Learn How To Keep Your Meetings On Topic – Part 1 of 2

Keeping attendees focused on producing results consistent with a meeting’s objectives and agenda is a vital responsibility of a meeting leader. This task can become challenging depending on the nature of the meeting content, attendee personalities and the natural inclination for stakeholders to veer off topic.


Consider an airplane flying from New York to Los Angeles. During the course of the five-hour flight, an airplane is continually flying off course. Winds aloft are pushing the aircraft in different directions requiring the pilot to make regular adjustments to keep the plane on the proper heading. Meetings follow the same tendency and all too often end up heading in an unintended direction. To fix the issue the meeting leader needs to be skilled at Redirecting. Redirecting is about getting meeting attendees back on topic when they stray from the focus of the meeting. Redirecting requires:

  • Awareness of when a meeting is heading off course.
  • Patience to allow a reasonable amount of time for wayward attendees to get themselves back on track.
  • Action when needed to get the meeting back on track.

The first step in keeping meeting attendees on topic is knowing that they are off topic in the first place. An inattentive meeting leader without a clear understanding of the meeting objectives has little hope of efficiently leading attendees to their destination.

Second, meeting leaders need to be calculated in redirecting attendees’ focus. If you redirect too quickly, this can alienate attendees by squelching their creative thinking. However, meeting leaders cannot just sit idly by and watch time being wasted.

Unfortunately there are no hard fast rules about when to redirect attendees. This is left to the judgment of the meeting leader in consideration of many factors (other leaders and attendees involved, time constraints, meeting content, cultural norms, politics). Once the meeting has strayed off course, the meeting leader needs to take corrective action.

There are specific actions that meeting leaders can take to redirect meeting attendees to get their meetings back on topic. However, before a meeting leader even gets to the point where they need to redirect a meeting there is one thing they must do that will make the rest of their job much easier. We call this tactic the Pre-Frame and this should be done either before the meeting starts or right at the start of the meeting.


The Pre-Frame establishes the expectation that attendees stay on target and that the meeting leader will take the responsibility for keeping the meeting on topic.

Example: Before reviewing our agenda I want to mention that we have an aggressive schedule and are very tight on time. So it’s important that we stay on topic. If it looks as if we’re heading off course from our objectives. I’m asking your permission to get us back on topic. Does that work for everyone?

In this Pre-Frame example the meeting leader sets the expectation for staying on topic and asks for permission to redirect the team as needed. What is the likelihood that attendees would object to someone keeping them on topic? The important point here is to prepare attendees for the potential redirect in advance. While this tactic is not foolproof, it does increase the likelihood that attendees will stay on topic and greases the skids for redirecting them when they don’t.

We recently managed a strategic planning offsite meeting for a Fortune 500 organization. Prior to the meeting we paid special attention to pre-framing the need to stay on topic in each communication leading up to the meeting in addition to during personal conversations with each attendee. The results of the pre-frame tactic were simply outstanding. Attendees remained mostly on topic and even when they didn’t, they generally acknowledged to the team that they were intentionally going a little off topic but to “please hear them out.” As a result the meeting successfully ended on time with all agenda items completed and all objectives accomplished.

With the Pre-Frame groundwork established there are four specific tactics you can leverage to get your meetings back on topic. Stay tuned for the next blog post where we will review the four specific tactics you can leverage to get your meetings back on topic.

Have you ever used a version of the Pre-Frame before?  If so how did it work?  It not how do you think it would work in your business?

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