Dear Meeting Guru,

We're having a professional association annual planning meeting tomorrow night. At least 24 volunteers have committed to attend. We have newly elected officers that will be providing direction/leadership for the upcoming year. How do we manage the opinions and thoughts of 24 volunteers in such a way as to make the most of the time together and have everyone feel that they spent their time wisely? The meeting will be held in a hotel function room. Logistically, easels will be available as well as some type of buffet food. The meeting will run from 6–9:00 PM.


Blessed Meeter,

When meeting with a large group of people, there are many challenges to deal with. Especially the type of participatory meeting you're organizing, in which you'd like everyone to have an opportunity to provide input. Below you'll find some recommended tips to follow for the type of meeting you're planning.

The first few minutes of the meeting should be spent on introductions. This will help create a friendly environment in which your volunteers will feel comfortable contributing. Getting each individual to introduce himself in front of the group will act as a warm-up for the discussion ahead. It's also a good idea to provide a quick overview of the meeting's agenda. This will help provide focus for the meeting and lets everyone know exactly what's planned.

If you or the newly elected officers have any information to share with the volunteers, now is the time to do it! It's early in the meeting and most people will feel alert and ready to listen. Having the presentations early in the meeting also provides the background information necessary for the smaller breakout sessions that will happen later in the meeting.

Next, divide the meeting participants into small groups of six or eight people each. Assign one discussion leader and one easel to each group. The discussion leader will be responsible for guiding the discussion and recording all ideas on the easel. Spend 30–60 minutes in these break-out groups brainstorming ideas and getting input from all the volunteers. To get the discussion started, the group leaders should write thought-provoking sentences on the easels related to the ideas on which they'd like the group to expand. It's easier for the group leaders if the brain-tweaking sentences are created before the meeting, when there's more time to contemplate which questions might pull the right kinds of information from the volunteers.

Now might be an appropriate time for a break. After an intense brainstorming session, the participants are probably ready for some food! It's generally recommended to have 15-minute breaks for each hour of meeting time.

After the break, the leader of each group should present a summary of the thoughts and ideas his group generated. When each leader has presented, the best ideas from each group can be narrowed down and voted on, if necessary. Any action items or plans should be assigned at this time. This way, everyone leaves the meeting with a clear understanding of who's responsible for what.

When you need input or ideas from a large number of participants, it's always best to divide the participants into smaller work groups. Not only will this help make managing the information and discussion easier, it also reduces the formality created from a meeting with many participants. And, when the situation is less formal, individuals are less likely to keep their great ideas to themselves. Having the smaller break-out sessions will help the group make the most of the time together and everyone will feel that their time was spent wisely.

I hope this information will help make your meeting more effective. As Confucius once said, "I hear and I forget. I see and I believe. I do and I understand." In other words, you will understand by doing. Use my suggestions, but build on them each time your group meets. After each meeting, evaluate what worked well and what didn't. Then implement these lessons learned in your next meeting. Doing this each and every time your group meets will allow you to have truly effective meetings over time.

Until next time… may good meeting karma always be with you.



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