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 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.

Get Right to the Point

Keep any introductory chit chat to a minimum.  If you’re meeting with a mentor, advisor or investor for the first time, for sure it’s appropriate to get to know each other first.  But use this time wisely.  In other words, don’t talk about the weather or a recent football game.  Instead, ask the other person a question to get to know them.  “So, how long have you been a mentor for Capital Factory?” or “I see that you took a company public back in 2012.  Was that the wild ride that people say it is?”

If you’ve previously established rapport with the person your meeting, you usually can 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.

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.

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

Instead of the tell ‘em, tell ‘em, tell ‘em approach, often times it’s 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.

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 “normal”, it’s already clear that virtual business meetings are here to stay.  Below are a set of recommendations and best practices to consider for virtual meetings.  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.

Audio & Video Quality

If your audio or video stream get glitchy, it will greatly impact the overall quality of the interaction.  If you subscribe for the most basic data package with your Internet provider, upgrade it.  You can probably double your bandwidth for an extra $20/mo.  If you have a crappy webcam or headset, replace it.

Location

If you have a home office, great.  If not, your couch or outdoor porch are not good settings.  Situate yourself with the camera as level with your face as possible (ie – not on your lap looking up at your face) and think about what’s behind you.  A blank wall or a wall with a piece of artwork is great.  A collage of party photos from your college days isn’t, and a window behind you turns you into a silhouette.  Finally, either try to pick a location where background noise is minimized or use a headset with a microphone that only picks up your speaking voice and not surrounding noises.

Dress Attire

Dress like you would if you were meeting the other party at their office.  And go through your normal morning grooming routine, as if you were going to meet them in their office.  Look like you’re fresh and sharp on a Tuesday morning much more than Saturday morning after a hard night of partying.

Number of Founders

If more than one founder really needs to attend the meeting, realize that it adds complexity that should be considered.  The lack of body language clues and the delayed audio stream from the videoconference dramatically increase the odds that the founders will trip over each other.  Make sure to follow my “one driver” advice from above.  Additionally, for any interactive part of the meeting in which you’re answering questions, you have two approaches to consider.  Pick one and make sure your co-founder knows.

Your first option is to have one person serve as the router of questions.  In other words, if you’re the router, your co-founder doesn’t answer a question unless you flip it to her.  The other option is to decide ahead of time who should answer questions based on the topic area.  Maybe you handle all questions related to business and your co-founder handles the ones related to product and technology.  Just beware that there could be hybrid topics that cause a collision in response.  As you can probably tell, I tend to prefer the router approach for videoconferences.

Finally, whoever isn’t talking needs to remain focused on the meeting (looking into the screen), not texting on their phone, working on emails, or writing code.  You wouldn’t do those things if you were sitting at a table with the investor.

Presenting and Demonstrating

In the event that you’ll have a chance to present some of your pitch deck or do a short product demo, prepare and practice ahead of time with a co-founder.  Know exactly where the share buttons and related collaboration functions are for the selected videoconferencing service.  If you fumble basic presentation and collaboration tasks, it will have a negative effect on the overall quality of the interaction while offering the extra punishment of wasting time.

At all costs, DO NOT read from a script during your presentation.  It is OK to have some cheat notes to help remember important factoids and things like that.  But reading from a script will be obvious, take your visual focus away from the camera, and generally not be natural or exciting.

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