Conducting Better Meetings - Can Data Help? - Ideas for Leaders
Idea #182

Conducting Better Meetings – Can Data Help?

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The science of meetings — which includes collecting sophisticated data that analyzes meetings word-by-word and phrase-by-phrase — is still in its infancy. Researchers from MIT, however, used an available database with a myriad of data to reach some tentative conclusions about different facets of meetings, from calculating average ‘wrap-up’ times once a decision is reached to identifying the most persuasive words used in meetings. They were even able to use language analysis to identify when participants in a meeting were about to make a decision


What can statistics and data-based analyses reveal to us about meetings that are effective (leading to consensus and decision-making) and efficient (goals achieved in optimal time)? Because the science of meetings is still in its early stages, the raw data for study is still being accumulated. However, two researchers from MIT’s Sloan School of Management, statistics professor Cynthia Rudin and graduate student Been Kim, used available data and related literature to explore four specific questions about meetings:

  1. Is it possible to detect when, in a meeting, a decision is about to be made?
  2. Is there a pattern to social (non-work) dialogue during the meeting?
  3. How much time does it take to ‘wrap up’ a meeting once a decision is reached?
  4. Are there truly ‘persuasive’ words to use in meetings that lead to acceptance of proposals?

In addition to related research (for example, on persuasive words), the researchers analyzed a database of statistics drawn from a controlled set of 95 meetings. This database breaks the 95 meetings (which lasted less than an hour) down into 108,947 individual ‘dialogue acts’ — questions, statements, assessments of suggestions (“that’s a good idea”) — and 26,825 ‘adjacency pairs,’ which are connected dialogue acts. The combination of a question and an answer to the question, for example, is an adjacency pair.

Based on their analysis, the researchers offer some tentative answers to the four questions above, as follows:

  1. A decision is becoming imminent when the meeting becomes focused on information-related dialogue acts (giving information, or, in second place, asking for information).  What is happening, according to the researchers, is that participants are making sure they have all the relevant information necessary to make a decision.
  2. Positive social dialogue (“you really worked hard on this”) is connected to positive work assessments (“that’s the information we need”).
  3. For meetings lasting less than one hour (the length of the meetings in the database), a meeting wrapped up quickly if all decisions were made before 14 minutes had elapsed in the meeting. For meetings that had lasted longer than 14 minutes, the wrap-up time became longer. Eventually, however, as the meetings get too long (approaching 45 minutes in the database), the meetings adjourn quickly after all decisions are made.
  4. The researchers identified a set of persuasive words that when used in suggestions led to acceptance of those suggestions. “Yeah” proved to be the most effective because the suggestion is framed as agreeing with a previously accepted suggestion (“yeah, we could do that…”). “Give” is effective, partly because it assumes suggestions are based on previous data (“Given what we know, this will be the best course of action”).  “Start” is also effective, because it gives participants an opportunity to agree (“Let’s start with this problem first…”) “Meeting” appears in mostly accepted suggestions about what not to do (“Let’s leave this for the next meeting…”). And finally, “discuss” is among the most effective words in a meeting, used to frame the organization of the meeting (“We don’t need to spend too much time discussing this minor issue…”).


Because the data for studying meetings scientifically is still being gathered — Rudin and Kim were limited to 45-minute meetings, for example — the conclusions of the research are tentative. Nevertheless, in addition to setting the table for more extensive research, the MIT research leads to some interesting applications for businesses.

Since scientific analysis of words reveals when a decision is about to be made, a software tool could be developed that alerts managers when they might want or need to join a meeting of their staff. Thus, managers can participate in the most important parts of the meeting without having to attend the full meeting.

Patterns of social dialogue can be instructive. Some less sophisticated managers might attempt to connect positive social dialogue to their negative assessments in an attempt to offer encouragement (“that information is useless, but thank you for the effort”). This only makes the speaker sound disingenuous, and would do more harm than good.

Knowing the approximate wrap-up time of a meeting once a decision is made could help with logistics; staff could 1) note when the decision is made, 2) estimate, based on this research, how much time is left in the meeting, and 3) arrange for transportation, or the next meeting time.

And, obviously, identifying persuasive words will help meeting participants frame their suggestions in a more effective manner. 



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Idea conceived

July 8, 2013

Idea posted

Jul 2013
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