Discover more from The Owl and The Beetle
Captivating Meetings: Proven strategies for keeping attendees engaged
The Owl and The Beetle: Thursday Memo
In my career, I have attended hundreds of in-person and remote meetings. Despite the different formats, I have consistently found it challenging to keep attendees engaged.
People can be distracted during meetings for a variety of reasons. These can include being bored, feeling overwhelmed, not understanding the topic, being unprepared, and having too many other things on their mind.
I was once asked by my manager to leave my phone and laptop outside the meeting room. I attended remote meetings where attendees had to keep their cameras on to ensure everyone was actively engaged.
Both these pathetic requests were ineffective attempts to keep participants engaged. Not only were people still distracted, but they were also very frustrated by the paternalistic requests they had to accommodate.
When it came to my turn to run meetings, first as a team lead, then as a director, I committed myself to avoiding the mistakes I witnessed. I also wanted to find ways to make my meetings highly effective.
This essay summarizes a decade of iterations in keeping people involved during meetings, workshops, and presentations. Both in person and remotely.
I explore the following:
🔝 How I make my meetings a top priority for the attendees.
📄 The importance of a meeting agenda.
➡️ Outcomes > Notes.
🧘 How I make people forget about anything else as soon as they enter the room.
🟢🟡🔴 The color-coded check-in practice.
💬 The context-switch ritual.
… and more.
Are you ready? Let’s get going!
🔝 How I make my meetings a top priority for the attendees
I do a few things to ensure my meetings are a top priority for the attendees. Some might seem counterintuitive, and others are a lot of work. But since I introduced them consistently in my process, they have been game changers. Here they are.
I share a clear agenda before the meeting
Sharing an agenda before a meeting is crucial. By doing so, I can ensure that everyone is prepared and on the same page, which can help to keep the meeting focused and on track. Additionally, sharing the agenda can help to set expectations for the meeting and allow participants to come prepared with questions and ideas. This leads to a more productive and efficient meeting where all topics are discussed and all important items are considered.
Let people opt-out
I made peace with the reality that individuals may have competing commitments that could impact their meeting attendance. By giving them the option to opt out, I ensure that those who do attend are genuinely interested in the topic at hand. This leads to a more productive and engaged discussion, with everyone contributing effectively.
Publish outcomes, not notes
There is no need to publish every word said in a meeting. I take the time to summarize the important outcomes, and I make them available after the meeting, achieving two important goals:
People who attended the meeting will follow through.
People who did not attend the meeting will read the memo.
Don’t tell me that you read the extended notes of the meetings you did not attend, do you?
When I run a regular meeting, I often re-evaluate (every three months) the possibility of canceling the meeting altogether. As simple as that.
🧘 How I make people forget about anything else as soon as they enter the room
I deliberately cultivate psychological safety to make people forget everything else as soon as they enter the room.
What is “psychological safety”?
It’s “a sense of confidence that the team will not embarrass, reject or punish someone for speaking up. It describes a team climate characterized by interpersonal trust and mutual respect in which people are comfortable being themselves.” (from a paper by Amy Edmondson)
There are three things I do to cultivate psychological safety during meetings.
A check-in practice
When the meeting starts, I ask everyone how they feel, referring to a color-coded state (like a traffic light). I learned this practice at Reboot a few years ago.
Colors have the following meanings:
🟢 Green: “I'm present in body and mind and ready to participate in the session. Nothing is currently distracting me.”
🟡 Yellow: “I'm present in body and mind, but a few things distract me. Something personal, professional, or environmental prevents me from being fully present. I might find it difficult to put aside a project I'm working on. I might feel tired or hungry. I might be in a noisy place.”
🔴 Red: “I'm present with my body but not with my mind. Something distracting keeps my focus somewhere else. If you need my attention, please call my name. I will probably need to be provided some additional context if I get asked a question.”
This check-in is a self-assessment of the mental and physical state. During the session, people are not expected to be green or to transition from red/yellow to a more present state.
This check-in aims to inform ourselves and the other participants about our current state and how to deal with us to be productive. If someone is red, I avoid asking impromptu questions. I first call their name, then I provide context, then I eventually ask a question.
A context-switching ritual
Right after the check-in, I ask people to dedicate 30 seconds to acknowledge every thought currently occupying their headspace. It can be a difficult problem they might find hard to solve. It can be a fight they had with their spouse earlier in the day. It can be anything, literally.
After that, I ask people to dedicate 30 more seconds to set aside those thoughts for the duration of the meeting. If they need to take a note to resume at the end of the session, this is the time to do so.
I keep the time on my watch, guiding people in this deliberate context-switching ritual.
It’s great to look at people’s faces, start the ritual tensely, and gradually relax towards the end of these 60 seconds.
I never push people off balance
I attended a meeting a few years ago and zoned out, distracted by my laptop. My manager figured that out and sent me a message on slack from across the room:
“Are you even paying attention?”
I jumped on my chair and got back to staring at the presentation it was happening in front of me. I don’t remember what that presentation was about because my only memory was the deep disappointment in my (at that time) manager.
Was it useful to call me out, even in private? I don’t think so.
For this reason, I never call people out for being distracted during a meeting. I don’t do it in public, and I don’t do it in private. After the meeting, I might address that behavior, but assuming positive intent and helping the other person to be more present next time.
Meetings are one of the most costly activities regarding time invested. When ten people are in a meeting for one hour, it is equivalent to 30 hours of work, taking into account preparation, meeting time, and follow-up.
Next time you run a meeting, try to be deliberate in making it more interesting for all the attendees, valuing their time and contribution.
People who are interested, valued, and feel safe will naturally stay engaged with the activity and contribute actively.
Next time you run a meeting, try these:
📄 Have an agenda and share it upfront.
🟢🟡🔴 Adopt a check-in practice.
🧘 Implement a context-switching ritual.
Cultivate psychological safety deliberately.
🔊 Make contribution more comfortable than silence.