Daniel D. Beck

Meeting invitations for people who hate meetings

I want to share the secret of having good meetings with you. I mean, I assume it’s a secret because I still go to and hear about a lot of boring, unproductive meetings. Here it is:

A good meeting starts when you make the invitation.

The bulk of the work that goes into successful meetings happens long before you set foot in a conference room. A good meeting is planned that way. The invitation is the vehicle for making the plan.

A meeting invitation is not ancillary to a meeting. It’s a form of communication itself and deserves the attention and care that you would give to other writing. When you approach the task of sending out a meeting invitation, I want you to approach it like you would other writing tasks, by thinking about what your reader needs, what your reader wants, and what context your reader is working in.

In other words, I want you to think about the question your reader must answer when you send them an invite: do I choose to go to this meeting and do the preparation needed for it to be a good use of my time? They might not articulate their approach to your invitation in so many words, but ultimately they’re using your invitation to decide whether to show up and do the work. Help them by giving them everything they need to make that decision.

A meeting invitation consists of five things: a time, a duration, a place, an agenda, and a list of invitees. Your reader needs all of these things to make sense of your invitation. If you’re missing any of these elements, then you’re scheduling a mess, not a meeting.

Time, duration, and place are the key facts that help your attendees answer the question, can I be physically or virtually present in your meeting? It’s impossible for someone to say whether they’ll be able to meet you without this information. Most calendaring software require these elements, but they don’t require you to think carefully about them.

Apart from meetings that involve attendees more than five time zones separated, choosing a meeting time and location is usually straightforward. If nobody gets to the office before 10 a.m., then you know it’s pointless to schedule an 8:30 a.m. meeting. You probably already know which conference room is your favorite. Adding time zones complicates matters, but you likely know who’s willing to stay late, arrive early, or call in from home to make an intercontinental meeting work.

It’s the duration that trips people up. Most meetings are too long! If you’re preparing for meetings in advance by providing supporting materials and putting forward a focused agenda, then the Outlook-default one-hour meeting is excessive. Instead, assume that every meeting you plan is scheduled for 30 minutes. If you need more time, it really means that you’re scheduling two or more meetings back-to-back (even if it’s only one calendar item).

No meeting is 30 minutes long, however. Like an episode of a sitcom, a meeting may be scheduled for 30 minutes, but the actual running time is about 22. Instead of commercial breaks, you lose the eight minutes to video conference troubleshooting, late arrivals, and folks rushing to their next meeting. Twenty-two minutes may not seem like long, but since you’re preparing for this meeting, it’s plenty of time.

The next piece of a meeting invite is the agenda. An agenda isn’t a mere list of things you want to talk about; it’s a contract with your invitees about the scope of the meeting. It lets your invitees answer some more questions for themselves like:

In other words, they can answer the question do I want or need to attend this meeting?

Meetings without agendas—mystery meets—deny your invitees the opportunity to make informed decisions about how they use their time and yours. Setting an agenda (and sticking to it) helps ensure that the people who attend your meetings genuinely mean to be there.

An agenda doesn’t need to be a complicated, overspecified schedule. Instead it can be a bulleted list of things to do during the meeting (like decisions to make, news to deliver, or feedback to solicit) in priority order.

During the meeting, you’ll step through the list until you’re finished (at which point you can end the meeting or cover new additions to the agenda) or until you’ve run out of time (recording remaining agenda items for a future meeting). This maximizes the use of your 22 minutes and makes your invitation meaningful and actionable for your invitees.

I’ll allow one exception to necessarily including an agenda in your invitation: shared agendas. Sometimes, particularly for recurring meetings, it might not make sense to set the agenda at the time of the invitation. For example, if you’re meeting weekly with a technical support team about trending support issues, it doesn’t make sense to hold back agenda items for a subsequent week. In such cases, it’s smart to set up a shared document with that week’s agenda, which the participants can update until the start of the meeting and use it to determine their attendance for the week.

No matter how you compose your agenda, if any agenda items require supporting materials to discuss (e.g., draft documents, bug reports, issue tracker IDs, etc.) then make sure you include them along with your agenda. Make it easy for your invitees to show up to your meeting prepared.

Finally, who you put on the list of invitees and how many people you invite is a signal to your invitees about the meeting’s purpose and your invitees’ role in it.

When you invite many people, each individual invitee sees their importance to the meeting diminish, so it’s important to avoid over-inviting people. In other words, invite people to a meeting because you think their contributions are essential, not because they have a potential interest in the meeting. Similarly, when you under-invite to your meeting, it sends a signal to people who have something to contribute but have been excluded; this has a strong effect on remote workers, who sometimes get forgotten in meeting invites.

Just because you’ve put the work into inviting people to a meeting doesn’t mean you’ll necessarily have a successful meeting, but I’m pretty sure I’ve never been to a productive meeting that didn’t start with a good invitation.

And once you’ve prepared a good meeting invitation, then there’s just one thing left to do: send it.