Agony aunt

December 10, 1999

Q More and more of my time is taken up by meetings, which are increasingly interfering with my teaching preparation. Can anything be done to speed them up?

A Sally Brown, Director of membership services, Institute for Learning and Teaching: Meetings sometimes seem to take up more of academics' lives than any other aspect of their work. You need to think clearly about what you are putting in to meetings and what you are getting out. Then prioritise your contributions and manage your involvements. If you are a participant you should ask yourself the following questions:

Do you need to go? If not, send apologies but do not duck important meetings just because you are busy

Agree in advance if just one member of a team can attend and report back

Think in advance about what your objectives are

Do some preparation such as reading minutes of previous meetings

Make sure all your paperwork is in order.

After meetings you should ask yourself:

What follow-up tasks do I need to do? By when?

What paperwork is my responsibility?

What do I need to do before the next meeting?

Whom do I need to contact?

What have I learned from the meeting and how has it furthered my objectives?

Good luck!

A Brenda Smith, Director of the centre for learning and teaching, Nottingham Trent University:

If you find yourself chairing a meeting, always have a clear agenda with precise ideas of what ought to be achieved. Agenda items should always contain a verb, eg, to discuss, to receive, to resolve etc.

Restrict the agenda length to a manageable number of items and circulate well in advance of the meeting. Use a system to

differentiate items on the agenda that are for information only and those that require action or discussion. The chair should not expect to lead or introduce all items on the agenda as involving others ensures greater ownership of outcomes.

Allow sufficient time for agenda items and put the most important first. Rough timings should be worked out and kept to. And do start and finish on time. If necessary put a guillotine on individual items with advance warning. Sometimes have single item agendas to allow for fuller discussion.

Summarise at regular intervals to make sure minutes are accurate and to keep

participants on track. Do not expect the

secretary to do all the work of minuting a meeting alone, but offer discreet support by lending your own notes.

It also helps to understand the conventions under which meetings are held and run.

Recognise the appropriate level of formality to smooth your path. Get hospitality organised, use name cards so everyone can recognise the speakers and ensure equipment is located so that it does not block anyone's view. It is also worth putting some thought into the best room layout and ensuring it is arranged in advance of the meeting.

Check if any equipment like overhead projectors is needed and book it well in advance.

Finally, do not feel you need to record

everything that is said. Concentrate on

decision and action points and just enough narrative to be meaningful to those who did not attend. Do not automatically disrupt proceedings if you think you have missed something - you can ask for clarification later.

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