Mastering the 30-Minute Meeting

short meetings

For much of my career, a one-hour meeting was the norm.  But in the world of startups, 30 minutes is all you get most of the time for sessions with mentors and advisors, or intro meetings with investors.  Time flies and it’s hard to accomplish much if you aren’t used to it.  In this article I share my personal tips and best practices for mastering the 30-minute meeting, including the forever-popular virtual meeting.

Breaking it Down

If you do the simple math, every single minute equates to 3.3% of the total meeting time.  At the 10-minute mark, a full 1/3 of the meeting time is gone!  But it gets worse.  Very few meetings actually start exactly on time.  If a meeting starts just 5 minutes late, you’ve only got 83% of your original, already short, time.

Optimization for Time

Arrive Early

For in-person meetings, plan to arrive at least 10 minutes early, in case traffic or whatever throws you a curve ball.  “Sorry, traffic was a bitch today” just sounds like an excuse and shows you don’t plan for contingencies.

For video conferences, click the link 2-3 minutes early to go through the first step or two of establishing the connection.  It allows any needed plug-ins to download and often lets you select and test the microphone, camera and speakers without fully joining the meeting.  Jerking around with that stuff after the meeting start time doesn’t just waste time, it also starts the meeting with a negative nuisance.

Starting Mentor Office Hours on Time

This advice is mostly unique to the traditional office hour meetings between mentors and startup founders, but variations might apply to other situations.  Office hours usually involve a block of time, split into 20-30 minute meetings.  Since the best office hours involve the mentor and founder getting deep into a discussion, and possibly with excitement, they can easily lose track of time.  If you wait for the mentor to realize the current meeting has gone over by a few minutes, you’ve just cheated yourself.

I don’t consider it rude when the founder I’m meeting next approaches the table I’m sitting at, 10-20 seconds before it’s time to finish my existing appointment and start theirs.  Not 2 minutes early, but just before their start time.  They also don’t need to stand right over me, but rather 3-5 feet away and in my line of sight.  That informs me that it’s time to swap, let’s me acknowledge them, and let’s me very quickly finish my current meeting.

Get Right to the Point

Keep any introductory chit chat to a minimum.  If you’re meeting with an investor for the first time, for sure it’s appropriate to get to know each other first.  But use this time efficiently.  In other words, don’t talk about the weather or a recent football game.

If you’ve previously established rapport with the person your meeting, you can usually just jump right into it without any chit chat.  “Hey Gordon, thanks for meeting with me again.  I’ve got two key things I’d like to get your feedback on today.”  For mentoring and advisory sessions, I have no problem getting right into it, even if I’m meeting the founder for the first time because I want to deliver as much value in a short 30 minutes as possible.

For both settings, I have a phrase you can use to help transition to the business topic as quickly as possible: “I want to be respectful of your time and I know we only have 30 minutes . . .”  This shows empathy, while reminding the other person that the clock is ticking.

Optimizing for Effectiveness

Recording the Meeting

For meetings that involve complex topics or might involve rapid exchanges of information, typing or writing notes can present a mild mental distraction – especially if you’re taking the meeting solo.  To best help you focus on the discussion and interpret what the other person is saying, consider recording the meeting using the audio recorder on your phone.  Of course, you’ll need to ask permission first.  Mention that it would be helpful if you don’t have to take notes during the meeting but rather to do so later to best capture all of the important information.  I find that mentors and advisors are usually fine with their sessions being recorded, but not so much investors.  Investors might worry that you’re going to use the recording as evidence of sorts that they made an investment commitment.

One Driver

If you will be joined by one or more of your team members, only one person can drive the meeting.  Actually, if you have two or three topics to cover, it is possible that the discussion leader baton gets passed from topic to topic.  I can tell you from experience that when two founders both try to be equally active during a meeting, at least some whipsaw is introduced and that makes it harder to stay on track.  Instead, the person that’s not driving can be the chief note taker and can pay very close attention to the dialog and body language of the others.  That can really help for a better meeting debrief afterwards.

Frame the Objective

When you’re ready to get to the business conversation, start by informing the other party what it is that you’re hoping to accomplish during the meeting.  This has multiple benefits.  First, it allows the other person’s brain to dial in on the right mode of thinking.  In other words, if you tell me your customer acquisition model isn’t working and you need some advice, I will be evaluating the next few sentences out of your mouth in the context of customer acquisition.  If you don’t first set the stage, I might think we’re going to be talking about fundraising, hiring, or any number of other things.  And brain whipsaw leads to inefficiency, which leads to unnecessary clock burn.

The second reason it’s valuable to frame the objective is that it best helps the other person stay in the zone with regards to the questions they ask.  If they’re thinking fundraising strategy instead of broken customer acquisition model, their questions can be a waste of valuable time.

Reminder About Prior Meeting

If you met with the person more than a week ago and the topic of the new conversation relates to anything discussed in that prior meeting, include a very brief recap of the prior meeting before you frame the objective for the new meeting. Active mentors meet lots of startups and help work on lots of problems and opportunities. A quick recap will help them recall some important things and get into the frame of mind to dive into the current topics.

Here’s an example: “The last time we met, you might remember that we talked about securing a strategic partnership with ABC Corporation. You gave us advice on how to advance the opportunity and request an LOI. We had success with that and would like to review a couple of their proposed edits to the LOI to make sure they aren’t something we should be concerned about.”

Tell ‘Em, Tell ‘Em, Tell ‘Em

There’s dispute as to who first came up with this tool for speeches and sermons, but I sometimes use it for certain meetings and presentations.  Break the meeting into three parts:

  1. Tell them what you’re going to tell them
  2. Tell them
  3. Tell them what you told them

The first step is the setup, including my concept for framing the objective.  The second step is the meat of the discussion, and the third step is a recap of the key points you want them to remember.  This tool works best for presentations rather than roll-up-your-sleeve working sessions or other types of meetings that call for moderate or higher levels of interaction.

Action Items

For interactive discussions, it can be very effective to finish with a recap of any decisions or actions items that resulted.  Having you recite them to the other person gives them a chance to concur, clarify, or correct your statements.  That’s hugely valuable.

If the other person commits to action items, such as introducing you to someone or sending you something, email them within 24 hours (later that same day is even better and shows that you are quick to follow-thru) with a recap of the things they agreed to do.

With this, make it as easy as possible for them to actually follow-through on their commitments.  For example, if they agreed to introduce you to someone, send them an email that is worded in such a way that all they have to do is click the FORWARD button and add a few comments of their own before clicking SEND.  If, instead, they agreed to review your pitch deck, include it as an attachment or link.

Time Allocation Between the Parties

For mentoring sessions, I think a 50/50 balance of talking is often ideal.  In other words, the founder talks about half of the total time and same for the mentor.  But I’d also like to further break that down so the session provides maximum value:

  • Half of the time the founder talks is allocated to setting the stage and providing necessary background information
  • Half of the time the founder talks is allocated to asking and answering questions
  • Half of the time the mentor talks is allocated to clarifying what was heard and asking questions to gain additional information
  • Half of the time the mentor talks is allocated to telling stories and describing possible tools/methods to use for the stated objective

For introductory meetings with investors, the ideal balance will be different.  Some founders think they should consume 95% of the talking, so that as much information as possible can be conveyed.  But I think that’s too aggressive.  An intro meeting with an investor is an opportunity to start building a relationship.  Additionally, the founder should want to get to know the investor.

Since it is important to get an investor excited, I find that a mix of 70% founder talking and 30% investor talking is often ideal.  Of course, the investor is going to ask some questions, but properly granting them 30% of the talking time usually requires the founder to ask them some good questions.  The best questions help determine if the investor is interested enough to want to dive deeper in another meeting.  It’s also great if some questions help reveal what the investor is most concerned about and/or most excited about, with regards to investing in your business.

Contingency Readiness

After reading this article, you will be ready for the meeting to start late, but what if it starts 20 minutes late?  Be ready for a 10-minute meeting.

If the meeting is going really well and the other person has a twinkle in their eye and positive body language, there is a decent chance the meeting will extend beyond 30 minutes.  Hopefully you thought about that possibility when you scheduled your other meetings for the day.  In fact, if the meeting seems to be going really well and you would love for it to get extended, at about the 25-minute mark, say something like “I notice we’ve only got about 5 minutes left.  Do you have a hard stop at the bottom of the hour?”  If you get even an extra 10 minutes, you’ve just added 33% to your meeting time!

Be prepared for a different set of meeting participants.  Maybe someone from your team got stuck in traffic or had a last-minute emergency.  Be ready to hold the meeting on your own rather than cancel.  Or maybe someone different or someone in addition shows up for the other side.  If so, quickly decide if there is anything about the meeting objectives that need to change as a result.  For example, imagine you’re having a second meeting with a venture fund associate and two general partners suddenly appear as the meeting gets started.  The best entrepreneurs are adjustable, adaptable chameleons.

Virtual Meetings

Since I’m writing this article about six months into the global COVID-19 pandemic, I would be remiss if I didn’t include mention of virtual meetings.  In fact, even after things return to some form of “new normal”, it’s already clear that virtual business meetings are here to stay.  Below is a TL/DR list of 20 tips for optimizing the experience during a virtual meeting.  They are explained in more detail in this article.  The higher the stakes for the meeting (ie – intro meeting with an investor versus monthly meeting with an advisory board member), the more strongly you should consider them.

  1. If you subscribe to a basic Internet data package, pay the extra $20/mo to double your speed
  2. Plug your laptop/computer directly into the network (versus using Wi-Fi)
  3. Use a high-quality webcam
  4. Use a high-quality microphone
  5. Evaluate the lighting for brightness and evenness
  6. Don’t sit with a window behind you, unless it has blinds/curtains that can be closed.  A blank wall or one with a simple piece of artwork is ideal.
  7. Situate yourself and your computer such that the camera is level with your face, or close
  8. Pick a location with minimal background noise
  9. Use earbuds or a headset to reduce background noise
  10. Dress as you would if you were meeting the investor in their office.  Same for basic grooming.
  11. Wear a solid-colored shirt to optimize video quality
  12. If your co-founder(s) will also participate, pick one person as the lead presenter and “router” for answering questions
  13. Everyone focuses on the meeting – no texting, checking email, writing code, etc
  14. Practice the presentation sharing feature ahead of time, and for the exact videoconferencing service that’s being used
  15. Share the presentation’s app window or browser tab instead of your full desktop
  16. Do not read from a script.  Crib notes only, if needed.
  17. Silence your cell phone and temporarily disable various pop-up notifications on your computer (ie – email, Slack)
  18. Move the videoconferencing window you’re looking at as close to the camera as possible
  19. If the videoconferencing window is split into multiple squares due to 3+ participants, move the window to the left or right so that the person you want to be looking at is as close to the camera as possible
  20. For a dual-monitor setup, situate the camera on top of the monitor you’ll most often be looking at

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