5 Ways to Make the Most of Meetings

May 1, 2015, 12:30 PM UTC
Business sketch on black wall
Business hand drawn sketch on black wall
Photograph by Sergey Nivens — iStockphoto

Dreading your next meeting? You’re not alone. By some estimates, 11 million meetings occur in the U.S. each day, and workers spend at least six hours per week in them, according to the MIT Sloan Management Review. Unfortunately, participants say about 50% of meetings are ineffective and unnecessary.

Rather than avoiding them altogether, organizers can find ways to cut down on the negative feelings associated with meeting overload, say experts. Much of the time it’s about setting goals and following up to make sure those goals are met. “The real issue is inefficiency—I call it ‘death by meetings,’” says Caroline Dowd-Higgins, a career and executive coach in Bloomington, Ind., and director of professional development at Indiana University Alumni Association.

We look here at five common objections to meetings and how to take your next gathering above and beyond.

1. “I could get real work done if I didn’t have to attend this meeting.”

Organizers can send invitees three meeting goals to set the agenda in advance and keep meetings short, says Evan Thompson, a Toronto-based executive coach
in the financial services industry. Include “a short intro talking about why the meeting is important to the team,” he says, adding that invitees should be encouraged to make their own decisions about
whether to attend. To keep meetings shorter, suggest a walking meeting, which is on average 34% shorter than a sit-down one, according to research from the University of Missouri.

2. “This meeting is bogus. Decisions have already been made or will be made later by someone else.”

Participants need a sense of autonomy and acknowledgement during meetings to feel like they can actually make a difference. Allowing participants to speak up at least once during the discussion is key, says Dowd-Higgins. Additionally, rather than lead each meeting, Dowd-Higgins sometimes asks her staff to take turns organizing and leading a meeting. Giving participants the opportunity to lead helps them feel more invested in the outcome. “Employees feel empowered when they are seen and heard,” says Dowd-Higgins.

3. “There’s no real purpose for this meeting—nothing concrete will come of it.”

To avoid having attendees walk away uninspired, says career consultant Brenda Stoltz, put results of the meeting in writing. “Have an outcome document which shows what was decided or actions to be taken,” says Stoltz, who is based in Leesburg, Va. Include an estimated deadline, and document those responsible for carrying out initiatives. Store the information virtually by using a smartphone app such as Meeting Minutes Pro, which allows users to organize meetings and keep track of results without a slew of follow-up emails to participants.

4. “Everyone else at this meeting is distracted by phones, side conversations and doing other work on their laptop.”

While some meetings require the use of projectors or laptops, there are plenty of instances when going analog is key. To avoid distraction, Dowd-Higgins sometimes passes around a plastic bin or box before the meetings so attendees can safely store electronics. “It democratizes the meeting and levels the playing field,” she says. “Making it very low-tech means people actually need to speak to each other.” Additionally, participants are encouraged to bring notebooks and take notes—even doodling is thought to spark creativity and encourage memory formation, according to researchers at University of Plymouth in England.

5. “This meeting totally interrupted my flow with the work I was doing in my office.”

Rather than interrupting times of the day when workers are thought to be most productive, schedule meetings at times they’re most unlikely to sit still. Behavioral scientist Dan Ariely recommends, for example, doing the toughest tasks during the first two hours of work. Afternoons tend to be when most office workers are at their least productive, so scheduling a meeting during that post-lunch slump can help use everyone’s time more wisely. If you must disrupt flow during a productive period, take a few minutes before the meeting to jot down notes about what you were doing so “you can pick it up more quickly when you return,” says Stoltz.

Alina Dizik is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in numerous business outlets.

This story appeared in the May 1, 2015 issue of Fortune.