The Agenda

#18 - Prof. Joseph Allen and Karin Reed - How to run excellent (virtual) meetings

September 13, 2022 SHERPANY Season 2
#18 - Prof. Joseph Allen and Karin Reed - How to run excellent (virtual) meetings
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The Agenda
#18 - Prof. Joseph Allen and Karin Reed - How to run excellent (virtual) meetings
Sep 13, 2022 Season 2

Make the most out of virtual meetings: Prof.  Joseph Allen and Karin Reed share their expertise

The Agenda podcast series uncovers what it takes for leaders to build trust and inspire people. In this podcast, Prof. Joseph Allen and CEO Karin Reed speak with former BBC interviewer, Nisha Pillai, about ways to run excellent meetings in a virtual world, and what leaders and participants can do to avoid bad meetings. For more podcasts, stay connected at

The Agenda is brought to you by Sherpany #LeadingTogether

Thank you for listening! Visit us at or follow us on LinkedIn for board, board committee, and executive meetings solutions.

Show Notes Transcript

Make the most out of virtual meetings: Prof.  Joseph Allen and Karin Reed share their expertise

The Agenda podcast series uncovers what it takes for leaders to build trust and inspire people. In this podcast, Prof. Joseph Allen and CEO Karin Reed speak with former BBC interviewer, Nisha Pillai, about ways to run excellent meetings in a virtual world, and what leaders and participants can do to avoid bad meetings. For more podcasts, stay connected at

The Agenda is brought to you by Sherpany #LeadingTogether

Thank you for listening! Visit us at or follow us on LinkedIn for board, board committee, and executive meetings solutions.

Nisha Pillai 00:00:06

How do leaders build trust and inspire their people? What skills and tools do they need? How can they develop them? And how about meetings - what role do they have?

I’ve been talking to business leaders and scientists about what leaders can - and should - do to help their people feel trusted, with a sense of belonging and purpose. So, join me, Nisha Pillai, for another fascinating series of The Agenda - brought to you by Sherpany.

My guests today come from completely different professional backgrounds, but they have a common goal to help people make virtual meetings a success. Yes, it's really possible.

Professor Joseph Allen from the University of Utah in the U.S. is director of the Center for Meeting Effectiveness. And Karin Reed is an Emmy Award winning broadcast journalist and CEO of Speaker Dynamics. They've never actually met, but they've published two books together. So what's their advice on making meetings really work?

Professor Allen, Karin, welcome to The Agenda. It's great having you with us.

Prof. Joseph Allen 00:01:13

Great to be here. Thanks for the invite.

Karin Reed: 00:01:15

Thank you so much, Nisha. Really looking forward to this conversation.

Nisha Pillai 00:01:18

Now, I'm going to start with you, Professor Allen. Apparently your research shows that one bad meeting results in three extra meetings. Really? That sounds unbelievable.

Prof. Joseph Allen 00:01:29

 I mean, initially it might sound unbelievable, but we can all imagine or have experienced rather meetings where you've gone to them, you've attended, you maybe even participated, and you left feeling like I'm not exactly sure what I supposed to do next, or I have no idea what just happened with my team in there. And then what happens?

You schedule one on ones or other meetings to clarify a decision that you thought could have been made or should have been made in that previous meeting. And so the data is pretty clear that one bad meeting causes three more meetings because we just aren't very good at meeting or it's not as good as we ought to be.

Nisha Pillai 00:02:03

Karin, we've all been yanked into this world of virtual meetings, haven't we? You've become a meeting expert practically overnight. What are we doing wrong from your point of view?

Karin Reed: 00:02:13

Well, I think we've improved vastly from when we were first stuck in these virtual meetings, you know, practically for 8 hours a day. So I think that we have gotten the hang of it more than we did initially. But I think there is still this misunderstanding that you can't have relationships built through a webcam, that you can't actually, you know, connect.

And you truly can. As you mentioned, Joe and I have never met in person, but he is one of my closest colleagues. But we've managed to write three books together and have a great working relationship that has been built solely through the webcam.

Nisha Pillai 00:02:48

So with your very different hats on, please tell me, meeting scientists, social scientists, on one hand, communication specialists on the other, how do we create successful meetings? What are your top tips? Would you like to get us started, Professor?

Prof. Joseph Allen 00:03:03

Sure. I mean, I think probably the the big thing is to try the things that we've been saying we should do for the longest time and haven't been doing. So before the pandemic, before we we had this computer mediated communication being the norm, we had, unfortunately, pretty lousy meetings.

And so the best the best things I can tell you are do the things that you that we all know from common sense, like having a purpose and an agenda, potentially, starting and ending on time, encouraging participation. These are things that doesn't matter what modality you're meeting in.

If you do those three things, you're going to have a better meeting. You just are. I think Karin is really, really exceptional at understanding is that whole computer, computer mediated video communication aspect of it. There's some other things there. What are your thoughts?

Karin Reed: 00:03:50

Yeah, I'd love to pick up on that, Joe. Actually, one of the things that I always preach is that the camera is the conduit to your conversation partner. And so often people just forget about that and they don't recognise it's so critical to pour your energy through the camera lens so that you can actually connect with people on the other side.

So having your camera on for those critical conversations is really crucial. You know, those would be the ones that have a lot of emotional heft, those that are complex. And so that is really an important part of making sure that your virtual meeting is great and that you actually accomplish your goal.

Nisha Pillai 00:04:23

But we don't like doing that, do we, Karen? We feel uncomfortable.

Karin Reed: 00:04:27

A lot of times we don't, especially if we have a bad hair day right, you know? And, you know, I think if there's anything that I could preach is that be more forgiving of yourself and understand it's not about looking like a news anchor, but rather about having a way to communicate in full.

Because what you want to do is have the richest media possible through which to convey your message and you're going to have a much richer medium to convey it through, if it's not just audio alone, but audio and video.

What I would say is that you can still capitalise on the best practices for virtual presence, which be properly frame yourself, make sure that you are showing as much of you on the screen as possible so that you can convey that body language and those non-verbals which are so critical in how you communicate a message, make sure your face is well lit so people can read your facial expressions.

Nisha Pillai 00:05:20

Now, that's something I want to pick you up on. Please, Joe. And you mentioned lateness. Now, this is a really big thing with meetings aren't they? They constantly start late or they drag on too long.

How do we tackle something as obvious as this when you know, we know it and yet we don't do it?

Prof. Joseph Allen 00:05:36

Yeah, it's both obvious and very, very common. I mean, 50 to 70% of all meetings start late, and by late we define it as, you know, somewhere between zero and 10 minutes late. And the truth is the data would suggest that from zero to five is it's kind of that grace period. We're kind of like, it's OK. But once you get over 5 minutes late, people start to get angry.

And so the reality is people don't like this, but why does it happen? Well, sometimes it happens for non controllable situations, right?

When we were transitioning from one location to another, maybe you're going across town and you've got traffic and other things. Know, you have uncontrolled things that keep you from arriving on time. And under those circumstances, all you have to do is say, I couldn't get here because of this and it kind of resets the meeting. It actually does just fine.

But if you if you show up late to a meeting and it's a controllable reason for you being late. Oh, I just lost track of time people don't take that very kindly. And so you have to pair that with apologies. You have to actually say, you know what, I'm sorry, because if you don't, lateness actually makes the whole meeting worse.

Nisha Pillai 00:06:40

So you've just talked about the negative communication and the negative mood really created by lateness.

How do we create a positive spirit and a positive mood in a meeting so that everyone takes part, so that we take part and don't zone out and do our emails on the side just so that we're properly contributing?

Prof. Joseph Allen 00:07:00

Yeah, there's a few different things. One of the things that we talk about a lot in our books is pre-meeting communication, pre-meeting talk, and what we're saying about there is when you start a meeting with virtual meetings, when you hit the start button, you think, OK, let's just jump right in. But we say, hey, pause a second and ask everyone, how is everyone doing?

And have a moment of humanising the situation so that way people can say, Hey, things are going OK or how was that soccer match with your kids on the on the weekend? Having those conversations. Those are really important small talk conversations which have been shown in the in the research to actually make the meeting more effective, and that's because it's setting a more positive, more humanistic tone to your meetings allows people to be who they are.

And so it's really important to do that before your meetings or as your meeting is getting started. So that way you can set the proper tone for a good collaborative environment and get things moving.

Nisha Pillai 00:07:50

What do you think about that, Karin?

Karin Reed: 00:07:52

Yeah, Nisha, if I could piggyback on that, one of the things that we always suggest is that you start a meeting early, open them meeting link early, because what that does is it allows people to come in on their own time. And if you think about if you put in the face to face construct, you know, not everybody comes busting through the door at one time.

They all kind of filter in, you know, one at a time. And if they come in one at a time, it gives you the meeting leader an opportunity to engage with them one on one, because you miss that social lubrication that appears organically whenever you are face to face. You have that chit chat as you're walking down the hall into the conference room. You don't have that virtually.

So it's important to recreate that as best you can in a virtual environment by opening that call early. And we also suggest leaving the meeting link open until everybody else has left. So as the leader, you leave last because, you know, just like in a regular meeting in a conference room, you might adjourn.

The majority of people leave but there might be one or two people who linger behind who want to talk about something that they don't want to elevate to the group conversation, create that opportunity in the virtual space as well. And it will also save you from having another meeting later on to clarify something else.

Nisha Pillai 00:09:00

And date, which is where we started. So trying to create the intimacy and the dynamics of being in the same space when we're not.

Karin Reed: 00:09:08

Absolutely. And I think it's important to remember how many people should be appearing on the screen with you. And Joe, you always talk about the the pizza rule.

Prof. Joseph Allen 00:09:16

Well,  I can't claim as being the originator of it. I think it was Jeff Bezos who actually instigated this at Amazon. But the two pizza rule basically says you shouldn't have a meeting this larger than two large pizzas would feed. And so that's about five to seven people depending on how much pizza you can pack in.

So the reality is you want your meetings to be relatively small particularly when you're trying to make a decision or when you have collaboration in mind with the intent is for people to actually participate in your meetings, which I think should be a goal of most meetings.

If you have more than ten people, how are you going to get everyone two or 3 minutes of time to really share their thoughts, ideas, opinions about the decision point? It's just not possible, so smaller meetings is usually the way to go when it comes to collaboration and decision making.

Nisha Pillai 00:10:01

I love the two pizza rule. It's really wonderful and so memorable. So following on from that, the goal is to try and make the meeting more collaborative and more democratic. But we're not all the same. We're not all formal broadcast journalists or confident in our voices and our appearances.

How do you draw out the more introverted, the more possibly, you know, thoughtful members of the team in the room so that there's proper democracy around the table, as it were?

Karin Reed: 00:10:29

One of the things that we counsel is to validate both the verbal and the nonverbal forms of participation. So that's when you're talking about leveraging chat. Chat is one of those tools that I think is a huge improvement in terms of meeting equity because it allows people a lower barrier to entry to participate.

So, for example, if somebody is introverted and they really are very measured in their words that they say and they can't quite fully form their thought in real time, chat allows them the opportunity to write it out in just the way they want to say it and then hit enter.

And it, it appears, you know, in under iterated way that allows them to insert their input. And that's such a critical piece. But what is also important is that if you are encouraging people to use chat as well as to speak up verbally, you know, with their voice to actually attend to it, make sure that you look at chat and bring those comments, those questions into the dialog.

Prof. Joseph Allen 00:11:27

Yeah. The thing I would add there is you oftentimes in a virtual meeting have to call people by name. Otherwise you say, so what are your thoughts and then everybody starts talking over each other. I mean, you only will hear one person at a time, right? And so you have to set the norm that you're going to call on people by name, and it's OK if the answer is I have nothing to add.

Nisha Pillai 00:11:46

That's a really good practical tip.

Karin Reed: 00:11:48

Yeah, absolutely. It's about creating that psychological safety where it's OK to say Pass and it's not a matter of calling on people to put them on the spot, but rather recognising that it's harder to read the room whenever you're virtual.

t is an acknowledgment that the environment does pose some additional challenges in terms of pulling out that participation. But one of the things that I also suggest to people is that they are really careful to try to look for the nonverbal cues that somebody has something to add.

So, for example, if somebody leans towards the camera that usually is a precursor to them speaking up, as soon as somebody unmute themselves, I'm calling upon them by name and proactively giving them the floor, because a lot of times that standard stilted conversation in a virtual meeting is because people don't know when it's their turn to talk. So if you tell them, hey, it's your turn to talk, that actually helps a lot.

Nisha Pillai 00:12:37

It's so interesting that you mentioned psychological safety, Karin, because that's exactly the question I was going to ask you, both of you, as my next point, because a number of the contributors to this podcast series have spoken about the importance of creating psychological safety.

So I wanted to ask you about your thoughts on how we can use meetings to do that, Professor?

Prof. Joseph Allen 00:12:57

Yeah, so one of the things about meetings is that they are reflective of the culture of the organisation, you know, so one of the things that I do is I do meeting observations, right? I go to organisations and I observe a few of their meetings and they get them tips and practice and best practices that they could try.

Well, the other thing that happens when I do that is within a two or three meetings, I pretty much know what the culture of the organisation is like. And I can tell to some degree how much psychological safety is in the organisation as a whole.

And so meetings are both a place where culture is on display, the organisational culture, the way people operate in the organisation is on display as well as the potential for changing that, right?

So it's where you see it, it's also where you can make a major impact on it. So if you create those ground rules, like we just described about making sure everyone has an opportunity to share their thoughts and opinions about a decision that you're trying to make together, then you're going to naturally start to establish a greater level of psychological safety than maybe they experienced before.

So you can actually use the meeting as an environment to change your organisation or your group culture and promote a psychologically safe environment that allows for inclusion and for equity within the meeting environment.

Nisha Pillai 00:14:06

If it's that obvious to you, can you just quickly describe to us the good, the bad and the ugly? What is a really bad meeting look like then?

Prof. Joseph Allen 00:14:13

A bad meeting when it comes to let's just say, for example, a decision making meeting, right where you're where the goal of the meeting is to make a decision about a particular purpose. And let's say for the sake of argument that that we've identified the goal of the meeting ahead of time, which would already make it a better meeting the most.

What makes it a bad meeting is when the meeting leader talks the whole time, doesn't get input and then tells everyone what the decision is this happens all the time where the meeting leader who happens to be the boss of the group or the team or the organisation tells everyone what they think and then says that's what we're going to do and that sort of autocratic approach is common but very ineffective because it doesn't create buy in and unity and, you know, a spirit of purpose as it were among everybody else that has to they'll do whatever is being asked of the organisation or the group.

The mediocre would be the meeting leader calls on a few people or allows the extroverts to take over the over the meeting, which happens naturally anyway because extroverts are very good at just jumping in. And that's wonderful. Great. Continue to do so extroverts, please. However, if that's where you stop, that means there are ideas that are sitting on the shelf or sitting in the chat that didn't get attended to.

And so a good meeting is one where the meeting leader recognises that they have an idea, maybe even have a decision halfway formed in their mind. But takes a step back and make sure that the extroverts get their moment and that the introverts get their moment and that everybody in the room gets a chance to participate, right, and is inclusive.

And so you have to structure your meetings such that you have enough time to do that. So that way the buy in the sense of psychological safety and the motivation gets added to the experience. And the reality is one of the first the first studies I did was really about how can I make a meeting truly engaging? And what I just described is how you do it.

Nisha Pillai 00:16:01

Karen, you're about to say so.

Karin Reed: 00:16:03

Well, I was just thinking about the whole idea of pulling out that participation from everyone. And, you know, Joe kind of alluded to the fact that you don't want your decision to be based upon the loudest ideas you want it to be based upon the ideas from everyone. And that's why it's so important that you do have ways for the introverts, the extroverts to participate, that you do make sure to keep track of who is adding input and who is not.

And sometimes that does require perhaps having another role created within the meeting itself. There's a rising call for having meeting moderators who are in the meeting, not as decision makers, but as folks who can keep track of OK, who has spoken up, who has not keeping the meeting on track in terms of time and kind of taking care of some of the logistics of the meeting itself so that the leader, if their decision maker, can focus on that aspect rather than trying to make sure that the meeting is is sticking to the timestamps as prescribed.

Nisha Pillai 00:17:03

Professor Allen, I want to ask you a big picture question for a moment, please. We've been talking about how individuals, how leaders, how participants can make the most out of meetings, especially in this virtual world. But it's curious that most organisations don't seem to focus very much on getting the juice, the productivity out of meetings, considering how long we spend on them.

What should organisations be doing, do you think?

Prof. Joseph Allen 00:17:27

Well, you know, organisations do performance appraisals, right, every year for their employees. And they've identified certain categories for different employees, for different roles that they do. And they provide ratings of these other employees and provide them feedback and guidance. Sometimes they have an intermediate review or during the year that kind of gives you a how are you doing so far this year?

And if you're on track for a good performance review, things like that, we do that all the time, right? The problem is one of the things that we do and you mentioned this Nisha, one of the things that we do all the time is meet. But I've yet to find an organisation that has that as part of their performance review.

You expect managers to run effective meetings and you expect them to lead their team. And that's going to be through meetings in many cases, particularly when we're in remote situations and we're not meeting with them or bumping into them as we might happen in a typical office setting. Right. If they don't have that sort of situation, then if we don't assess them and had require them to do them, well, then how are they going to ever be motivated to do so?

If we don't hold people accountable, then they won't do it right or they won't put the time into it. And so what happens is we just kind of do math, OK, at our meetings, even though it's one of the things that we do a lot of. And so what organisations to do, they need to recognise is that this is a major part of people's jobs and they need to hold attendees and leaders responsible for their behaviour at meetings.

Now, they do that, you're going to unlock some potential that has just been not unlocked, not available to so many organisations, unlock the potential of meetings, can unlock the potential of the organisation in ways that have yet to be explored.

Nisha Pillai 00:19:05

So we've been talking a lot about meeting leadership, how do you run a meeting to make sure it achieves the goals.

But what about the meeting attendees? What's your message to them? Really, how can they make sure that they get their message across, especially the younger people who may not really understand the dynamics of the organisation? They're part of?

Prof. Joseph Allen 00:19:24

I think that's a great question. You know, a lot of a lot of the things that we've talked about are tips and tricks for meeting leaders, but we have to hold attendees to a higher level of, you know, higher standard than we have in the past. They can't just show up, lead the camera off and work on their email and just sort of attend the meetings that they're required to be at.

We actually need to require them to engage. Right. And what does that look like? Well, first off, they should be willing to contribute. Right? Assuming the leaders have identified the purpose, then they can come to the meeting ready to talk about that purpose. And they can engage, whether that be through verbal communication, audio communication, or they can engage through chat, but they have to be willing and ready to do that. We have to expect them to do that and hold them to a higher standard of doing that.

In addition to that, they need to be advocates for one another. We talk about hybrid meetings, having someone in the room who identifies with someone who's not in the room and makes sure that each of them have an opportunity to participate is a really good way to ensure that both participate.

So there's there's lots of things that attendees can do. They don't have to wait for the meeting leader to shut down the monologue or who needs to stop talking. They can say, Hey, you know, that's a great idea, Bob, but let's get back to the topic of this meeting and we'll talk more about that later. An attendee can do that and that takes pressure off of the meeting leader for me, always having to be the heavy within a meeting.

Karin Reed: 00:20:44

It's a shared responsibility for sure between the leader and the attendees for the success of the meeting overall. But one of the things that you're always battling as a meeting leader, for example, in terms of attendee participation is that we have been conditioned to be passive observers whenever we're dealing with screens. You know, we watch TV, we watch a movie, but now we want people to be active participants through a screen.

So what I suggest is that you are always looking for ways to make people do stuff. So for example, I run a lot of polls in my meetings. I have frequent stops for Q&A where you do deep discussion, don't sit there and talk at them for 20 minutes and then whole questions to the end because guess what? They have checked out, they are doing everything else you can imagine, especially if they have their camera off.

So always come up with different activities that require their engagement in a very direct and active sort of way, and that will allow you to keep that engagement level high. But if you just have a series of people giving ten minute presentations with no interaction whatsoever, you're not going to get engagement from your audience and your attendees will have so many distractions in their own space that they'll definitely follow those and not be following along with what's going on in the meeting.

Nisha Pillai 00:22:00

You know, this conversation could go on and on. It's such a fascinating one. I'm going to ask you one final question, please, to both of you the same question, and that is:

What is your most remarkable memory, your most memorable memory, if you like, connected with meetings?

Karin Reed: 00:22:19

I would just say that it comes from the conclusion that we wrote for our book, Suddenly Virtual, we are trying to wrack our brains on how we wanted to wrap it up. And it was actually Joe's wife who said, I think it's really fascinating for you to mention that you've never met each other in person. That is the perfect way to have a clear example of how virtual meetings can work.

And I think that that was kind of my light bulb moment and even, you know, several years in, we still have not met in person. But, you know, I think that that's a testament to the power of this meeting format, that it really can work quite well provided that you follow some basic rules.

Prof. Joseph Allen 00:23:00

You know, Karin, you basically took the words out of my mouth. I mean, that's so fascinating that different formats of meetings, hybrid, virtual face to face can be really, really effective. And I think for me, probably the experience that I remember most is just being in a lot of lousy meetings, it becoming a pet peeve of mine, and realising that's got to be better, we can do better.

And I've experienced better now that we realised that the science and the practice realise we can do better now I'm kind of on this, this kick of, hey, here's how here's how we can actually have those really positive experiences, like you and I have had and connecting through virtual means to now write three books together. It's just amazing.

Nisha Pillai 00:23:40

Well, good luck to both of you. Keep the message rolling out.  Professor Joe Allan, Karin Reed, thank you so much for joining me on The Agenda.

Karin Reed, Prof. Joseph Allen: 00:23:49

Thank you. Thank you.