So there you are, scanning through the myriad of endless emails in your inbox, as you do each and every morning. And as fate would have it, there they are waiting amongst the email onslaught. Much like young children waiting behind fortified snow hills, snowballs prepared in advance for the unsuspecting character to wander by: the often dreaded meeting invitation. Since you obviously don’t have enough meetings to already attend, you are quick to click on the Accept button. But what exactly did you just accept? And why?
As is quickly becoming the norm, you don’t really know, do you?
We have all received those invitations. Yes, the time and date are there. You may even see a few other attendees listed. The subject line is usually filled in, but may be as generic as “Discuss the Project” (of which project you will certainly know, since you are only involved in five this week). Finally, since there is no room booked or call-in information available, you know that we will all be expected to work on fine-tuning our telepathy capabilities before the meeting.
Perhaps it is a result of the absolute frantic pace in which we all work today, that many of us send meeting invitations to one another without much thought to an explanation of why we need to come together in a closed room to exchange information and ideas – or to make a decision about something vitally important to the organization. Whatever the cause, it is quite apparent that the behaviour needs to change, if not for efficiency in the workplace, well then maybe for something as forgotten and rare as politeness.
I’d like to share with you a few simple ideas for those times that you will be manipulating Microsoft Outlook or Lotus Notes to get one of these invites out to a group of your nearest and dearest. You want to be as informative as possible, giving the requested attendees the very best reason why they should choose to attend your meeting over the other ones they receive. Yes, believe it or not, they often are double and triple-booked, and will cognitively choose where they need to be.
Here is what should be among the elements in every meeting invite that you prepare from now on.
- The Non-cryptic Subject Line
- The Meeting Objective
- The Expected Meeting Outcome
- The Attendee List (optional / required)
- The Frequency and Location
- Call-In Information
- Supporting Documentation / Web Sites
Although this may appear heavy at first glance, you will quickly realize (during your application of this in your daily life) that the “copy and paste” function available on most computers is actually not that difficult to master. Let’s go through each of these elements in detail.
The Non-Cryptic Subject Line
As was touched on a bit earlier, you want to make sure that your audience understands how this email invitation fits into their workload. Distance yourself from the generic titles such as “Meeting about Project Issue.” Remember, your invite will be buried amidst hundreds of other emails, and your audience wants to be able to quickly decipher what they are about to read. Context is everything, isn’t it? Couple that with the proliferation of handheld devices and you definitely have trouble. Imagine, if you will, a busy executive leaving a meeting, grabbing her blackberry to check for what/where/when details on the next meeting. Hhhmm, let’s see, a meeting on “Meeting about Project Issue.” Yup, that’s not cryptic at all.
Instead, offer your participants some information, but keep it concise. I usually maintain the following nomenclature on Subject Lines: “Project Name – Meeting Name – Topic, if necessary,” which results in something like “Project Genesis – Biweekly Core Team Status Meeting.”
The Meeting Objective
Your audience deserves an explanation as to why this meeting needs to happen. Equally, why you deserve their attendance and participation. Meetings come in a few flavours:
- Informative: One-way sharing of information, where the speaker “enlightens” the audience on a subject of interest
- Brainstorming: A meeting of the minds and spirits, to gather as many ideas as possible. This is also referred to as white-boarding, where we all grab dry-erase markers and take our turns at understanding one another’s icons (and hieroglyphics)
- Analysis: Taking any idea and breaking it down into choices and elements, weighing the pros and cons of each. This usually results in the scheduling of subsequent “analysis” meetings. It’s infinitely recursive, we all realize, yet we enjoy the practice, let alone the time in a closed conference room to enjoy fresh-brewed java.
- Status: Ah, the Project Manager’s favourite meeting. Ah, the delivery team’s least-favourite meeting. This is the ultimate “what are you working on and why are you late again?” back and forth meeting that we’ve all become accustomed to. We take turns surfing on our laptops when it’s not our turn to provide status on the deliverable of the moment.
- Decision Making: Perhaps the most under-used, the Decision Making meeting is often the most politically challenging one available for us to schedule. Gulp, someone’s going to make an actual decision?! Egads! Will that mean there’s accountability after the meeting, and that the giant wheel will turn a few clicks?
- The Mixed Bag: Sometimes, just sometimes, we need to realize that we are, indeed, capable of accomplishing a few things within the confines of one specific meeting.
Make sure that you tell the participants what type of meeting you need to have. Meetings have been derailed for far less a reason. It’s always nice to remind rambling folk that “we are gathered here to make a decision on this, and not to debate its merit.” We all know those individuals who love to hear themselves talk. I firmly believe that every organization should have some sort of quota to meet in regards to that archetype.
The Expected Meeting Outcome
Be specific here. This element underlines the value of this meeting to the business. You may even want to further state what may be the result of a failure to meet the outcome. Whatever the reason for the meeting, it needs to get done. Unless, of course, it doesn’t need to get done – at which point you should question why you are scheduling a meeting in the very first place. Uh-hum…
The Attendee List
I’m sure you’ve all heard it. The “Do I really have to attend your meeting?” line that comes at us from all angles. If I had a nickel for every time that someone said “I can’t wait to attend your meeting”, well, then, I wouldn’t have any nickels.
I usually use the mail client’s TO: and CC: features to cover this, but I explain my lapse in depth of logic within the email itself, using this element to cover it off. Those CCd are optional. Those TOd are not.
I often also insert a “Do Not Forward” statement on some instances of invitations. I’ve often been amazed at how unknown individuals start to show up at certain meetings I’ve chaired, with the meeting becoming a standing-room only event. I didn’t realize that I was such a sought-after speaker. Maybe I should start charging?
As a last note, we’ve all received wedding invitations (if you haven’t, lucky you!). We all know that we are supposed to RSVP. For some insane reason, I expect people at work to use that same logic. RSVP. Such a foreign concept, indeed!
Okay, so that wasn’t a last note. This one is though: For those of you that enjoy the “Decline” option of an invitation, in the spirit of over-communicating, you may want to explain to the meeting chair why you are declining. I love receiving a decline note with no explanation. It gives me the warm and fuzzies.
The Frequency and Location
Very simply put, it’s nice to set the expectation from the get go. Will this be a monthly meeting? Biweekly? Ad-Hoc? It simply puts people into context. It also avoids the “Oh, I didn’t realize that this was a recurring meeting!” Consider integrating the “frequency” into your Subject Line, such as “Biweekly Status Meeting.”
Yes, it’s also incumbent on you to use the “recurring” feature of your email client. Lock the participants in! However, you may have a more difficult time with the conference rooms. Many organizations now allow scheduling of rooms as “resources” within email. It’s not always easy or feasible to reserve a specific room every Wednesday morning at 7am, given how much people love 7am meetings. Yes, elbow grease may be required at this point. You have options. Send separate email invitations for each recurrence, using different rooms. Barter with your peers to get the room you need. Meet at the bar across the street. Or better yet, barter at the bar across the street.
If you will be scheduling a remote team, and you are able to reserve a conference room in that location as well, it might be a good idea to reserve a room on their behalf. By having remote participants in a common room, they are more likely to be actively engaged in the conversation (rather than scanning through email at their desk while on the conference bridge, muttering their hmm-hmmm’s ever so often to keep you thinking they care).
Oh, people who sit a few feet over from you or on another floor in the same building don’t qualify as “remote participants.” They need to attend in person. They should not be permitted to call into the conference bridge from their desk, as that leads to the same disengagement and lower quality communications that sometimes results with remote teams. Plus, the extra few feet of walking to that conference room can move them over the top of that much-hyped guideline of 10,000 steps daily!
You have invited people from different time zones to your meeting, as is becoming the case with this virtual wired world in which we reside. The meeting starts. You wait for everyone to join. Suddenly, urgent emails flow in, your cellular starts to vibrate with incoming calls and text messages. That 1-800 number that works in your location ONLY works in your location.
Don’t assume that it will work in Canada if you are in the US. Apparently, it may also not work in the US if you live in Canada. Do I really need to speak of the intricacies involved with the telecommunications networks in the rest of the world? While we’re at it, you may want to provide “local” call-in numbers, since carriers sometimes won’t allow a 1-800 number within a local calling area.
Supporting Documentation / Web Sites
Instead of sending your supporting documents within the invitation or by email, make them available for download on your corporate intranet, portal, or shared virtual space in whatever cloud that exists for you. Make reference to this within your invite. Finally, if you want your meeting to be productive and without the noise of frantic paper-rustling, endeavour to make the reference material available a full 24 hours in advance of the meeting.
I know what you’re thinking – I’m crazy. There is no way this can be efficient. Way to heavy to use in a practical context! Go ahead, keep not doing what you are not doing, and reap the results of that. If you change your mind and you are interested in introducing some efficiency and politeness in the way we all work together as human beings, give this a try. Let me know what different things that you’ve tried work for you. I’d love to exchange, learn and adapt my own way of working.
And to save you some time, I’ll leave you with the following. A simple “copy and paste” into the body of your invitation will have you up and running in mere seconds, leaving you time to attend more of your favourite meetings!
Feel free to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org . Or better yet, schedule a meeting today!
Sample Body of an Effective Email Invitation
Try a quick copy/paste into your next invitation, and see how easy this really is.
The Meeting Objective:
This is a Status Meeting. Each team member will provide informative insight with respect to their current activities, with special focus and notes on any issues or risks. Please come prepared with sufficient details to share (such as dates). There will also be a decision point towards the end of the meeting with regards to selecting Option A or B.
Expected Meeting Outcome
Formal Decision on Option A or Option B, followed by execution of that option after the meeting. If a Decision is not reached, we will not meet our target date promised to the Executive Committee.
The Attendee List (optional / required)
All member of the core team are expected to attend. Please delegate to someone, if you cannot attend.
Those invitees cc’d on this invitation are optional.
Please do not forward this invitation to anyone other than a named delegate.
Frequency and Location
This meeting is held every Monday at 3pm. On Holiday Mondays, this meeting will be rescheduled to the following Tuesday.
North American Toll Free: 1-800-555-1212
England Toll Free: 011-44-124-13233
Local City: 514-555-1212
Participant Passcode: 987 6543
Supporting Documentation / Web Sites
Please see current word doc on project folder on shared drive, subfolder titled `”Meetings” with today’s date