According to humorist Robert Orben, the two biggest problems in life seem to be making ends meet and making meetings end. Often the concept of having a meeting means "open discussion on several issues." Sometimes those who need to build consensus on decisions do so by letting every meeting become an information free-for-all. That's not to say that we should become dictators or simply a live narrator of events at the weekly staff meeting. But it is to say that all meetings are not created equal.

So it's up to the meeting leader to give a meeting far more forethought and focus to accomplish objectives in an efficient manner. There are two basic planning steps to accomplish what you intend in meetings: setting five-part agendas and planning efficient methods from the variety of choices to exchange information.

Setting Five-Part Agendas
First, the agenda. With each agenda item, try to include five things:
1. the topic stated in question form
2. the person responsible for leading the discussion
3. the information relative to the issue
4. the time allotted for that issue
5. the action/reason/purpose of the exchange

For example, an agenda item might be listed as such:
"Should we exhibit at the IBAG trade show in May?" / Joanne / Statistics on Last Year / 10 min. / For Decision."

A second agenda item might be listed as:
"What should we include in our proposal for the FAA project?" / Mark / Analysis of Strengths & Weaknesses on Prior Proposals / 20 min. / Brainstorming for Content."

A third agenda topic might be listed this way:
"How many leads did we generate from the Harcourt mailing?" / Carole / Lead Generation Analysis / 5 min. / For Information Only."

You'll be surprised how smoothly that 10-minute discussion will move once you have a specifically focused issue, have the pertinent information at hand and let group members know whether they're to make a decision or simply toss out the pros and cons for someone else to sort through.

Planning Efficient Information Exchanges
Second, consider the variety of ways to exchange information. Rarely does everything on the agenda deserve equal time and effort. Your role as a meeting facilitator dictates that you give forethought to efficient ways to exchange information so that it's most usable to the right people – without wasting everyone's time on subjects of little interest or value.

Here are a few suggestions for evaluating interest, exchanging information and coming to decisions:
Could you survey by show of hands (or member names or numbers written on a card for the purpose of the meeting) and simply count and report the results?
Could you survey by show of hands/names/numbers and then ask meeting participants to note the responses and make arrangements to seek one another out for later private discussions or information sharing?
Could you pose a question and have participants respond electronically or in hard copy? Collect the ideas, report them, piggyback them or eliminate the less-often-mentioned ideas?
Could you pose an issue, state the "apparent" opinion/position, and then ask those who have an "exceptional" situation/position/opinion to speak up about those exceptions or objections?
Could you post agree/disagree statements on the wall, pose a question/issue and then ask meeting participants to stand beside their response? Have each of the two groups quickly generate a list of reasons for that opinion. Then call on one speaker from each side to succinctly present its list of supporting reasons.

And how many times has your meeting group debated an issue without having the pertinent facts at hand to come to a decision? Anticipate such situations and set up the exchange of information to be followed by a panel of experts/representatives who can provide necessary information at the START of the discussion rather than after the fact.

Although there are several other methods to focus efficient discussion and come to decisions, these few will save innumerable minutes of rambling.

Before the next meeting starts to wander off-track, remind yourself as of the two most important preventative measures: five-part agenda and the properly selected method of information exchange.

About Dianna Booher
Author/speaker Dianna Booher is CEO of Booher Consultants, a Dallas-based communications firm. Her programs include communication (writing, oral presentations, interpersonal, customer service communications, gender, listening, meetings, conflict) and life balance/productivity. She has published 39 books, including E-Writing: 21st-Century Tools for Effective Communication (Pocket Books), Communicate with Confidence! (McGraw-Hill) and The Worth of a Woman's Words (Nelson-Word). Several have been major book club selections. To find out more, call 817.868.1200 or visit her Web site at www.booher.com.

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