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4 steps to leading your first meeting

African American woman leading her first meeting to a group of coworkers

By Kara Dennison, SPHR

At a glance

  • Preparation, communication, a clear meeting agenda and structured opportunities for participation can help you lead effective meetings.
  • Being confident while staying calm can be a challenge for first-time meeting leaders. Explore tactics like box breathing and affirmations.
  • Just as important as how you lead is how you follow up. Be sure to provide feedback and communicate to-dos for the team so everyone knows next steps.
  • Upskill for today’s job market with professional development courses in digital marketing, healthcare, education, information technology and human resources at University of Phoenix!

The art of leading effective meetings

Running an effective meeting is essential for many professionals, yet it’s not usually something for which people receive formal training. No wonder then that many people find it anxiety-provoking and stressful.

When it’s time for you to run a meeting, whether it’s your first or your hundredth, the fear of failure can limit you — unless you’re prepared. Read on for four steps to follow (and one major pitfall to avoid) so that you’re equipped to lead a productive and engaging session the first time and every time after.

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Step 1: Plan and prep

The first step to running a productive meeting is to plan well. Before you schedule a meeting, think about the purpose of the meeting and whether it’s necessary to have one. Can the content be shared another way?

(Insert the “This meeting could’ve been an email” meme here.)

If a meeting is essential, ensure that you have a clear agenda and goal, and decide whether the meeting will be in person or online. Then, provide relevant materials on the topic to the participants ahead of time. This helps set up everyone for success — including you!

In-person meetings

If your meeting is in person, prepare the space before attendees arrive. Test all equipment, such as a projector or smartboard. Tidy up and make sure there are enough seats.

Take a few minutes to calm your nerves so you are your most confident and relaxed self. My best tip for this is to practice a Navy SEAL technique for lowering your heart rate: box breathing.

Box breathing is breathing in for a count of four, holding your breath for a count of four, breathing out for a count of four, and then waiting another count of four before repeating. Try this for a full minute and notice how your breathing and heart rate become more regulated.

Additionally, if you need a boost of confidence, the old “fake it till you make it” approach works well here. I like to assume a superhero pose and listen to my favorite confidence-building song moments before entering a stressful situation. (Think hands on your hips, shoulders back and a smile plastered on your face.). Don’t knock it until you try it!

Take it a step further and repeat your favorite affirmation to seal in the fact that you’re leading this meeting for a reason and that you’re more than capable. A good one is: “I am valuable and my confidence will bring me success.”

Online meetings

If your meeting is online, enable the right platform and ensure everyone has the proper login details well before the meeting begins. Many platforms generate meeting login credentials when booking the event. Don’t wait to share those details!

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Step 2: Communicate expectations clearly

Once you’ve laid the groundwork for your meeting, it’s time to set clear expectations and communicate them.

It’s essential to let everyone know what you’d like to achieve in the meeting so that the group is on the same page when it starts. A quick way to do this is to review the agenda at the beginning of the meeting and go over the goals you’d like to accomplish by the end of the session. This will help keep the meeting on track and give attendees a clear direction as to where the meeting is headed and what they should expect to contribute.

Clear communication is one of the most effective skills a professional can develop. It not only helps you accomplish what you need to at the meeting, but it also helps ensure everyone feels engaged and productive.

In-person meetings

If you’re holding an in-person meeting, communicate the start and finish times as well as an agenda. Those two steps go a long way toward keeping everything on track.

Encouraging positive behavior among attendees is also crucial. It’s OK to politely remind participants to avoid side conversations and distractions so that you maintain productivity. One way to do this is to say, “Hey, everyone, as a reminder, here is where we are on the agenda, and this is what we have left to accomplish. Let’s turn our attention back to the goal of this meeting so we can wrap up on time.”

Online meetings

One of the biggest potential embarrassments with virtual meetings is the mute-unmute conundrum. To avoid unintended comments or chatter, mute everyone’s microphones before the meeting begins. (Most meeting platforms have a function where the presenter can mute and/or unmute all attendees.) Start the meeting muted, tell everyone they are muted and invite them to unmute and participate when necessary.

Step 3: Breathe and follow the agenda

Take a breath. You have set yourself up for running an effective meeting. Breathe again, begin the meeting and follow the agenda. Sticking to the agenda is vital to running a productive meeting.

I have attended countless meetings where conversations have veered off track. It can feel challenging to redirect these discussions. However, as the meeting leader, keeping discussions on track will prevent wasting time, let you cover necessary topics and keep everyone engaged and focused.

In-person meetings

In-person meetings offer a certain advantage when it comes to staying on track: body language. If the conversation takes a detour to the land of tangents and anecdotes, you can nod, avert your eyes and, during the pause, say something like, “I hear you on that, but let’s table this conversation for now, grab time to discuss it later, and return our focus to the agenda.”

Online meetings

In online meetings, the silence can be deafening. Are they paying attention? Are they even there? To keep everyone focused and also prevent distractions, try incorporating visual aids like slides, charts or graphs. Tell key participants at the beginning that you’ll be asking for their input later. And, if distractions occur, redirect the conversation to the agenda. 

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Step 4: Invite participation

Encouraging participation and feedback while preventing side conversations can feel like a game of tug-of-war. Get ahead of the game by providing structured opportunities for individuals to share their ideas and perspectives. Build in time for relevant discussions. This can foster a collaborative and focused environment while minimizing distractions.

In-person meetings

Whether virtual or in person, meetings usually see some attendees dominating the discussion while others remain silent. Meeting in person, however, may make it a little easier to invite quieter participants to share their ideas. Make a point of making eye contact and asking for input from less-outspoken attendees. This can shift the focus away from the dominant speakers and create more breadth in terms of ideas and input. Give everyone a chance to provide feedback before moving on to the next topic.

Online meetings

In online meetings, participation often dies an early death as it can feel safer to simply remain silent. If calling on attendees by name doesn’t work (especially if you have more than 20 people in a meeting), try using features such as polls and breakout rooms to encourage participation and allow everyone to contribute.

Steer clear of the No. 1 pitfall

Lack of follow-up after a meeting can lead to confusion, missed deadlines and, ultimately, reduced productivity. To avoid this, it’s important to provide clarity during the meeting and assign specific responsibilities to individuals, confirming that everyone is on the same page.

Send a summary of key takeaways, action items to be completed and clear deadlines. Ensure everyone is aware of their responsibilities and assign reminders. Prioritizing follow-up can help create a culture of accountability, where teams can build trust and continue participating after the meeting.

Creating a supportive and inclusive meeting environment builds trust and fosters open communication among participants. Thoroughly preparing, communicating expectations, sticking to the agenda and following up will solidify that your meetings, from one to 100, are a valuable use of everyone’s time. 


Kara Dennison is a certified Senior Professional in Human Resources (SPHR), an executive career and leadership coach, and a Forbes contributor. She’s the CEO of Optimized Career Solutions. Her dream job is helping high achievers and leaders live authentic lives, starting with their careers. When she’s not writing for University of Phoenix or coaching high achievers and leaders, you can find her hanging out with her husband and two black cats or swinging in the hammock out back in her small, remote town in Tennessee.


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