Who should you invite to your next meeting?

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When you host a meeting, it’s critically important to have the right people in the room. Seems obvious, right? But how exactly do you determine who those people should be? How do you tell someone they shouldn’t be there? How do you change participants over the course of recurring meetings? In this post, we’ll explore how to ensure you have the right people in your meeting.

Be Judicious

First of all, you should carefully consider each person you want to invite to the meeting. Rushing through “all the obvious ones” may mean you overlook a usual character despite them not being relevant to the meeting at hand.

As an example, consider your design team. You’re having a meeting to discuss typography on the company’s blog, and you default to adding everyone on the design team to the meeting, maybe it’s a dozen people. At a closer glance, you realize you could skip inviting the 3 designers who work on the mobile app plus your illustrator. Their skills are certainly relevant, they have all studied typography and use it day to day, but so has your entire design team. They’re on the “fringe” for the meeting, and maybe they’d even be happier to just keep working instead of sitting in the back at your meeting.

Next, when you’re looking at additional “unusual” attendees who are not part of the usual circle, think about why that person is relevant in the context of the task at hand. Often, managers fit in this category. It’s their team, shouldn’t they be around for the discussion? It may be just as well to have the discussion without the manager if they won’t have significant input into the discussion. You can simply shoot them an email afterward with the results if they just want to “follow along” on your progress. Or maybe they’ll just see it in the presentation to the whole team, or via your team’s project management workflow.

“Two heads are better than one”, but are 20 better than 10? At Google, there’s a 10 person limit to all meetings, and I think that makes a lot of sense. If the average human mind can hold 5-9 items in short term memory, 10 seems like a good limit. After all, you have to keep the thoughts, emotions, facial expressions and body language of each participant in your mind when you are speaking or listening, in addition to the actual words! A two person conversation is effortless to have (well, with most people :) ) but the more you add the more difficult it becomes to effectively communicate.

When it comes to meetings, less is more.

Ask!

Don’t be shy to just ask people ahead of time. Phrasing is of course very important here. Asking “would you like to be involved in our typography selection for the blog” is really different from “you’re coming to the typography meeting, right?” and “you didn’t want to go to that meeting, did you?”. Do your best not to weight the question, and you can also ask in a more objective-oriented way, like “do you have any thoughts about what the typography for our blog should be like?” If they gush with enthusiasm, they’d probably be a great addition to the discussion. If they respond with “uhhhhhhhhh serif?” then just let them get to work!

After the meeting, follow up with people, especially the ones who may not have contributed much. Just a quick “hey, were you interested in the discussion today? Because you can skip this meeting, it’s totally OK!”. Even if you don’t anticipate having exactly the same meeting again, it will help guide your understand of that person’s interests. If it’s a recurring meeting, it’s definitely worth asking everyone from time to time. If there’s someone who regularly doesn’t participate you might need to take a stronger step in understanding why. Sometimes, they may be really interested in the subject but not contributing for another reason. Perhaps they’re introverted or have some imposter syndrome. Maybe they feel like the team is so far off the mark it’s hopeless to bring them around. These are all really good points of feedback.

Put it into practice

Here’s a quick way to test a couple of these things out first, before you make any waves:

  1. Make a paper list of each attendee before the meeting. Put a * next to their name if you thing they’re going to contribute strongly to the conversation
  2. During the meeting, each time someone speaks for at least a full sentence, but a tally mark by their name
  3. At the end of the meeting, compare tallies with *s.

A * with few tallies is someone you thought was critical, but didn’t contribute much. Was your assessment incorrect? Or was their contribution surpressed by team dynamics?

Someone without a star and a lot of tallies was a surprise to you. Keep them in mind for future meetings.

A * and tallies was an expected core contributer. Give them a crisp high five for participation points!

No star and no tallies? They should not have been invited (although they could also be quite shy, we’ll talk about introverts and meetings in a future part of this series).

You can now take that information to hone your invitation skills for the future to help keep your meetings smaller, smoother, and sm-awesomer (tm). And don’t be afraid to ask before you stop inviting someone to a meeting. It’s the polite thing to do, and you never know, it could ignite their creative spirit!

— Nick Gauthier

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