Vol. 42, No. 1

Meeting magic may merit high member marks for meaningfulness

by Tim Eigo

“I think you can make meetings magical” may be one of the larger promises ever uttered—up there with “Nutella is good for you” and “This pill lets you lose weight without dieting or exercise.” But that is the claim that Christina Plum bravely led with at the 2017 NABE Annual Meeting in New York.

In their careers, the bar professionals who made up the large audience had collectively attended, let’s say, a billion meetings on matters large and small. Their reaction to Plum’s smiling assurance was friendly but skeptical, as they live in a trust-but-verify world. What was this magic she spoke of?

If anything helped support Plum’s grand assertion, it’s that her own experience suggests she walks the walk about the way we all talk—and talk—in meetings. She is an attorney at the Wisconsin Court of Appeals and an adjunct professor at the University of Wisconsin Law School. She’s served as YLD president in the Badger State, and in the ABA. In her work life and in her many service capacities, Plum has led and attended a billion meetings herself—many that include members of the bar, the bench and the public. She would seem to be the ideal speaker on the topic of “Getting Control of In-Person and Teleconference Meetings.”

Picture your best meeting

In her rousing session—and in an abbreviated version told TED Talk-style the day before—Plum came about as close to her magic aspirations as someone could. Houdini-like, she opened by reminding attendees of their best selves.

“Bar associations are uniquely positioned to do great meetings,” Plum said. “We want to make meetings that people want to attend and find valuable—and maybe even find magical.”

She then urged audience members to “picture the best meeting you’ve ever been at.”

A handful of head nods.

“What was it that made you feel buoyant?” she asked.

More nods, plus a few raised eyebrows of appreciative surprise.

“That’s a magical meeting,” Plum said. And those that are well run “can sustain your volunteers.”

Widespread vehement nodding, paired with broad smiles of recognition.

What had we witnessed? In just a few moments, Plum got a roomful of harried and meeting-weary professionals to take a seat on the magic-meeting train.

A viewer could be forgiven for suspecting this session was going especially well—OK, maybe even magically—simply because Plum is an accomplished and generous speaker. Much as a cynic might want to deny it, her ebullience is rather infectious. But what about the rest of us, attendees may wonder? What do mere mortals do when charged with leading a meeting where attendees yawn, drone on too long, speak over each other, and wander so far afield that their remarks belong in a different barnyard? What do we do with that typical meeting where no one is sustained, and where the idea of a quality meeting is nothing more than a fleeting memory?

Doing meetings differently

Fortunately, Plum offered some specific strategies—three in her whirlwind TED Talk, more in her full session—that can help you pull a rabbit out of even the dullest of hats.

Brevity being all, here is what Plum initially said we all can do differently in meeting management:

  1. Be deliberate. Help attendees arrive ready to go. Remember that your volunteers come in the door with varying levels of experience. The more guidance you can give, the better it will go.
  2. Be engaged. We live in the age of the great distraction. To combat that, create a culture of engaged meetings. Ask attendees what we can do to improve engagement. Maybe consider better coffee breaks, or meeting on Saturdays.
  3. Think of the meeting leader as the conductor. Consider having different people serve as conductor for different parts of the meeting. (This also may assist with leadership development.)

In her longer session, she offered even more strategies to make your meeting marvelous. And, because she brings the value, she also provided some approaches to improve the dreaded teleconference, and bonus tips for those who aspire to the most magical of experiences.

She divided her remarks into tips for the leader–meeting conductor, and others for the meeting participant.

Leader goals include agenda, tone

Plum said leaders must begin by asking if a meeting is even needed. They are expensive events, and can be debilitating, so consider deep-sixing an in-person gathering and waiting a month. But she also urged leaders to remember that a meeting, even with a modest agenda, can be a catalyst for future activity.

Be sure to consider your meeting’s purpose (yes, it needs one) and your attendees. How knowledgeable will they be about the subject? Do they have issues or distractions that will prevent the ideal focus? What can you do to address that in advance?

Next, carefully craft a written agenda, with or without time allocations—your choice. But consider thoughtfully the order of items: People generally have the most energy early in a meeting. Is that where you want to place the droning of committee reports? Perhaps you should view the meeting in a wave motion, alternating reports and elements that require more activity. However you proceed, make sure your agenda gives clear direction about what participants should be prepared to discuss.

As the conductor, Plum said, you set the tone. Avoid saying, “I’ll get you out of here fast” (unless that’s true), or “I’m sorry we had to meet.” Keep things moving. When attendees drift in late, don’t restart the proceedings. Acknowledge late-arrivers courteously, but do so in occasional groups, not every time a new individual walks in.

Attendee roles, teleconference challenges

Participants, too, should “seize the opportunity” to improve the meeting. Never be that person who drags things out because you didn’t read the provided materials. Help advance the organization by being sincere, interested and engaged. And support the leader’s goals, too. The conductor may wield the agenda, but she or he appreciates your support.

Teleconferences have challenges similar to those in in-person meetings, but some additional headaches, too. For instance, it can be difficult to establish rapport over the phone. Like a radio play-by-play announcer, be sure to give specific verbal cues. Don’t spend a long time doing roll call. And decide in advance what to do with the announcement feature, which may chime intrusively every time a new person arrives.

The best meetings, Plum concluded, are those that are well planned and deftly led. Leaders and participants should consider their meeting roles, and know the plan. If all of that occurs, then—just as it did in New York—like magic, the hour will pass in a flash.