How to Handle Attendees Taking Over A Meeting

If you’re one of the lucky ones who have never had to deal with this, than kudos to you! For the rest of us, we’ve all had that experience where you’re in the middle of a meeting/conference/workshop/event and all of the sudden some of the attendees start taking the topic in a different direction and before you know it, you’re talking about what Uncle Fred does at the Holiday Dinner table instead of the 5 ways of being the Most Effective at XYZ! And who wants to be the mean buzz kill to get everyone back on track when they all seem to be enjoying the organic conversation so much? Certainly not you! But alas… it’s your meeting and it’s your responsibility to make sure that everyone gets what they came for - information!

So what are the best ways to make sure that everyone stays on track over the course of your event? These tips will help you navigate those murky waters when you start to feel the meeting sliding into quicksand!

1. ALWAYS Prepare a Clear Agenda and Circulate it Early

One way to easily make sure that everyone is able to stay on track during your event is to make sure they are well aware of the agenda before the meeting even takes place. Obviously, things can roll off course here and there, because you want to make sure you’re allowing time in your agenda for Q&A and helping people out with specific questions they may have on the topic. But overall, I’ve found the most effective way to keep things on track is to have timeframes included with the specific parts of the day. You’ll be surprised how many people will want to adhere to those timeframes once they see things laid out and know what exactly is going to be accomplished over the course of the event. 

It is extremely efficient to think hard about the purpose, nature and structure of the meeting before it takes place. You want to make sure you’re going to have time to cover all of the topics that you are aiming for and by giving everyone the agenda well before the meeting, they are going to have time to process what they need to prepare beforehand, as well. Nobody wants to be surprised when a meeting pops up and they are expected to give reports, numbers, feedback, plans, etc. So give everyone the common courtesy that you would want and make sure they are fully aware of what they need to do to prepare for the event! This is going to greatly help the effectiveness of your meeting and make sure that everyone stays on track for the duration!

Don’t forget to include key topics, approximately how long each segment should last, what the expected outcome should be, etc. This will give the attendees a VERY clear agenda on what is and isn’t on topic and will better guard against digressions and distractions over the course of the event. Your goal should always be to leave participants feeling that a sensible process has been followed and they are clear on what the objective of the day will be! We all want to leave meetings feeling like we accomplished something!

2. When Things Get Off-Topic - Park It!

Despite having a clear agenda and making sure that timeframes are built around all of the topics that will be presented, there are still times when things may wander off course. Someone may have a specific question on something that is happening in their career that doesn’t quite fit with the timeframe or theme, but that doesn’t mean that it isn’t any less important. Instead of having everyone get involved in a topic that wasn’t on the agenda (which means that you’re going to easily lose 20 minutes of efficiency once everyone weighs in!), Park it!

What does that mean? Well… have you heard of moving things to the “parking lot” during meetings? If not, it’s a super fast way to get everyone back on track, while making sure that the individual who raised the off-topic subject will get their time to discuss their issue in the near future. Basically, a great way to make sure that this happens is to have a flip chart at your event that you label specifically “Parking Lot”. When comments and issues arise that aren’t related to the specific issue at hand, record them on the flip chart and most importantly… don’t forget them! By tracking the issue, you’re telling the attendee that it matters to you what they are saying, and you’ll circle back with them at a later time about their comment. 

3. Don’t Forget the Main Reason for the Event

Once things start heading in a direction that clearly has nothing to do with the main reason for your meeting, it’s your responsibility as the leader and presenter to make sure that things quickly get back on track. How do you do that without causing a breakdown in the entire event?

Remind everyone of the priorities for the day and what results you need to have accomplished by the end. Ask everyone if the course of the current conversation is going to move in that direction or is it taking away from the goal? Are the items that have been brought up best to be used in a different meeting or moved to the “parking lot”? You don’t want to have to hurry things too much at the end because too much time was wasted reining people in over the course of the meeting. This will only result in poor decisions being made, or worse yet… no decision being made at all and the meeting was a complete failure and waste of time. 

If things are going in a different direction, but you see that there is merit in the conversation, you may want to consider assigning it for discussion or moving it to a “subcommittee”. You want to be respectful of the information that is coming into the meeting and you want to make sure that everyone feels that their voice is being heard. If new ideas are cropping up that would be beneficial that weren’t thought about or introduced before that ARE on topic, make sure you are giving them the opportunity to be heard, while keeping things within the timeframe allowed. You want to make sure you are creating an environment of participation and inclusion.

4. Never Criticize in Public

Remember… politely, but firmly steer the meeting back in the right direction when things start to get a little crazy! You may have some very outspoken individuals in your room and you want to make sure that corporate politics don’t get in the way of what you are trying to accomplish. Everyone is there for the same reason - either you work for the same employer and really are on the same team, or you’re attending an event to better yourself in some fashion. Everyone is in this together! This is why you want to make sure you shut off public criticism before it even starts. It can be so destructive to morale, as well as to the purpose of what you’re trying to accomplish.

Gently remind everyone what the point of the meeting really is and deal with attempts to take the meeting in a more critical direction as a simple misunderstanding. You want to make it clear that criticizing others won’t be tolerated and that your area is a safe-zone for trying to move things in the right direction for everyone involved!

We all know that there are some who can dominate the conversation and take advantage of answering every question when the group is asked to participate. Make it a point to ask others for their ideas, as well, and make sure you’re taking into account the body language of the group. Maybe it’s time for a quick, impromptu break to break up the problem of someone in particular speaking too much. 

5. At the End, do a Debrief

Once everything is said and done and everyone has gone their merry way, take some time to sit down and go over what went well and what could have been better. Was the meeting/event as effective as you were hoping for? How well did all of the objectives for the day get met? This will help you continue to improve how you run meetings and make sure they are as effective as possible going forward. It is so beneficial to see where we struggle and what we’re doing well. How else will we get better at leadership?

You’ll also want to make sure that while you are in your meeting or event, you’re quickly summarizing what was said and ask everyone if they agree with that at the end of each agenda item. You want to make sure that everyone is understanding things in the same way and make sure you’re taking notes of things that need to be followed up on and may require further discussion at a later date. Also think about sending a meeting summary to all of the attendees so everyone is clearly on the same page once the meeting has concluded. This will help a lot when someone disagrees with how something went later down the line. There will be a clear summary on what was discussed, if anything was assigned out, or if things were moved to a later date!

Overall, it’s certainly not uncommon to see meetings get hijacked by attendees. It can be such a hard thing to manage in the moment, but the more you handle these types of items while they are happening, the less they will happen in the future. You’ll be more comfortable in leading the agenda and making sure things stay on track and attendees are going to know what does and doesn’t fly with you when they’re sitting in your meetings. You’re going to get the hang of this, lady!