?

For people working in international trade, the question is even more pertinent. The issues of distance and time zones often mean that participating in meetings is even more of an encroachment into our busy day.

So here are some simple rules to live by, in order to make meetings work for everyone:

Plan Ahead

If you are calling the meeting, get the preparation done effectively. You should know exactly what the meeting is for, and what you expect to achieve. If you don’t, ask yourself honestly if the meeting is needed at all. Think about the agenda, who needs to be there, and who should be leading the discussion on the key points. Brief key people in advance and tell them what you want from them. Distribute the agenda well ahead of the meeting.

Try including a timetable on the agenda. Give fixed amounts of time for each item. This can highlight what the priorities are, and also allows people to save time by only attending for the items that actually affect them. Encourage participants to come and go from the meeting if there are likely to be long discussions that won’t concern them.


Choose the venue carefully, as it will make a very big difference to the outcome. We don’t have to meet in stuffy office rooms all the time.  A change of venue might even inspire a change of attitude and thinking. If a meeting needs to be short and sweet, take a leaf from businesses such as ASDA, and hold it in a room without chairs, or even in the office lobby.


The time of day chosen will have a major impact on how the meeting goes. Take notice of what works best and stick to it. If the meeting has to be a long one, consider comfort and provide refreshments and breaks.


Everyone who is at the meeting should have a genuine reason to be there. For some if may be for information, so they may not need to speak. But avoid including people out of habit or because they are part of the gang.

Does Everyone Understand?

This is a crucial consideration for international meetings. Does everyone speak the language of the meeting well enough to cope? Participating in a meeting in a language that is not one’s mother tongue can be one of the most challenging tasks. Take steps to ensure that everyone is getting the same message. Techniques like repeating what someone has said and summarising frequently can help. Take steps to manage the pace of the meeting, and never allow people to talk over each other.


Know in advance who is most affected by each item, and ensure they get a chance to speak. Have a discreet note of names against each item, and if a key individual has been silent, ask them directly what they think. It’s surprising how many people will suffer in silence during a meeting and only raise their objections later.

Never tolerate excessive negativity. If anyone has a grievance it’s right for it to be aired, but don’t allow personal attacks. Keep the mood of the meeting positive and focused, especially if the content is controversial or unpopular. Close down aggressive behaviour and ensure that everyone feels confident to speak honestly.

Follow up

Meetings can be a total waste of time if the agreed actions are not undertaken. Take a note of the key action points, keeping it as brief as possible, and summarise what is to be done, who is going to do it, and when it is expected to be done. Note the action dates and take action to ensure the agreed outcomes are met. Don’t wait until the next meeting to review the progress!


Always ask yourself if the meeting was worth it. What did it actually achieve? Could it have been done differently? Ask other participants what they thought, and seek out suggestions for improvement. There’s a thin line between have too many meetings and too few, and getting it wrong always has a cost. When attending meetings organised by someone else, remember to compare them. What did they do differently? Was it better or worse?

Article written by Tim Hiscock - Associate of Strong & Herd LLP

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