Over 20 years ago, my boss (and mentor) told me that whenever he has an important meeting, he writes the meeting summary before he enters the room. That’s right – he writes the decisions and the conclusions from the meeting as if they already happened. I asked him about it recently and he said he still does that.
How come? The meeting hasn’t happened yet, so how can you tell in advance what is going to happen in it?
The simple answer is, of course, that you can’t. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t attempt to do so.
Writing the summary in advance forces you to think – in detail – about the outcome you want from the meeting. I know it sounds trivial – isn’t it something we know anyway?
Well, test yourself: think about the last good meeting you had. What made it good? Is it the vibes and the way the discussion went or did you actually get what you wanted? Could it be that it was a pleasant discussion, but if you look at the results you are left with nothing? Did you actually know in advance what is it that you want to achieve, or did you only have a general idea?
The most common scenario is for people to know what they are going to say, but other than that they usually just hope it would be fine. It can work, but you can do much better.
One Magical Trick Changes Everything
Thinking about the outcome in advance is a magical tool to up your performance. It is not even too time-consuming, the magic comes from the point of view that you are forcing yourself to adopt. It’s for that exact reason that Amazon created their PRFAQ format for writing product requirements, and Stephen Covey listed “begin with the end in mind” as the second habit out of the 7 habits of highly effective people.
The magic works like the famous Alice and cat discussion – once you know where you want to go (the outcome), it is much easier for you to find the right way (lead the discussion there).
Specifically for meetings, you have both the anchor to remind you to think this way (prepare for the meeting in advance), and the challenge to get everyone to agree with your pre-written conclusions within the meeting itself.
Today I’ll talk about the preparation, and next week’s article will cover the navigation within the meeting itself.
Work With Your Audience
To prepare well, start with the outcome. Ask yourself what would make this meeting a good meeting? What are you hoping to accomplish by having it? If you are struggling, you can ask the question differently: what would make this meeting worth everyone’s time? Or another version: what is important for you about this meeting?
Sometimes the outcome you are after is softer: you might want to impress your audience (for example in a sales meeting or an analyst review), or you want people to feel that they have a say on a certain topic, even if it is formally your decision to make.
Once you have clarity about the desired outcome, think about it backward. What would it take to get to the outcome you want?
Think about the people in the room. Who makes the decision? Who needs to back them up for the decision to go smoothly? Who needs to back you up around controversial topics?
Try to get into the decision maker’s mind, and understand what is important for them. Sounds familiar? As a product manager, you are trained to do exactly that with your customers. This is a powerful skill, use it in your meetings to be able to make a larger impact.
You might find out that the audience for the meeting needs to change. That some people are not needed, while others might be missing. You might realize that you want to talk to the primary stakeholders in advance, in a smaller forum or even one on one, to make sure they are not surprised in the meeting itself, or to make sure everyone is ready to make a decision.
Understand the Process
Not all meetings can have a clear-cut outcome. Some decisions need to be thought of for longer than a single session. If that’s the case, make sure you understand what needs to happen after the meeting to drive a certain decision (or any decision at all). In some cases, for example, as part of an investment or sale cycle, the desired outcome of a meeting can be to get to the following meeting. It sounds simple, but if you go back and ask yourself what it would take, the mechanism to get there can turn out to be not simple at all.
Note that you won’t always know what it takes to get to a certain outcome. In fact, in most cases, you won’t know, but some are easier to predict than others. For example, if you are running your roadmap by the CEO, and you have already done so before, you can have a relatively high certainty as to what the CEO would want to see and the level of detail they would like to get into. If you are meeting a new customer for the first time, it is harder to know in advance what is most important for them, even if you have done your research.
When you understand the process, go back to update your outcome to make sure it is a realistic one. You can have the desired outcome of closing a large investment the first time you meet an investor, but that is highly unlikely to happen and working with that as your goal won’t serve you at all. Break it down into smaller, tangible outcomes, that would eventually lead to the one you are really after.
Pave the Way
By now, you understand both your audience and the process. The last step in your preparation is to lead the audience throughout the process towards the desired outcome. Some of it you will have to play by the ear, and I’ll address it next week. But much of it comes from things you can prepare in advance.
If you know what they need to see to be convinced, make sure you show them that. Make your point clearly, remember that they might not be familiar with the topic as much as you are, so help them understand you. Make sure your claims are logical, lead to one another, and eventually make the point you want to make.
Prepare what you want to say. If you use a presentation, build it so that it will show the way clearly. Even if you don’t use a presentation, I highly recommend writing down your talking points and making sure they make sense.
All of the above might seem like a heavy preparation, but it doesn’t have to be. Apply it to the preparation you are already doing for your meeting. For example, if you need to prepare a slide deck, ask the above questions before you begin to help you focus on what is most important. If you were not planning on making a presentation, dedicate a few minutes to organize your thoughts and understand how to lead the way to an effective discussion.
You are most likely spending most of your time at work in meetings. Make sure it is time well spent – for you and for everyone else.