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What is the Best Way of Keeping a Meeting From Wandering Off Course?

The secret is twofold: a clearly defined mission and a well-organized agenda.

Clarification of the meeting’s purpose at the time you invite members is critical. Attendees need to know why they will be meeting. If the group has a project to complete—the reason for its existence—that should be put in writing, although you may also spend several sessions of the group in finalizing that mission. But if a meeting is to be ongoing—for regular discussion of operational issues, for instance—that, too, should be clear to attendees.

Whatever the meeting’s purpose, there should be no confusion among invitees. A good leader recognizes the value of all agreeing on their destination in setting out on a course. It lessens the need for correcting course—and makes it easier when it is called for.

Preparation of the agenda is, ideally, the group’s responsibility, although initially you may have to put one together. If you’ve been invited to participate in a meeting and haven’t received an agenda, you should ask for one before making a commitment to be there.

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A well-organized agenda specifies not only the date and place for the meeting and the starting and ending time and the subject matter to be covered but the amount of time to be spent on each topic to be covered during the meeting. When you allocate time to topics, you establish an explicit weighting of the relative importance of topics. This ensures enough time—no more and no less—is spent on the subjects for discussion.

The agenda should also note whether any guests are expected—who they are and their roles during the meeting; that is, whether they will be there solely to hear and contribute to the discussion or have been invited to make a brief presentation to the group to assist in achieving the group’s mission.

If the participants need to be informed about a topic in order to discuss it intelligently, provide the information they need in advance of the meeting. To ensure that material gets read, include summaries at the start of lengthier documents to explain their worth. Flag or highlight key parts of documents. If possible, see that there is liberal use of space and headlines in the documents. Also, use double spacing or one-and-one-half spaced typing. Single-spaced reading tires the eyes quickly.

Finally, you may want to notify participants in advance that comments made by people who have obviously not read supporting documents will be ruled "out of order."

Agendas and advance readings should be distributed to participants at least one week before monthly meetings, at least three days before weekly sessions.