Better Meetings. 11th July 2008
November 4, 2008

You never get a second chance to make a first impression. A great deal depends on the opening minutes of a meeting. If a meeting gets off to bad start, then it may not recover its momentum.

There is now an industry based on organizing and hosting meetings and making sure that they are successful. After all, many of us seem to spend increasing amounts of time going to conferences, attending committee meetings and being at ad hoc gatherings and so we don’t want to waste our time.

Brian Cole Miller is a management consultant based in the United States and he has written a very interesting book on how to make meetings more effective by improving the tone of the opening first few minutes: “Quick Meeting Openers for Busy Managers” (Sydney: McGraw-Hill, 2008).

“Meeting openers” are not usually connected to the topic of the meeting but rather serve as a vehicle for getting people to open up and feel comfortable with each before getting to the actual meeting agenda. This is especially helpful when group members don’t know each other very well, or there are one or more cliques in the group, or the subject will be particularly demanding.

All the 50-plus activities described in the book are quick and easy. They all require few if any resources and so they not expensive to organize. Each suggestion has additional information such as “tips for success” and “try these variations” to ensure that the exercises will work well.

Here are just four examples. First “Champions” is an icebreaker activity in which participants introduce each other so that others see what strengths they have. This introduces participants to each other in a positive and upbeat way that emphasizes each participant’s value to the group. The participants are paired up, each participant interviews the other, then each participants has to “sell” the other person to the entire group on how great he or she is and on how he or she will contribute significantly to the meeting or the task at hand.

A (very American!) variation is “Bragging Rights” in which participants guess something about themselves that may give them bragging rights within the group. Participants are therefore asked to identify a particular skill or achievement which makes them better than the others, for example, the ability to speak several foreign languages or the number of foreign countries they may have visited or a particular sporting achievement. The other members of the group are then challenged to see if any person can beat that claim to greatness.

A third example (particularly for small groups) is “Quotes”, in which the participants provide their favourite quotations to the group. The exercise helps the group warm up as well as get to know each other better. The participants need to be told before the meeting to bring their favourite quotation, and then in the meeting the participants explain why it is their favourite quotation.

A final example is ‘That’s Life’ in which the participants take turns responding to two thought-provoking questions. The participants are paired up and then take turns in finishing the statements “Life is to short…” and “Life is too short not to…”

The book will be of great use in Australia. It has none of the tacky “Californian New Age” techniques: there are no “touchy-feely” exercise in which participants have to touch each other or share intimate thoughts and feelings, there are no outdoor activities and no role-plays. Instead the meeting openers are fun and hopefully will lead to more productive meetings.