Wait, aren’t we supposed to stay away from acronyms when we’re in shared spaces? Yes, it’s definitely a good idea to avoid confusing your audience with special jargon. That said, these 3 acronyms form a solid foundation when it comes to running meetings that don’t suck.
If you’ve ever taken a public speaking class, you’ve heard “What’s in it for me?” or WIIFM. When presenting to an audience, the content of your speech needs to appeal to them in some way. Put another way, why should anyone pay attention to you? This guiding principle of WIIFM is the start to running a good meeting.
First of all, you should tell attendees why they are being invited to a meeting. In practical terms, this means including an agenda in the invitation and asking participants to be prepared to contribute or receive information in service of some shared goal or objective. I’m not sure about you, but when I see a vaguely titled invitation come through my Outlook and it has no content, I feel frustrated. “What’s in it for me?”
Conversely, if the title of an invite is clear and the description tells me what I need to do to make the meeting successful, I feel valued as a contributor. I can also tell more quickly if I need to turn the meeting into an email, since I might already have the information the requestor needs. I have heard many a person say that the best meeting is no meeting at all, and at times I’m inclined to agree.
Now that you’re in a meeting with contributors who definitely need to be there, and they know what they’re doing there (WIIFM), you’re taking the role of meeting facilitator. Depending on the type of meeting, you may need to share a screen, to review a roadmap, or to simply make space for the attendees to share information together. No matter what, Why Am I Talking? (WAIT) should be in your back pocket as you guide participants through the meeting.
When I was just beginning my career, I’d frequently find myself talking too much in meetings of all stripes: one-on-ones, team meetings, stand up—you name it. It was painful for me to accept a moment’s silence, to sit in dead air. In the last few years, I’ve encountered many opportunities where it’s simply not helpful for me to speak, even if others aren’t stepping up immediately. The main example of this is the bi-weekly retro(spective). In Scrum, teams hold retro every “sprint” (a 1-4 week period), in order to inspect and adapt the way they work together. The outcome of the meeting is a set of possible improvements for how the next sprint or increment of work should be run.
As a facilitator, if you don’t let the room go quiet after asking a question, you could be making it harder for less vocal members of the team to share their thoughts. Yes, there are techniques like silent writing that can also help with this, but there’s nothing better than having real, live discussion.
Retro isn’t about you; it’s about the team. Apart from your annual review, most other meetings you facilitate won’t be about you either! To practice WAITing, when you hear a silence, try counting to three, taking a sip of water, or simply jotting down notes to stop yourself from dominating the conversation. Hopefully this allows the group more space to contribute.
While it’s important to ensure that meeting participants have enough space to contribute, you’ll also occasionally have to deal with overly engaged participants who dominate the discussion and stop a meeting from moving forward. Enough, Let’s Move On (ELMO) has been a useful tool for me when dealing with these moments.
Disclaimer: Using ELMO assumes that you’re working in an environment where there’s psychological safety and perhaps also a casual atmosphere. I acknowledge that it might not be a welcome addition in your board meetings, so use your best judgement for when to employ this tool.
While we were still working from the office, I printed out small pictures of Elmo, the cute red creature from Sesame Street. Then I’d laminate them and put them on tables where we held our meetings. I instructed participants to hold up the Elmos if we felt the conversation was getting stuck on one topic or if one person was speaking for too long. I’ve seen meetings where the whole room was full of people holding up Elmos. It creates a laughable moment of gentle peer pressure for the speaker to get the hint to move on without being verbally rebuked or shut down. While facilitating remote meetings where I’m sharing a screen, I’ll switch my view from the primary content to a photo of Elmo if the speaker needs a nudge.
Holding up an Elmo does not mean that the group should ignore the speaker’s comments or that their points aren’t valid. It simply means that the discussion should be taken offline for resolution later on. The first time you use ELMO, and for meetings with new attendees, you should make sure everyone knows what the rules of engagement are for using it, and why you’re doing it. The most straightforward answer is that ELMO makes it easier to respect everyone’s time!
Some meetings are designed to be brief and may be prone to frequent ELMO moments where facilitators need to be more assertive to protect the team’s time. For example, the stand up or daily scrum is a fifteen-minute daily commitment meeting where team members describe the work they’re doing and what they need help with. For my team’s stand up, we’ve started holding a fifteen-minute “parking lot” where only needed team members can quickly follow up on any questions that arise directly after stand up. This is incredibly convenient since all members are around at stand up, and it helps us avoid scheduling additional meetings together later on. It also means that we can let unblocked team members go off to do other work, instead of keeping everyone in never-ending stand up purgatory, listening to just two people talk.
The TLDR (Too Long Didn’t Read):
- What’s In It For Me? (WIIFM) is a question you need to answer before scheduling any meeting. Know what you want to achieve from the meeting and ask people to prepare accordingly.
- Why Am I Talking? (WAIT) is a question you need to whisper to yourself if you find yourself getting in the way of other contributors who may need a pause or silence to feel ready to speak.
- Enough, Let’s Move On (ELMO) is a phrase (and cute cartoon character!) you can say and show when you need to gently move on from a speaker or topic that is dominating a meeting.
Hopefully these tools help you run better meetings. Happy facilitating!