January 15th, 2013

Meetings: How not to suck at them


Meetings: How not to suck at them

[Editor: Most of us go to meetings, but do we really get value out of them? As a startup, every second counts. And every meeting matters. Eli Rubel, cofounder and CEO of Glider, provides some awesome guidance on how to get the most out of meeting. *cough* And they're hiring. *cough*]

“There are the people who get it, and then people who don’t.” When it comes to meetings, most simply don’t.

This article will be the beginning of an ongoing series, and hopefully an open conversation, specifically focused on how not to suck at meetings.

Ok, cool. Meetings. They seem simple enough, right? I mean, you just book the thing, show up at a coffee shop, ask some smart questions, and then on to the next one. Boom. Am I winning, or am I winning? NO. WRONG. TRY AGAIN.

That was me two years ago. And the worst part? I thought I was crushing my meetings. Two per day, five days a week—that’s not bad right? WRONG. In retrospect—I was clueless. We’ve all been there at some point, and if this is you now, do not despair. It’s a process that takes time, trial and error, and the willingness to truly put yourself out there. It is my hope that through this mini series, I’ll be able to impart some of the Meeting Judo I’ve picked up over the last two years.

Below, is an index for true meeting pwnage. Master these, and you may very well be on your way to being the Mr. Miyagi of meetings. Each week based on audience vote/feedback, I’ll be expanding on one of the titles. So give it a read, and let me know what you’re interested in hearing more about.

One final caveat before things get started, while some of these may seem entirely obvious, it’s generally the obvious ones that people neglect the most. I’ll kick things off with these:

The Obvious

1. Don’t be late.
I’m not your mom, nor is the person you’re meeting. Being anything less than early to a meeting is a sure-fire way to tell the other person you simply don’t care. Sure, things come up; you get into a car accident, your dentures just won’t stick, you’re dog has IBS—whatever it is, you have email… use it. And no, the quick, “Hey I’m running late! Sorry!” text three minutes before your meeting starts just doesn’t cut it.

2. Do your background research, know who you’re meeting.
We’re fortunate enough to live in an uber connected world where LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, blogs, and even personal websites can all inform what we know about an individual. Generally speaking, a 10 minute search can fill in all of the blanks from professional to personal. You don’t want to be the guy who gets back from a meeting only to find out Person X sits on the board of the same Company X you’ve been courting as a customer for months. There are definitely some specific points you should touch on for everyone you meet with, but for the sake of brevity, we’ll save that for later.

3. Understand their motivations.
Unless you know what someone cares about, how are you supposed to, A) Control the conversation, and B) Add value for them. What do they do for fun? What organizations do they volunteer for? What makes this person tick? Incidentally, this is also a super important question to ask yourself when hiring!

4. How are you helping them?
This one should be really self explanatory, but in my early days I made this mistake all the time. Luckily, people who are willing to meet with you early on in your career know that you’re green, and get gratification out of being able to be a part of this early part of your career rather than expecting something of more tangible return. But don’t rely on this wave– this article isn’t about how to float through meetings, its about how to be F*c*!@%# awesome at them. If you did your research for #2 & 3 then you should feel pretty informed for #4.

5. Leader or Learner?
In the grand scheme of things, who’s helping who? Who was more “excited” to get the meeting. Generally this is obvious, but make sure you know going into things.

The Less Obvious

Enough already Eli! All of this stuff is SOOOO obvious. Ok smarty-pants, lets move on to some of the more subtle topics that can really effect the outcome of your meeting mastery.

6. Have an agenda, seriously.
It took me a while to grasp the value of having an agenda, but after three months of TechStars meetings, there is little doubt in my mind that this should be on the list. If you write out an agenda, even if it just has three bullet point topics that you want to hit, you’ll have more control over the meeting’s outcome. Simply putting yourself through the 30 second mental exercise of writing out your goals/topics to cover for the meeting will greatly inform it’s outcome. At TechStars they even go as far as to encourage you to share the agenda with the other party. I’m not that hardcore unless we’re meeting with our investors, advisors, or key out of town mentors.

7. Be polite. Know when to bullshit, but more importantly, when not to.
Whether you’re the leader or the learner, everyone loves it when you respect their time. It’s amazing how much time people waste at the beginning of meetings with the usual BS. The worst part is that both parties know it’s just fluff to get comfortable. Lead the meeting. Get to the point. Save the fluff for after you’ve hit your agenda points, it feels more genuine that way. Pro-tip: if you’re the leader, starting the meeting with a bunch of fluff can put a nervous learner at ease, but it can also be a subtle way to imply your control over the proceedings. If you’re the learner, any early fluff beyond simply being polite makes you look nervous (unless you’re really good at it).

8. Quality vs. Quantity. (re: speed, efficiency, tie it back to the agenda)
I’ll use another TechStars example to illustrate this one. Once a week, Justin and I were fortunate enough to sit down with Chris DeVore to go over our progress, questions, and thoughts on strategy. We always had an agenda, and our meetings generally lasted between 10-15 minutes max, with some as short as 5. These meetings were consistently some of the most valuable conversations we had during our tour in Seattle. We respected Chris’ time, and in return, he always carved time out of his busy schedule to meet with us.

9. Know when to agree. Also, know when not to.
This feels like a rookie mistake looking back. But I see tons of people make it, so it’s worth going over. Just because you’ve already thought of the idea that the person you’re meeting with suggests (especially if they’re the leader) doesn’t mean you can’t let them think they came up with it for you. AKA If someone says you should approach Company X as a customer, and you had a meeting the night before about how to land that same Company X, it would behoove you to respond with something like “Oh, thats a great idea!” Why? Two key reasons – A) Bonding. If someone feels like they’ve helped you, they’re much more likely to engage again. B) What if they know exactly who you need to meet with to land Company X? If they suggest it as a solution, they’ll be more inclined to help you make it a reality.

10. Know when to buy. Also, know when not to buy.
I almost omitted this one because it’s subjective, but here’s my personal credo. Always buy (coffee/lunch/drinks) unless they’re either A) An investor / service provider, B) You’ve bought for them more than once, or C) They explicitly said they wanted to take you out while setting the meeting up.

11. Take notes, or record the conversation.
OMFG if you don’t do this you’re an idiot. Your brain can’t keep it all in. If you felt it was worth spending 10 minutes of prep, 10 minutes of driving, $5 on coffee, and 30 minutes of your time, you better be F(*&%$# writing things down or recording. Lessons aren’t’ always applicable at the time that you hear them. Why wouldn’t you want to be able to reference that same meeting 2 months from now?

12. Follow up.
I don’t care if it was the best meeting of your life—or the worst—if you don’t follow up you’ve just thrown away 50% of the value of that meeting. If it went well, re-affirm the action points/next steps. If it didn’t go well, re-affirm that you were grateful for the meeting, and maybe take the time to recover from the mishap. Same day standard, it helps to write the followup immediately after (if you have the time), and then send it a few hours later.

Top secret meeting hacks

Alright, now for some fun little meeting hacks. Pay attention to these when all of the above seems entirely obvious and you’re ready to throw in some advanced combo moves.

13. Eye contact.
Be smart about it. If you look—you care. If you gaze, you don’t care as much. There’s a lot to read out there about eye contact, and how it can be used to either purposely or inadvertently imply your level of engagement.

14. Mimic body posture.
On a subconscious level, people are put at ease if they can see themselves in you. There are obvious ways to achieve this like, “Hey I like vintage motorcycles too,” and then there are the more subtle ways to do this through things like body language. Are they leaning towards you or away from you? Do they look away frequently? Legs crossed or under the table? You’ll feel silly the first few times you start to play copy cat, but seriously, the results don’t lie.

15. Be passionate, but don’t care. (Be objective).
You don’t want people to be afraid of telling you no, or telling you what you’re doing wrong because they think it would hurt your feelings. In fact, the faster you can get to, “No,” the better. There’s enough BS going around in the startup / business world. Don’t encourage it by being overly emotional or naive.

16. Tools of the trade.

  • For Personal Meeting Notes I think Evernote is the easiest / most intuitive to use. It’s awesome to be able to pull up the app on my iPhone, search for a general topic, and then have it pull up all of my meetings that mention that topic. Having a searchable 300 meeting resource guide becomes pretty handy.
  • I hate typing / note taking during meetings so I tend to record them using the pre-installed voice recorder on my iPhone and then reviewing / typing them up after the fact.
  • For scheduling I recently discovered Fantastical (for all of the Apple users out there), which is an awesome replacement for the native Calendar app and has an awesome iOS app. If you’re booking a ton of meetings on the fly, this app will save your life. (Disclaimer: This app will not actually save one’s life.)

17. Always look for ways to give back.
When I moved to Portland just about a year and a half ago I didn’t know anyone. A lot of people (cc: Rick Turoczy, Scott Kveton, Jason Glaspey, Skip Newberry, Surj Patel, and countless others) went out on a limb, and took 30 minutes out of their day to meet with some random newcomer knowing full well that I had nothing to offer them in return. They were willing to help me through my early learnings, mistakes, and even point me in the direction of the people who would ultimately become my close friends, colleagues, and a co-founder. So with that, once you’ve put in enough time to give back, do so. Take those random meetings, make the time, because without you, the ecosystem quickly runs dry.

Eli Rubel is the cofounder and CEO of Glider, a Portland-based startup that’s an alum of both TechStars and the Portland Seed Fund. In case you’ve got a meeting with him, you can follow him on Twitter as @eli_rubel or on his personal blog.

(Image courtesy Shutterstock. Used with permission. Irony intended.)

BONUS material

Eli’s post inspired me to share some of my tips and tricks. Here’s the little talk I’ve started giving to the PIE startups, to help them make their meetings more effective.

Background that may help (or may not)

14 Responses to “Meetings: How not to suck at them”

  1. Nice, Eli – now I know why all our meetings have been so great!

  2. Cory Klatik says:

    Great read Eli!

    Gotta say #9 + #10 are actually one’s I’ve always had challenges with.

    Also a great tool to checkout for recording on the iPhone is Cohdoo Highlight -> https://cohdoo.com/highlight.php It let’s you “bookmark” places in your recording.

  3. Eli Rubel says:

    Thanks Lauren :)

    Cory- I’ll have to check Cohdoo out, it sounds great!

  4. Great stuff, Eli. I also love Rick’s missive at the end.

  5. This is awesome stuff, and I’m going to point my whole team at this post. Thank you!

  6. [...] Meetings: How to not suck at them [Silicon Florist] [...]

  7. Nancy King says:

    Understand their motivations. I live for this. Great post!

  8. Lindsay says:

    Hey Eli – great post! If your delving deeper & posting more in the future, here are two topics I’d love to see you explore:
    * The copy cat thing. I do it inadvertently, and often consciously try to hold back, ‘cuz really, there’s a limit, ya know?
    * Recording a meeting – how do you bring that up? Does it make the other person uncomfortable? Conversely, how does it make the other feel when you pull out a notebook and start writing?
    * Making them feel as though they had the idea…. Does this every leave open a potentially tricky legal situation?
    * NDAs. Yeah, I know we generally ignore them. But I’m shocked how often someone else is shocked that I’m speaking to them without one. Similarly, how closely to you play your cards versus laying them out on the table.

    Hey – that was more than two topics. ; )

  9. cory wynne says:

    Hey Eli – I’d like to hear more about how you approached getting some of those early meetings when you first arrived.

    I’m virtually in the same boat you were a couple years back.

    Thanks for the good read.

  10. Great read. There are some awesome take-aways in here. Hoping to put some of them to use in my next meeting.

    -R

  11. A few notes about recording:

    First, always request permission to record before you start; it’s illegal in some states to not let people know you are recording. You also should explain why (terrible note-taker, writing hand in cast, can’t eat and take notes at the same time [for recording phone conversations] etc.)

    Second, let all know that you are the only person who will listen to the recording (and honor that statement.) Some folks get a little nervous about being recorded but most will give you permission. I’ve only had one person in over thirty years of recording all my meetings deny me permission and that goes to my next comment.

    Third, recording can be a life-saver for you and I’ve noticed it tends to cut down on exaggerated comments by others. When people know they are being recorded they tend to stick to the truth since they know you have proof of what they said during the meeting.

  12. [...] tools. Elements of this are good points whether you are on a phone call or in a personal meeting. Have a read and see what advantages you can take [...]

  13. [...] Eli Rubel is the cofounder and CEO of Glider, an alum of the Portland Seed Fund and TechStars Seattle. He recently took the stage at TechCrunch Disrupt NY 2013 to announce that their product was publicly available and that they had closed a $1 million seed round, led by True Ventures. You can read more from Eli at his personal blog. And if you want to meet up with Eli, I suggest you read another one of his guest posts. [...]


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