We’ve got to start meeting like this

“People complain all the time that they spend half their time at meetings and they don’t get much done,” says Frances A. Micale, CEO of Micale Training Corp. in Atlanta. For people who spend part of their work week closeted in meetings, such observations ring all too true. It doesn’t have to be that way. From those who collectively have run enough meetings to make most of us shudder, here are some tactics to keep in mind.

Know your objective. Be clear what you want the meeting to accomplish. Then share that goal with the meeting attendees before or at the beginning of the meeting.

Develop an agenda. “Your agenda is going to get you to your objective,” says Micale. On the agenda, identify the meeting topic, the start and finish time, the attendees, the presenters and their topics, as well as the time allotted for each agenda item.

Invite the right people. Too often, says Micale, “people are drawn away from their jobs without the slightest thought of whether they need to be there. You end up inconveniencing them, having them resent the fact that they don’t know why they are there and costing the organization their salary.”

Start on time. When Alan Goldswor-thy started as CEO of Applix, a provider of customer analytics and business planning (such as CRM) based in Westboro, Mass., he started fining employees US$1 for every minute they were late to a meeting. “People are much more mindful that a meeting has to start on time,” says Goldsworthy. He starts his meetings on time regardless of stragglers.

Facilitators should never be late, says Eli Mina, a Vancouver, Canada-based professional meeting facilitator. “If they’re late, it gives everyone else license to be late.”

Use a skilled facilitator. Jamie Walters, president of San Francisco-based InnoVision Communication, a company that advises businesses on internal communications, suggests that the facilitator be “someone who can keep participants focused on the agenda items and navigate prickly interpersonal issues so that the meeting is effective instead of dysfunctional.” The facilitator should also ensure that the meeting isn’t dominated by one or two people. Micale advises against the boss as facilitator so that attendees won’t be inclined to say what they think the boss wants to hear, even if it is the boss’s meeting.

Have tools available. To avoid “last-minute scrambling,” Emma Pearson-Stoner, a vice president at Miller Shandwick Technologies public relations agency in Boston, makes sure before meeting time that equipment that might be needed – projectors, white boards, pens, notepads, markers and so on – is available.

Be aware of physical comforts. Don’t serve sleep-inducing heavy meals or alcohol during a meeting, says Mina. Judy Taylor, CEO of Taylor’d Communications in St. Louis, suggests that you make sure there are no auditory and visual distractions, more than 90 minutes don’t pass without a stretch or break, the room doesn’t get too warm and the lighting isn’t too dull.

Outlaw cell phones. “When you’re talking to someone and all of a sudden his cell phone goes off and he answers it, he’s just told you that whatever you’re talking about is less important than that phone call,” says Goldsworthy.

Conclude with an action plan. At the end of the meeting, the leader should summarize what’s been discussed, advises Sue Pistone, CEO of Sue Pistone & Associates, a time-management consultancy in Houston. Then decide who is responsible for whatever follow-up is needed, and set target dates for completion.

“The worst meetings I’ve seen,” says Walters, are those where “there isn’t a good reason for the meeting, there’s a poor agenda or none at all, the meeting creeps its way into a several-hour ordeal, participants are unprepared and there’s no skilled facilitation. The result? Wasted time and deflated energy for the participants, not to mention a culture of meeting dread! Good meetings are more rare, but you know when you’re attending one. The purpose is clear, participants are prepared, conversation is dynamic and it ends promptly, with next steps defined.”

We don’t need to meet to agree with those conclusions.