Set your aEnglish might be the universal language for holding business meetings around the world, both in personal and through video calls, but individual countries still have different customs and expectations when it comes to meetings. As an international meeting organiser, familiarise yourself with these conventions in the English-speaking world and the differences between various types of companies.
In the following, we’ll give you tips and best practises for holding international meetings, give you inspiring ideas for more innovative meetings and list some key phrases for business meetings in English.
How to hold international meetings
1. Plan ahead
International meetings take more planning time. Once you know where the meeting will be held (and what the budget is), you can dive into the specifics of the location: time zone differences for all attendees, holidays, local events, travel restrictions, general news, health and safety concerns and cultural differences. You can also reach out to associations or even planners at the destination for help. For both in-person and virtual meetings, give all attendees enough time to prepare also, make travel arrangements or clear up their schedule.
2. Keep it simple
Simplify what you can to streamline the meeting, from the itinerary to the menu. Invitations, descriptions, presentations and other material should feature concise and standard English to make it easy for everyone. Consider a checklist or FAQs for issues such as travel, what to bring, other requirements or even cultural issues at the destination. For virtual meetings, provide clear instructions on how to join the call.
3. Manage expectations
An international meeting is different from a regular one at your office, so be aware of what attendees might expect, from seating arrangements to equipment, introductions or live video. Clear things up in advance, but be prepared for the unexpected as well. Food is a very common concern where allergies, beliefs and preferences make up the usual pitfalls.
4. Set your agenda
When you invite people to a meeting, their initial questions are: what is the purpose of the meeting, what is my role and what can I expect? The agenda is the number one thing that reflects all three of these issues. While it doesn’t have to go into every single detail, it’s helpful to share the agenda in advance and make the purpose known beforehand so everyone can work towards a common goal. Otherwise your international meeting becomes a social gathering.
If you’re the international meeting organiser, you’ll lead through the meeting and have to come up with a structure. The agenda is the outline for that, but should not entirely replace it, otherwise individual items are discussed but nothing else is decided or achieved.
A meeting manager or mediator (who doesn’t have to be the organiser) can manage the event moment by moment and keep an engaging conversation going, which sometimes means cutting people short or encouraging them to speak up. Be particularly aware of cultural differences here so as not to offend anyone.
6. Set limits
Set a limit for everything around your international meeting, from the total duration to the five-minute-break in between and the time allowed for individual speakers. The average attention span ranges between 10 and 15 minutes, so any meeting beyond 20 minutes can already be straining.
Attending a short meeting is far less daunting than an open-ended conference-style one. For video calls, keep in mind that difficulties arise when people start talking over each other, so make it clear who is expected to speak when. Minimize this issue by inviting only the people absolutely necessary to be on the call.
There are generally two types of meetings: regular ones for alignment (“checking in”) and creative ones for reaching a decision or solving a problem. Either way, at the end of the meeting, attendees should have clear action items so they know what to do next.
They also need to be held accountable, so tell everyone when results are due or when the follow-up will take place. Recurring meetings might have a brief review period at the beginning. Depending on customs, one person might deliver a universal summary, or individuals speak up for themselves.
Best practises for any international meeting organiser
- Use appropriate greeting phrases for people from particular countries. A few words in their own language can go a long way, both in person or on a call.
- Be on time! This is especially important in countries that emphasize punctuality.
- Exchange business cards, welcome special guests or personally introduce important speakers.
- Understand international habits for breaks, i.e. for coffee or cigarettes.
- Pay attention to international etiquette, especially around food.
- Time can be relative in different parts of the world, e.g. lunch hours might differ. Be aware of time zone differences.
- Make inappropriate gestures or public display of affection.
- Greet people affectionately in cultures where it’s not customary.
- Use colors, graphics or symbols which may be offensive to someone from another country. Especially associations with colors differ in other parts of the world.
- Wander into cultural pitfalls and avoid personal or intrusive questions, in particular when trying to make smalltalk
How to hold innovative international meetings
Everyone dreads having more meetings than actual time to work, but here are some tips and innovative ideas on how you can take pain out of international meetings to make them more enjoyable and productive.
Slides and bullet points can kill any meeting with the slow death of creeping boredom. Presentations can be difficult to follow, so why not just ban them completely? Don’t take it from us, take it from Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, who said that presentations “gloss over ideas, flatten out any sense of relative importance, and ignore the interconnectedness of ideas.”
Let your meeting stand out through small but memorable details. This can mean banning laptops and smartphones, introducing an odd starting time (9.17am), or meeting in an unusual location such as the cafeteria or at the ping pong table, as start-ups are prone to do.
For international meetings and video calls, ask attendees to share a small but not too personal detail of their environment or culture, or award points for the most unusual background screen.
Reaching a decision
The time is always now. The sooner a decision is needed, the earlier the meeting around it should happen. If it’s not possible to come to a conclusion collectively, appoint a decision maker who hears from everyone – but limit the number of attendees to only those absolutely necessary so their input is helpful, not distracting.
Responsibility and challenge
The ideal agenda is converted into action items one by one, but who is supposed to act on it? For that, Apple coined the term DRI, the directly responsible individual. Another meeting idea from that successful company is the challenge: all attendees defend their ideas while questioning those of others in honest criticism.
Walk-with-me and stand-up meetings
Meetings without a table and chairs tend to be shorter and more engaging and interactive. Attendees will literally think on their feet and be more excited. The next step are walking meetings: these can be ad-hoc from door to door at the office, on the phone, or even in smaller groups. Don’t hesitate to be spontaneous also: if a person isn’t present, the meeting doesn’t have to be adjourned, just call them on the spot.
A meeting with just one speaker is a lecture. Where input from attendees is required, you should achieve a balance of speaking and listening. This can be in the form of a referee, who goes around the (virtual) room asking and engaging people, or as a token that gets passed on.
Key Phrases for international business meetings in English
The following english key phrases will help you streamline effective communication during your next international business meeting.
Starting the meeting
- Formal: Welcome, everyone, and thanks for attending. The purpose of today’s meeting is to discuss…
- Short notice: Thank you all for attending. Since we’re short on time, let’s get started with item number one.
- Less formal: Now that everyone’s here and I have your attention, let’s get started…
Topics of discussion
- Formal: The first item on the agenda that I want to bring up for discussion is…
- Less formal: Let’s look at the first item on the agenda.
- Casual: First, let’s talk about…
- Formal: Excuse me, could you please clarify what you said about…?
- Less formal: I’m not sure I understand what you mean by…
- Less formal: I’m sorry, I don’t quite follow…
- Formal: Before we move on, I think we need to look at…
- Formal: I’m sorry, but I don’t believe we’ve addressed…
- Less formal: Just a second, please, it seems we haven’t discussed…
- Formal: Let move on to the next item on the agenda, which is…
- Less formal: Moving on, let’s take a look at the next agenda item: …
- Casual: Next up is…
- Formal: To summarize what we’ve agreed on: …
- Less formal:In summary, we’Re going to…
- Casual: So we’ve decided to…
- Formal: The meeting is adjourned. Thank you all for attending.
- Less formal: This will be all for today, thanks for your attendance.
- Casual: That’s it, thanks for your time and have a good day.
Are you looking for more phrases? Learn the Top 10 business english phrases!