No more content drift. Better brainstorms. A ban on chitchat. With the help of 3M Meeting Network's Michael Begeman, we took our weekly staff meetings to a new level. Here's our story.

It all began in 1994, when our group of then-five meeting industry magazines, including Corporate Meetings & Incentives, was purchased by Cathedral City, Calif.-based Adams Business Media. At the time, everyone worked in our corporate office in suburban Boston, and if we met at all, it was on an as-needed basis. Then, nine months after the acquisition, came a radical change: Our editors became telecommuters.

With that, another big change: Once a week, barring only acts of God, the telecommuters joined the rest of the staff in our new, downsized offices for a weekly meeting, every Tuesday morning at 10:00.

As editors of meeting industry magazines, we're big supporters of, well, the concept of internal company meetings. But we tried to cover so much ground in ours that they quickly became exhausting. We'd emerge from these two- or three-hour sessions glassy-eyed and dazed with information overload - not to mention hungry.

Over the years, we tried many changes to make the meetings more lively and focused. Rather than have the same person lead them each week, we began rotating the facilitators. Each was responsible for setting the agenda and e-mailing it to the group. We changed the meeting time from 10 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. to avoid traffic. We painted and postered our small conference room to spruce it up. We brought in snacks. Still, we knew that we could do more to liven up our meetings in ways that accomplished our business goals and sharpened our abilities as a team. We just didn't know how to do it.

It Wasn't Enough So in September, we invited Michael Begeman, creator and manager of the 3M Meeting Network (www.3m.com/meetingnetwork), CMI columnist, and professional facilitator, to sit in on one of our meetings and tell us what else we could do. Beforehand, we briefed him on our background and sent him audiotapes of previous meetings. During his visit, he sat straight-faced as we plowed a rather circuitous route through the agenda. Afterward, he shared many observations and recommendations that were just what we needed to revitalize our meeting. We think they'd be useful for any company looking to do the same.

Rule 1: State Your Objective Our first realization was that we are not alone in our struggle with the weekly staff meeting. Begeman had conducted a Web-based survey of a pool of about 4,000 business people who meet on a regular basis, and most reported that between one-quarter and one-half of the time they spent in meetings was wasted. That's a lot of boredom - and missed opportunities.

"If people did just one thing to improve internal meetings, it would be to have clear, stated objectives so that everyone in the room knows why they are there and what they are going to produce from the meeting. Then the time-wasters would drop away," he told us.

His advice? Before creating the meeting agenda, ask why the group is getting together. Be specific. Also, keep the meeting oriented to group problem solving, not to information sharing. Use technology such as e-mail to communicate information before the meeting, or bring in a typed report.

Knowing the objectives has another big benefit: If people are clear about what the meeting's supposed to accomplish, they will know when the meeting's over. "Many meetings just go on and on," says Begeman. "People don't know when they're done. But if there's a clear objective, people realize when to quit."

We've all been to those meetings that go all over the place (what Begeman refers to as "topic drift"). People lose focus and go off on tangents. It's part of human nature. But according to Begeman, everyone at the meeting has it in his or her power to redirect people's attention.

"Everyone should be able to say 'Wait a minute, are we still on the topic, or have we drifted off?' Then the group can decide if it is important to pursue that trail for a few minutes, or to talk about it later."

How to Get Unstuck It's easy to recognize when a group gets stuck - you can feel it. The question is what to do about it.

Cut it off at the pass, advises Begeman. The discussion leader needs to end a conversation that's not going anywhere, re-cap the points that were made, and resolve the issue at a later time, away from the group.

Among his other suggestions to keep meetings flowing:

- Don't engage in side conversations that aren't clearly audible to every participant.

- Set a trigger so that conversations remain useful to the entire group, not just to one or two people.

- Empower each participant to be responsible for meeting productivity.

- Don't defer a decision without clearly defining the next step.

- Take a break after 45 minutes to an hour, or attention spans will drift. Enforce a time limit on the break.

- Group agenda items into categories and set time limits on them so that the facilitator knows when time becomes a problem.

- Schedule time for the facilitator to do a verbal review at the end of the meeting that covers group decisions, action items that were assigned, and open issues tabled for later discussion.

Don't Show Up Unprepared Like most publishing companies, we're lean and deadline-oriented. Preparing for our weekly meetings hasn't ranked high on our list of priorities. That's a big mistake that Begeman sees in many companies.

"The lack of preparation sucks out productivity. When people aren't prepared, their speaking style tends to wander. They make stuff up on the fly while they're searching their memory."

Four kinds of conversations happen at meetings. The first is chitchat (with our group, that means catching up on personal good news at the meeting, since we never do it in the office). Second is what Begeman calls "conversation for possibilities." Brainstorming new ideas falls under this category. There's nothing inherently wrong with this kind of conversation, but if too much talk ends prematurely in the realm of possibility, the group has used up time without going anywhere. The third type of conversation identifies what options or solutions can be considered, given the available resources.

The fourth and most important type of discussion - and the one most often missing in staff meetings - is action oriented. This type of conversation results in decision-making and forward motion. For effective action discussions, groups have to determine what action needs to be taken, identify who takes it, and set deadlines. It helps to have the group facilitator verbally recognize action items as they are brought up during the meeting.

Keep It Light When our group gets together, everyone feels free to offer an opinion. It's good to have that loose, open atmosphere, said Begeman, but it's not productive to criticize an idea and leave it at that.

His suggestion: Make it illegal in the group conversation to just say no. Whoever rejects an idea also has to say what would make it acceptable. This makes the objecting party accountable for improving the idea - and it helps people to listen more effectively to each other.

After all, staff meetings are about more than work, they're also about building a team. "There's a social aspect, as well as a task aspect, to every internal company meeting," Begeman says. He recommended introducing teambuilding exercises on a regular basis: once a month to a roster of weekly staff meetings, for example.

His final advice: "Don't leave it to the annual Christmas party or golf outing to have a little fun."

Did you know that your meeting room can make or break your meeting's productivity?

When 3M Meeting Network's Michael Begeman conducted an online survey asking people to describe their ideal conference room, their three most important requests were a window to see the outside, a way to control the temperature, and comfortable chairs. If you are a team leader or executive seeking a collaborative experience, be sure to use that chair, because standing will inhibit people from speaking their minds. So will sitting at the head of the table.

When considering the meeting room setup, remember that while meetings are verbal, about 65 percent of our brain is made up of the visual cortex. If you engage people visually, they will pay attention.

Begeman also recommends that people use as much wall space as possible. For us, he suggested visual displays on what each individual or team is doing, such as project boards or editorial lineups and schedules. "What I see in companies that create this visual structure is that people do stop and look," he says, "and it starts to create the linkages between what one person is doing and what another is doing."

The four types of meeting conversations: 1. Chitchat - idle conversation or gossip that doesn't go anywhere

2. Brainstorming - a conversation for possibilities and examining ideas

3. Opportunity - a conversation that considers the practical options given available resources

4. Action - a conversation that identifies decisions and sets them in motion