Vampire Meetings and How to Slay Them

By Peg Kelley

Meetings can be like mythical vampires - sucking the life out of intelligent and creative people. And sucking the funds out of businesses. Unfortunately, there are too many of these meetings in business today.

A UCLA study said the "typical" meeting includes nine people. If you have nine people in a meeting room for one hour, you have consumed one entire workday - plus some.

What about the dollars associated with this? Say the average salary of meeting attendees is $40,000. Their hourly pay is about $20.00. Nine people for one hour costs $180.00. Not bad, right?

But consider the implications. People don't spend just one hour a year in meetings. In a 3-M online survey in 1998, people reported spending between one and 1.5 days per week in meetings. They also said 25% to 50% of those meetings was wasted. Being conservative, let's think 25% of one day's worth of meetings...that's two hours. Per week. Times nine people. 18 hours a week. Times $20.00 an hour. 18 times 20 times 48 weeks = $17,280.00.

This is a conservative number. For only nine people. How many people are in your company? And how much time do they spend in meetings each week? These figures do not include the preparation and debriefing time, their benefits, meeting and travel expense or, worst of all, opportunity cost. Really, what could these people have been doing for your business if they weren't tied up in ineffective meetings week after week?

So, what can we do about these vampire meetings?

Start by looking at your regularly scheduled meetings. What is the objective? Are they really necessary? Can most of the agenda be covered via paper or email? Do you need all the people there for every meeting? Or can some attend only occasionally?

Once you know this meeting must be held with these (fewer, I hope) people, then set a meeting objective for each time. And share it with people before and at the start of the meeting. Post it on a flipchart if possible. Typical meeting objectives include: Generate ideas to overcome our funding problem, Find innovative ways to cut the budget without cutting service, Gain understanding of our new retirement plan, Get updates on three key projects, etc. The advantage of having a clear objective for your time together is that people will police themselves and stay on-topic. And if they don't, you can point to the objective and say something like, "We have 30 minutes left and still have to achieve this goal for this meeting." Knowing and sharing the objective is a wonderful way to manage the group's energy and focus.

Another way to keep your meetings productive and efficient is to manage the people dynamics. One of the most common meeting problems is when one person talks and talks and others never get to say a word. If possible, have a meeting facilitator whose job is, among other things, to make sure everyone gets appropriate airtime. When you do not have the luxury of a content-neutral facilitator, then the chairperson must assume responsibility for managing the group. It's easier than it may seem. In this situation of one dominant personality, the chairperson can enforce brevity for all. Explain that you want everyone to give his or her thoughts in a sentence first and then elaborate on it. So, when that individual starts his/her comments with an unfocused beginning ("20 years ago, I worked at a company and we had something similar happen, except there were some differences like there was this woman named Ann...."), you have the permission to step in and say, "Could you give us your point in a sentence first, Paul, and then some background?" Being even-handed in implementing this approach is very important, obviously.

Another technique to help in this situation is to paraphrase the speaker's point. Interrupt when he or she takes a breath and say, "So you're saying that..." and when they agree, you turn to the rest of the group and ask if anyone has anything to add or a different perspective. Thus you use the power of paraphrasing to help the speaker be concise while taking back the control of the group. You might even just jump in when the speaker takes a breath and say, "Good point, Paul. Does anyone else have a different perspective?" and turn your eyes to others.

How you close a meeting is very important. Much like mythical vampires who fade away at sunrise, many meetings tend to sputter to a close when the allotted time runs out. We've all been in meetings where the chairperson is trying to set up another meeting while attendees bolt for the exits.

For a meeting that energizes attendees, do this instead. Five minutes before the ending time, call a halt to discussion and revisit each of the agenda items and state what was decided. Then identify next steps with as many specifics as possible. "Sandy, you said you would investigate prices for printing a brochure, right? When can you have this done?" Also set the time and place for the next meeting and tell participants what they can expect from you before then (notes from this meeting, an agenda for the next one, an interim email, etc.).

By pointing out what has been accomplished in the meeting, identifying next steps, and setting the next meeting (not to mention ending on time!), you will create a sense of momentum and people will feel the time they spent in the meeting was productive.

Like a wooden stake, these tips will slay pale, unproductive vampire meetings and replace them with lively, effective ones. Attendees might actually look forward to your future meetings! And you will, too.

Peg Kelley, MBA, has been a professional facilitator for over 30 years. She has authored a booklet - 39 Secrets for Effective and Enjoyable Meetings - and publishes other resources for making meetings work. All are available at her website:

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