CoolTimeLife Podcast: The 55-Minute Meeting

This blog comprises show notes for my CoolTimeLife podcast entitled The 55 Minute Meeting. It describes how to maximize the value of every meeting by focusing on some key human elements of physiology, focus, and influence.

What do you think is the most important ingredient for a successful meeting? I’ll give you a hint: it’s not the agenda. It’s not even the second most important item. On this episode, we’re going to talk about meetings.  Most specifically about a highly successful concept we have developed called the 55-minute meeting and how this can be a way to not only make your meetings more effective, but make them more pleasurable, too. This episode is packed with ideas and suggestions for making your meetings more successful, time efficient and even enjoyable.

Meetings are considered by many to be the single biggest time waster in the workday.

  • There are too many of them
  • Many are unnecessary
  • They don’t start on time or are held up due to late arrivals
  • They have unclear agendas
  • They go on for too long
  • The wrong people are invited
  • People introduce irrelevant topics
  • People “tune out” and do other work on their computers/tablets/phones
  • They conclude with vague ideas and unresolved issues.
  • They end late

These are all powerful disincentives to view a meeting as anything other than – at best – a vacation away from the desk, or at worst a stress-inducing delay added to an already overloaded day.

So if the Agenda is not the most important or even second most important item of a meeting, what fills these two top spots? And why isn’t the agenda most important? Well, let’s start with that.

A meeting must justify its existence. It must have a value that exceeds the sum of the individual hourly rates of the participants. It must have a bottom-line dollar value greater than all the things the invitees could otherwise be doing. A meeting must prove that it will advance the cause of a team or an organization in some way, or it should not occur at all.

So, whether you are looking to:

  • coordinate action
  • to exchange information
  • to motivate a team
  • discuss issues, ideas or problems
  • and/or to make a decision

…the meeting must achieve this in the shortest time possible. That’s the purpose of the agenda.

The first questions to ask should be these:

  1. Does this topic need the input or attention of other people?
  2. Does it seek to do one of the things I just described above?
  3. Is a meeting truly the best option? There are other alternatives.

If you have decided that it is essential to have a meeting, then its legitimacy has already been established. Creating an efficient agenda then supports the way in which these things will be discussed. So it is an important component of a successful meeting, but it is not the MOST important.

The most important element of a successful meeting is getting people to show up on time and to be engaged.  You do this by promising to keep the meeting as short and as interesting as possible, and then publicizing this fact. It has to focus not on the agenda on the motivations and concerns of the people involved and this includes managing the fear of the unknown.

We talk about fear quite a lot in the CoolTimeLife podcast series because humans are dominated by emotion, with the strongest emotion of all being fear. The fear of the unknown attaches itself to concepts like, “how long will this meeting last.” These types of uncertainties make people hesitant to prepare or participate. It makes them procrastinate to the point of arriving late or just dropping the meeting entirely.

The Solution: Bring up the facts to Meet the Fear

Give people something they can work with to overcome the fear of the unknown, and confidently move into a situation that they fee in control of, and that they can see an end to.

Our solution is something we call the 55 Minute Meeting. Its success comes from placing priority on three key concepts:

  1. The human attention span
  2. The fact that the meeting is finite
  3. There is a palatable gap of time – five minutes – between the end of the meeting and the start of the next hour.

1. The Human Attention Span

A good for dealing with people generally is that most adults can only stay tuned in for an hour before they need to move on to something else. So any meeting should never exceed an hour, if at all possible. A meeting should last only as long as is necessary, no longer. A meeting of 20 minutes can often achieve as much, if not more than a meeting of an hour.

So why a 55 minute meeting? Let’s go shopping to find out.

2. Take a Lesson from Retail Therapy

Imagine you have two competing stores in a mall, each selling the same item of clothing. One store sets the price at $20.00. The other store sets its price at $19.95. Who will sell out first? It will most likely be the cheaper store. Not because of a mere five-cent difference in price, but in the perception of a deal. It’s a whole “bracket” lower.

The same applies for larger items like a car. A car priced at $19,995 will sell more quickly than one priced at $20,000.

It gives people a sense of getting a deal, and it is what we want to put into the motivation principle behind successful meetings, including influencing people to show up on time. A meeting that starts at 1:00 and ends at 2:00 appears to step into two “hour blocks.” Even if id does end on time exactly at 2:00, it has pushed into the 2:00 hour block and becomes an emotional barrier.

But when a starts and ends within the same hour, such as from 1:00 to 1:55, it gives people a sense of a deal – there is a gap at the end of the hour. The meeting isn’t even an hour. It feels much more attractive.

This short time period encourages focus and engagement, again because it is both finite and short. This is something can and should be advertised in your meeting announcement. I use that word advertised specifically because that’s what you must do: entice people to arrive ready, prepared and at their best for the entire duration.

This should cut down substantially on late arrivals and disengaged or distracted attendees.

3. Keep It Finite

A 55-minute meeting can only cover a set number of items, realistically. It represents a finite duration and a hard stop that allows people to work toward a conclusion without letting the meeting itself drift on into extra time.

An ideal structure might look like this:

 

55-minute-meeting

It starts with five minutes for housekeeping, and concludes with five minutes for closure and action items/next steps.

The rest of the time depends on what the meeting is about – whether you have one, two, or three agenda items to discuss, or one single one in a brainstorming fashion.

What is your wireless policy?

Everyone has a wireless device with them. When they use them during a meeting, do you find that rude, or simply normal? How do others feel? It is worth finding out, since annoyance can become a major saboteur of productive meetings. There are options:

  • Old school – request that people turn everything off and face the meeting chairperson until the meeting is done. That might work, but it might not. Most people do not like being kept away from their devices.
  • An alternative would be to use a data break. This is basically a two-minute pause between agenda items that allows attendees to check their texts, emails and so forth. Although some people might feel that anyone should be able to survive an hour without checking in, the truth is, for most of us, that is not the case. The resulting tension from not being able to check emails results in distraction, and in some cases, outright mutiny. This is another example of managing people’s expectations by giving them what they need to feel comfortable. It allows pressure to be released during those periods where real focus and participation s required.

Hopefully, the majority of your meetings will be eventually replaced by collaborative online environments, but there will always be time when in-person interactions are beneficial. Just remember, every meeting must have four things going for it:

  • It must exceed the sum total of the per-hour value of the participants
  • It must result in a new development: an idea, a plan or knowledge level
  • It must conclude with a clear action item
  • It must be brief and clearly finite

A meeting is an example of strategic application of planning and influence. The task of getting people to the table and keeping them engaged and alert is dependent as much on your knowledge of human motivation as with the topic of the meeting itself.

The Power of Silence – the Six-Second Rule

Meeting should be about allowing people to bring forward their ideas, their contributions and their insight. This gives them an opportunity to contribute in a meaningful way. One of the biggest problems with meetings is the fear factor, this time in the form of silence. Many times during a meeting there is insufficient opportunity for people to speak up.

Often the chairperson gives only a second or so for people to react: “Are there any further questions? No? Then we’ll move on.”

To encourage great participation, and to add more depth and color to the meeting, remember to count silently to six after asking the “Any further questions?” question. This long pause gives people a chance to recognize that no one else is speaking, that they indeed do have a question, and that they have the opportunity to actually speak up. This always adds to the quality of the meeting, by adding their thoughts and ideas.

So, even though we live in an age of high speed in which we are bombarded by information from every corner, every second, silence can become a major contributor to the quality of a meeting.

HOWEVER –

The “any further questions?” question should never be asked during the last quarter of a meeting. So, in a 55-minute meeting this might be at the 40-minute mark. Why? Because when a question is asked at the very end of a meeting, remember, everyone wants to leave, and you promised that they could. When you ask your group for questions at the end of a meeting, you guarantee that the meeting will run over time and not only does this make the meeting run late, it jeopardizes your reputation as an excellent and trustworthy leader.

Not All Meetings Need Meeting Rooms

There are numerous alternatives to meetings:

  • Collaborative environments like Slack and Yammer, where people can talk back and forth just like texting on their phones.
  • You could deliver information by way of an infographic or a video.
  • You could have a telepresence virtual meeting using Skype, Zoom, or Webex Meetings, to enjoy the sense of face-to-face connection without the travel.
  • You could also move your meetings away from your office environment by having it in a local coffee shop, using the curtain of ambient noise from the customers around you.

The Physical Meeting Environment.

As I mention above, the agenda of a meeting is a moot point, once the it has been agreed that a meeting about a certain topic should happen. It doesn’t mean you don’t need an agenda, only that the agenda should by now have already been decided upon.

So, the primary priority is the duration, 55 minutes or less.

The second-most important priority is the meeting environment itself. A meeting room should be considered to be an equal member – another invitee.

The room often gets overlooked by people who are simply looking for a convenient space. But when you think about it, a bunch of people in a room, the need creature comforts in order to survive and thrive. Is it physically comfortable? Is it warm enough yet cool enough? Is there good air circulation? Is there natural light – essential for maintaining energy and focus.

By contrast, a meeting held in a windowless room in the middle of the afternoon, you are depriving people  of the light stimulation at precisely the worst time of day.  So, look for a room that has:

  • Air – good air and if possible, windows that open
  • Large windows with a southern exposure with plenty of natural light
  • Quiet HVAC
  • Climate controls for heat/cooling
  • No distracting ambient noise or noise bleed from adjoining rooms
  • Comfortable furniture that does not squeak.
  • Good healthy food – especially protein-generous snacks

Anytime you can hold out and find the idea meeting room with as many of these items as possible, you provide an idea environment or focus, concentration and engagement.

The Exercise Break

For long meetings, especially those in the afternoon, consider adding a low-impact exercise to the meeting agenda. This could include stretches or even deep knee bends. These should not need to break a sweat and should be designed to consider people who are alternately abled, or who might have chronic pain conditions – but the objective is to invite everyone to use their muscles to move blood and oxygen around the body.

You can also encourage people to get up and walk around while the meeting is going on.

The Bottom Line

The most successful meeting strategy of all is the one that makes people want to show up and want to participate. That’s how you invest in a high-quality meeting.

This is the transcript of the CoolTimeLife podcast entitled The 55 Minute Meeting. If you would like to listen to it, you can check it out at our podcast site here. If you would like to review other podcasts in this series, visit my podcast page at steveprentice.com/podcast.html

If you feel you derived value from this blog or the adjoining podcast, please consider supporting our work by sending a small donation of $1.00, $2.00 or $5.00. It helps us give more time to research and prepare the episodes. The secure PayPal link is available on the podcast page at steveprentice.com/podcast.html.

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