If you’ve ever led a meeting in which people arrived unprepared, you know how frustrating the experience can be. You’ve given everyone the materials they needed to prepare for a great meeting, but they just didn't do it. Now, the meeting will either run long or the substance of the discussion will be shortened. Either way, people will leave dissatisfied, the discussion won’t get the attention it deserves and the meeting outcome may not be achieved, likely resulting in the need for another meeting.
When you're the team leader, you can leverage your positional authority to shape the team's behaviors going forward. (We're not saying that it's easy, but it's within your role to introduce practices and establish ground rules for effective collaboration.) But if participants don’t report directly to you, figuring out how to ensure proper preparation can be mind baffling. So how do you influence meeting participants when you don't have positional power? Try these six strategies.
6 Strategies to Get Participants Committed to Meeting Preparation
1. Co-create the meeting agenda with the participants.
Invite participants to weigh in on the desired outcome, activities, and topics a few days prior to the meeting, and then refine the agenda to address their feedback. By including participants early in the meeting planning process, you'll build their sense of ownership of the meeting's success.
2. Set expectations.
Send a formal meeting invitation with the agenda and prework at least 24-48 hours in advance. Explain what the prework is, what participants should do (read and reflect, think about a particular question, etc.) and how it will propel the conversation forward. When people understand how their preparation will connect to the conversation, they’ll be more likely to do it.
3. Be mindful of prep time.
When you send out the meeting agenda, include estimations for how long you expect the prework to take. Be mindful of people’s time and keep expectations realistic: it doesn’t usually make sense to assign an hour of prep for a 30-minute meeting. If some people prefer more detailed information or are new to the team, include optional pre-reading, but be sure to let participants know what is required and what is optional.
4. Make prework accessible and engaging.
Mix it up! Instead of just a text heavy document:
Use bullet points, charts and/or images to quickly get the idea across.
Send a voice memo or video message.
Write a case study that frames the background, context, and problem.
If your team culture allows it, use fun graphics and color to brighten it up.
5. Use reminders to your advantage.
Send out a reminder 24 hours in advance, especially if the meeting preparation is essential to the success of the meeting. You can re-state the importance of the prework and the time it will take to complete it as well as include any attachments for easy access.
6. Reinforce responsible behavior.
Thank those who have done the prework. If you can avoid it, don’t spend time reviewing the prework for those who show up unprepared as it might discourage those who did prepare from doing so again.
Not Sure These Will Work For You? Alternatives to Prework
Some tech giants like Amazon and LinkedIn use a wholly different approach: they incorporate prework as the first agenda item in meetings for busy executives to ensure the work gets done. The meeting participants do the work individually in silence before the discussion begins.
To make this approach work the meeting leader still needs to prepare the prework assignment. But instead of sending it ahead of time, build in 10-20 minutes of prework time at the beginning of your meeting during which you’ll hand over the materials. This is different from presenting the material, which can often take over the entire meeting.
Harness the Power of the Team
Using any combination of these six strategies will lead to a better meeting experience. Using all of them will be the most powerful. But, as with any habit change, it takes time to establish new meeting norms such as the importance of proper meeting preparation. Find allies and influencers on the team and ask for their help. As more and more of the participants start doing the prep work for meetings, others will follow suit.
Have you encountered similar circumstances during your meetings? How have you or your organization addressed these issues?