How to Solicit Useful Meeting Feedback

At the end of an day-long meeting, most people leave with a strong opinion on whether or not that day in a conference room was time well spent. Meeting leaders rarely hear any kudos or complaints, unless they happen to overhear a conversation at the water cooler. This is unfortunate, because feedback can be crucial to creating successful meetings. In fact, meeting planners should be soliciting input in an effort to evaluate—and then improve upon—their current meetings. Here’s how.

For a small meeting, you may want to avoid using any quantitative instruments for measuring effectiveness. The garden variety team leader or project manager shouldn’t have people filling out a ten-page survey to figure out if a meeting was good or not. They will revolt and rightly so.

Instead, the best assessment for small groups is a simple, three-minute debriefing at the end of the meeting. Ask the group for a list of factors that facilitated or impeded the meeting’s success. It won’t take long to see common complaints, and then there’s no reason to ask the question anymore.

On the other hand, there are some instances when a printed feedback form may prove more effective than a verbal discussion. Surveys—sometimes filled out anonymously—can keep opinions from seeming like personal attacks, and they are probably necessary to gauge the opinions of large groups numbering thirty-five or more. For best results, a survey should be brief enough that participants can easily complete it and return it during the last five or ten minutes of the meeting. Remember, surveys tend to disappear when participants are allowed to leave the room and return them at their convenience.

Still, even the shortest surveys should include a mix of quantitative and qualitative questions. Rather than asking attendees to rate the speakers on a scale of one to five, for instance, have them rate each particular speaker and his or her topic. For the qualitative questions, open-ended queries such as, “Is there anything you’d like to communicate to the meeting organizers?” should be used.

Ideally, the responses to these questions will provide a consensus on the best and worst parts of a meeting. However, sometimes a survey or verbal evaluation yields such contradictory opinions that an outsider would not believe everyone attended the same meeting. That’s why the number-one rule of thumb is to have a clear, explicitly stated objective before each meeting. This creates a target that everybody is shooting for.

And if you’re able to achieve that objective, then you know you’ve been successful. “You need to weigh the feedback against whether or not the objective was actually met. If people are complaining about things that are ancillary to the objective, you may not need to pay attention to those comments.”

Most complaints should be evaluated carefully, though, as they may hold a key to making meetings more successful. And that is the real goal.