Whatever your group does, good meetings are vital to working together well. Meetings make all the difference between a motivated and dynamic group or one feeling lethargic and lost.
Meetings that work for everyone involved will make your group more effective and more fun. Below are some basic steps that you can take to make your meetings work well and be fun. For more ideas and an in-depth discussion of the issues involved take a look at our other briefings that you can find on our website.
There are many different kinds of meeting – your meeting could be a one-off event to provide information on climate change; to start a campaign or to plan an action. It might be a regular meeting of a well-established group, discussing day-to-business, or a specially called meeting to deal with a conflict within the group.
Whatever the meeting it will benefit hugely from a little bit of planning and preparation.
You need to be clear what the purpose of the meeting is. Writing down and displaying the purpose (eg: on flipchart paper) in a clear and concrete sentence at the beginning of the meeting can help to keep people focussed.
There may of course, be several purposes for the meeting, eg: planning an action; attracting new members to the group and day to day tasks such as discussing finance.
The next step is to think about what this particular meeting requires to work well.
Try to find a time that most people are able to make. Think about patterns of daily activity, such as parenting, work, dinner time. If lots of people won't be able come at the same time why not hold two meetings?
The venue needs to be big enough to accommodate everyone comfortably, but not too big. It can be very disempowering when you have hired a huge hall and only twenty people turn up.
Ensure the venue for your meeting is accessible - can someone in a wheelchair, or with hearing difficulties participate as easily as possible? Does the venue itself put some people off (pubs and venues with religious affiliations can have this effect) and finally, have you put clear directions on your publicity? For more information on accessibility take a look at our briefing Access Issues at Events.
You will need to invite people to the meeting. In a closed group it might be enough tell all members of the group. If you want to attract new people then you need to get thinking about publicity (see also our guide on Good Publicity and Outreach). The following are some tips to think about when advertising a meeting.
It's a good idea to think in advance about the agenda, facilitation and decision making processes you could use in the meeting, especially when organising a large public meeting, or one dealing with difficult issues or conflict. It may be useful to prepare a rough agenda and think about the order in which to proceed. Remember that this is only a rough proposal - do let people participate by adding to the agenda and prioritising it before or at the start of the meeting. This will help them feel more involved with the meeting.
An important role that needs to be filled in all but very small meetings is that of the facilitator. The facilitator helps the group to have an efficient and inclusive meeting by getting everyone to decide on and keep to a structure and process for the meeting. She/he keeps the meeting focussed and regulates the discussion. For more about this role please read our briefing Facilitation of Meetings.
You could decide who will facilitate at the start of the meeting. However finding a facilitator a few days before or at the previous meeting allows the facilitator time to prepare themselves. This can be especially useful if it's an important or big meeting.
All this might sound like a lot of work, but if you share out jobs and work jointly with someone else it will reduce stress levels. You'll probably be able to learn something from the other organisers and have fun too.
Send minutes to everyone who was at the meeting and don't forget those people who could not make it, but would like to be kept informed. In the minutes be sure to include any action points as well as thank people for their contributions.
Evaluating your meetings can help to constantly improve them. It's a good idea to leave a few minutes at the end of every agenda and ask the group what went well and what needs to be improved. You could also get together afterwards with the other organisers to evaluate the meeting. Remember to celebrate what you have achieved!
Here are a few simple tools you can use to involve people more in the meeting. For more ideas please have a look at our briefing on Tools For Meetings and Workshops.
Go-round - everyone takes a turn to speak without interruption or comment from other people. This tool can be used in many situations - for the initial gathering of opinions and ideas, to find out people's feelings, to slow down the discussion and help improve listening.
It helps to establish clearly what the purpose or question of the go-round is - it may help to write it on a large sheet of paper for everyone to see. If your aim is to give everyone an equal say you can set a time limit for each person. If your primary concern is to air the issue it may be better to let people speak for as long as they want.
Ideastorm - this tool helps to quickly gather a large number of ideas. It encourages creativity and can free energy. Start by stating the issue to be ideastormed then ask people to say whatever comes into their heads as fast as possible without censoring it - the crazier the ideas the better. This helps people to be inspired by each other's ideas. There should be one or two note takers to write all the ideas down where everyone can see them. Make sure there is no discussion or comment on others' ideas - be especially vigilant about put downs or other derogatory remarks: structured thinking and organising come afterwards.
Once you have your ideas then you can start looking through the results - you may need to prioritise from the many options generated by the ideastorm - you can get ideas on how to prioritise from our Tools for Meetings and workshops briefing.
Mapping - using large writing on flip chart paper where everyone can see it and arrange key words in groups or out on their own. Connecting arrows, colours, pictures make this a lot more organic and fun than a simple list and it can allow people to make new connections. The writing could be done by one person or everyone in the group.
Splitting into smaller groups or pairs - there are lots of reasons to split into a smaller group for a discussion or a task: it can sometimes become difficult to discuss emotionally charged issues in a large group, or a large group may become dominated by a few people or ideas, stifling creativity and contributions from others.
Apart from these examples, many topics can be discussed more effectively in a smaller task group, and need not involve everyone - for example the details of lay-outing the newsletter or organising the benefit-gig. Smaller groups allow time for everyone to speak and to feel involved. They are a lot less intimidating and can provide a much more supportive atmosphere in which less assertive people feel more confident in expressing themselves. Think about the sort of group you need - a random split (eg numbering off) or specific interest groups? Explain clearly what you want groups to do. Write specific questions and topics on a flipchart beforehand and give them to each group. If you are going to have feedback at the end, you need to say clearly what they need to feed back. You could also ask people to split into pairs.
Energisers - when people stop concentrating or become irritable in a meeting it can simply mean they have been sitting and listening for too long. Simple things like a stretch, a game, or two minutes chatting to the next person can re-energise people. If you suggest a short game then do be sensitive about your participants - the aim is to get their attention focussed again afterwards, not to embarrass them or make them feel isolated. Never coerce people into playing games but respect their limits and boundaries.
Talking sticks - you can use a stick or a conch shell or almost any other distinctive object. The idea is that people may speak only when they hold the 'talking stick'. When finished the speaker passes the stick to next person who wants to speak. This tool makes people conscious of when they interrupt others and helps them to break the habit. It also allows people to consider and take their time in voicing their views as they don't have to be afraid that some one else might jump in.