Boring! That’s the complaint that tops the list when people talk about meetings. American businesses hold 11 million meetings a year and attendees agree that more than 50% of that time is wasted. Most regular meeting attendees admit to daydreaming (91%), missing meetings (96%), arriving late or leaving early (95%), bringing other work with them (73%) or dozing off (39%). Focusing and maintaining your audience’s attention is the challenge of meeting planners the world over. It takes a little extra time and effort to plan a meeting that will hold your audience’s attention from start to finish.
To head off complaints and ensure maximum productivity, consider these important issues in planning a meeting:
Timing is everything. Don’t plan a meeting for Monday morning when people are trying to get their head in the game, schedule their week and answer their emails. Avoid right after lunch when people sink into nap mode. And forget about holding a meeting on Friday afternoon when everyone wants to get out the door for the weekend.
Invite the right people. Invite the people who will most benefit, those who can make real contributions and those with the power to make decisions. Send a meeting summary to other interested parties. Research indicates that 5 to 9 participants is the optimal number for productive discussion and decision-making. Break larger groups into small work groups after the initial introduction.
Set a specific goal. Meetings are more apt to stay on track when participants know exactly why the meeting has been scheduled and the specific goal to be accomplished. Decide why you’re getting together. Is it to share information, brainstorm or make a decision? Send participants an agenda prior to the meeting so they arrive prepared.
Stay on track. People lose interest when a meeting veers off-track. Stick to your agenda and meeting timeline. Changing presentation media or tactics periodically will help meeting participants refocus on the agenda. Keep a running list of off-task ideas or questions in a “parking lot” so you can continue with the agenda without losing useful ideas that can be addressed later.
When people communicate, they gain 10% of the meaning from words, 20% from delivery style and 70% from non-verbal cues and body language. The presenter and presentation are more important than the actual words in getting your message across. And in our harried, multi-tasking world, attention span isn’t what it used to be. These factors are particularly significant given the growing number of businesses who are using teleconferencing and videoconferencing to mitigate increasing travel costs and narrowing employee time constraints. Meeting planners can take a tip from television which uses the formula: tighten, dazzle and flow to rivet audience attention.
? Tighten. Tighten the focus of the meeting by setting just one or two goals. Tighten your delivery with preparation and practice. Tighten control of the meeting environment by optimizing room temperature, ventilation and lighting. In a recent poll, poor speaking skills (monotone voice, repetition, over-gesturing and buzzword overuse), lack of direction and physical discomfort were most cited as causes for loss of concentration during meetings.
? Dazzle. Be enthusiastic and share your passion or belief in the task or goal. Enthusiasm is contagious and engages the attention of participants. Use the tactics listed below to keep the meeting fresh and interesting. Wake people up by doing the unexpected: Meet in a restaurant instead of the conference room, play a game, switch visual media, solicit audience participation, etc.
? Flow. Maintain continuity by sticking to your agenda and time frame.
To keep meeting participants energized and engaged, try these 10 tips for holding your audience’s attention during a meeting:
1. Use humor. Tell a joke, funny story or personal experience related to the meeting topic. Or open your presentation with an amusing slide, famous quote or cartoon. Dilbert is great for poking fun at meetings and corporate life.
2. Offer refreshments. Cool, refreshing beverages – ice water, juice, soda, iced tea – and easy-to-eat salty or savory snacks can help participants stay alert.
3. Busy hands. Place small jigsaw puzzles, mini Lego kits or tiny cans of Playdough in front of each participant. Some people think and concentrate better when they have something to do with their hands. Invite those who care to “to play” while they work.
4. Pose a question. Ask a question early in the meeting, but tell participants you don’t want an answer until the end. To encourage active listening, offer a small prize (quarters for the vending machine or a Starbucks coupon) for the first correct answer.
5. Engage participants. Encourage and solicit the views and discussion of all participants. Use eye contact to draw people in. Toss a Nerf ball around the room. The person who catches the ball must offer a comment or suggestion before tossing it to another participant. Have participants show agreement or disagreement by holding thumbs-up or thumbs-down.
6. Get personal. Credit meeting participant’s when facts, statistics and ideas are presented. Encourage participants to share ownership of the meeting by offering details of their involvement or accomplishments.
7. Show and tell. Use visuals to get your point across. Wake things up with a hands-on demonstration or PowerPoint graphics. Use a variety of visual tactics to keep things fresh.
8. Unlock the mystery. Abstract concepts and statistics can cause people’s eyes to glaze over. Provide an understandable comparison or explain the real world implication. When possible, relate the numbers to the participants’ personal lives.
9. Shake things up. Pop a Q&A or brainstorming session into the middle of a discussion. Do some role-playing to revitalize attention. Solicit alternative perspectives and stimulate creative thinking by passing out sheets of paper on which each participant writes a problem or concern. Papers are passed to the right where the recipient has 60 seconds to write down his first thought about the problem. Continue to pass the papers every 60 seconds until each person gets his own sheet back. Invite the group to share and discuss responses.
10. Snappy ending. Keep the end of the meeting from getting bogged down in repetitive comments and summary. Give each participant a blown-up balloon. If he feels someone is winding on too long, he can pop his balloon to “stop the hot air.”