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A little cheat sheet for your next meeting

A little cheat sheet to hand out to your team to make presentations more effective.

We all spend so much time in meetings.
And so little time thinking about how to make the best use of this time.

Here’s an attempt at it:

I hope you find it useful.
Feel free to share, print it out, or hang it as a poster in your office.

What would you add?

PS: Here’s a PDF of the meeting cheat sheet.

5 minutes

That’s how long I wait.

After that I’ll leave the call and write a note asking if anything got in their way.

I always give a second chance. But not a third.

Fortunately, that rule is rarely needed.

How do you handle late comers and no-shows?

“You can’t be serious!”

“You can’t be serious!”

I’m pretty sure that this thought has crossed your mind more than once in meetings when someone you considered smart supported a (seemingly) nonsensical take.

Or when someone made an insane statement that seemed to contradict everything you consider common sense.

When this happens, instead of asking what’s wrong with them, I suggest to ask “What’s going on?”. For example, that person might
→ want to be seen by someone in the meeting.
→ want to belong to a certain (sub)group.
→ feel the need to negotiate their status with someone.

Things like that are sometimes not obvious if you’re deep down in the factual argument. But opening your eyes for it can help make sense of their take.

Once you see it, you’ll recognize that more rational arguments from your side won’t change their mind, if only because their take is not about logic at all (to be fair, it could be totally subconscious).

You’ll much rather need to find words that address the actual game they’re playing.

Which might mean asking more questions (as opposed to providing more facts). Or it might mean to ignore their take and turn your attention to the person that’s influencing the “irrational” take.

How do you handle seemingly irrational behavior in meetings?

Let’s try doings

Meetings can be a living nightmare.
Let’s try “doings” instead. What’s the difference?

Meetings have an agenda, doings a goal.

Meetings cover topics, doings aim for results.

In a meeting, you talk about things.
In a doing, you do things.

To be sure, getting to results can involve lots of talking.
But it’s not about the talking.

Too often, we meet just for the talking.
Ending up with lots of, well, talk but no result.

But where will the talking lead you?
Asking that question is a powerful shift already.

You don’t meet to talk.
You talk to make progress.

Often, when a meeting is over, the work starts.
But when a doing is over, the work is done (ideally, at least).

Here’s a simple recipe:

  1. There’s an issue. (For example, a decision needs to be made. A plan needs to be made. A conflict has emerged and you seek alignment.)
  2. No issue, no gathering.
  3. You agree on what exactly you want to do in the meeting.
  4. You gather in a room.
  5. You do what you said you’d do.

Even if the result is merely a plan, if that’s what you agreed upon as the goal of gathering in a room, then that’s much more than the open-endedness of many meetings that simply end because time’s up.

Getting people together, whether in a meeting room or online, to work on solving problems is great. The problem is when it’s just for the sake of it.

How do you deal with meeting madness?

PS: Don’t get me wrong. There’s tremendous value in “merely” meeting for the sake of it, but there might be better places than a meeting room.

Meeting madness

This meeting could have been a memo.
Unfortunately, no one reads memos.
So it had to be a meeting.


The best way to get rid of unproductive meetings is to create an environment where they are not needed.

Can’t quite put my finger on it

Recently, in the mind of some random person: “It’s… odd. I just had two meetings, back to back, and they’ve left me feeling so different, and I’m not quite sure why. The first one had it all – flashy presentation, persuasive arguments, all the right words. It was like a well-rehearsed play, everything in its perfect place. I felt… well, I felt impressed.

“But then there was the second one. It wasn’t as… shiny? We chatted, we laughed. They seemed genuinely curious about what I had to say, which was a pleasant surprise. There wasn’t this rush to get me to agree or nod my head, just this… space. A space for thoughts, feelings… connection?

“I don’t know how to put it. With the first, I felt like I was on a fast-moving train, being shown the sights outside the window. But with the second, it was like a leisurely walk in a park, noticing things together. It’s strange, isn’t it? Both paths led to the same destination, but one journey just felt… richer? Warmer? I can’t quite put my finger on it, but there’s something about that second meeting that lingers with me.”

The impressive performance in the first meeting can be bought with time and money. Hire a good agency, practice, and you’re there.

The second meeting requires empathy and genuine interest, things that can’t be bought.

What was being said?

It never ceases to amaze me how much time people spend in meetings without writing anything down.

Which leads to time being wasted with repetitive statements and arguments about what was actually being said, let alone: being meant.

Writing things down forces us to become focused and specific.

It streamlines the discussions when everyone can see what was already mentioned. It removes vagueness in the statements when we can challenge a specific wording. And it commits everyone to a written result as opposed to thoughts and feelings that are different in everyone’s memory.

The cool part of the story is that the same benefits apply when you’re having a meeting with just yourself.

“Can all of you see my brilliance?”

Status updates are supposed to quickly inform everyone about the status of a project.

Too often, though, these updates are much rather about the status of the people in the project and carry double meanings along the lines of “I’m not to blame for the delay.”, “This is my kingdom. Don’t you dare to invade it.”, “I’m smarter than her.” etc.

In many cases, this happens when the team can’t see how the project is about something bigger than themselves. And so, they lack a sense of belonging to a team that achieves more than anyone could achieve on their own.

Which means that, effectively, everyone’s on their own team.

Which is why they need to protect their status.

Great project leaders create that sense of belonging. They light the path by communicating with irresistible clarity where we’re going as a team, why we’re going there and why everyone belongs.

Clear communication is revelation work

Some things are hard to understand and even harder to explain. Which is a real problem when this thing is your idea and it has the potential to change something for the better.

Yet, you’re so deeply expert in that field that it’s hard to find simple language. The Curse of Knowledge has its mighty grip firmly wrapped around you: the more you know about a thing, the harder it gets to speak about it in simple terms.

Here’s what happens in many companies at that point:

Meetings are scheduled to figure it out. Long meetings, in fact. Also, PowerPoints are produced. Whiteboards are filled. Heated discussions about the implications of saying “X” vs “Y” erupt. Opinions clash … until … finally … they settle with a compromise that everyone can (only) kind of live with.

The one thing that they didn’t do was speak with their audience. Start a conversation. Figure out what language the audience uses. Check how they really understand what you say. Validate your assumptions. Cross-check them over many conversations.

Clear communication is much more revelation work than it is creative work. It starts with valid data.

What do you mean?

It’s a simple question that changes everything.

And yet, we often shy away from using it rigorously.

We notice that the team member uses a vague statement to gloss over their lack of preparation. But we’re polite and let them get away with it.

Another team member might be struck by The Curse of Knowledge and uses language that most of the team don’t fully understand. But we let her get away with it because she’s the genius.

A third one might make a hand-wavy claim and we let him get away with it because “it’s just a thought”.

This helps no-one. It might feel easier in the moment but it slows everything down in the long run.

“What do you mean?” is a really simple question. When you use it rigorously (as opposed to ruthlessly) it benefits the whole team. When you use it to clarify (as opposed to finger-pointing) it removes misunderstanding.

Clarity is your responsibility.

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Dr. Michael Gerharz