Most people dislike meetings because they waste time and don't achieve objectives.

The root of the problem is usually the people running the meetings. A meeting host who clearly outlines objectives and enforces the agenda to ensure a successful outcome is rare.

I was reminded of how great meetings can be when I recently went to a presentation on investing in wireless stocks. The leader motivated everyone to listen by detailing what we would each get out of the meeting and then delivered on her promise by encouraging the exchange of ideas.

She kept the meeting focused by politely nipping unrelated input in the bud.

If you master meeting management, you will gain a reputation as someone who is organized and knows how to get things done. Fail to run a good meeting, and people won't want to attend your meetings or trust your project management skills.

Improving your meeting management techniques is a matter of preparation and practice. Use these tips to hone your skills.

-Identify goals for your meetings before they start. Your lead time should match the importance of the gathering. For example, if you're hosting a kickoff meeting for a large project, you may want to begin planning for the session a week or more beforehand. This will ensure that you have enough time to prepare presentation ideas and to coordinate with participants.

-Start sessions with an overview. Begin all meetings with an overview of the meeting's objective and allotted time. When possible, add a sentence or two about why the people in the meeting will benefit from attending.

For example, if the meeting is about new Web site traffic tracking technology, emphasize that by attending, people are keeping up with the skills they need to be competitive in the market. An administrative meeting to review naming conventions for the documents stored on the company's server would have the objective of helping employees to create file names that will make it easier for everyone to accomplish daily tasks.

-Provide context. Before launching into the first agenda item, review relevant background information and assumptions to ensure everyone is beginning at the same point of understanding.

-Maintain focus. As the meeting progresses, people may sidetrack discussions with other topics. You will lose credibility if you let the meeting run long or if you waste participants' time on topics that don't affect them.

When you encounter a topic that is not on the agenda, immediately decide if it needs to be covered by the group. If the topic is important, but cannot be fleshed out in the allotted time, schedule a follow-up meeting.

-Extract the information you need. In some meetings, participants might not be vocal with their ideas. If you're not getting the feedback necessary to resolve the issues at hand, ask direct questions.

-Summarize at the end. Save the last few minutes of a meeting to review the group's decisions and define next steps. Be specific at this time so that it is perfectly clear which individual will handle each outstanding task. Assign due dates for each assignment, as well.

-Designate someone as a note-taker. Effectively running a meeting and taking notes at the same time can be difficult. It also may not be appropriate for you to be a note-taker, depending on the image you want to project to the audience.

Alice Bredin is author of the "Virtual Office Survival Handbook" (John Wiley & Sons) and a nationally syndicated columnist.

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