What Is the Difference Between Formal and Informal Meetings?

By Staff WriterLast Updated May 27, 2020 7:24:36 PM ET

From work and school to volunteer organizations and party planning committees, meetings play a crucial role in decision making. Understanding the tone and purpose of a meeting is important for anybody planning to attend. Knowing the difference between a formal and informal meeting prevents an attendee from showing up in the wrong outfit or with inappropriate goals. How can you tell which meetings are formal and informal? Many factors provide clues and context.

Formal Meetings Are Pre-Planned

Formal meetings tend to be planned well in advance. These meetings are typically designed with a specific purpose in mind, and they're usually meant to achieve a goal. On the other hand, informal meetings are not necessarily planned in the same way. These meetings may have a more casually designated time and place, and they may not have a concrete goal determined in advance.

Formal Meetings Have an Agenda

Generally, formal meetings will have an agenda, sort of like a schedule. Examples of formal meetings with agendas include board meetings, special task force meetings and committee meetings. Each member of the group typically receives documents about the meeting, and somebody will take minutes so that they can later summarize the group’s discussion.

Informal meetings generally don't have this kind of agenda, and the participants at the meeting can generally speak their minds about the issues that arise. The majority of day-to-day meetings at the office are considered informal, and they may include staff members catching up on new information, providing progress reports about ongoing projects and discussing ideas for future projects. Of course, this isn't to say that an informal meeting can’t have an agenda, but it's typically less structured.

Formal Meetings May Have a Dress Code

If you're asked to wear something specific to the meeting, it's likely a formal meeting. You may also be asked to wear something specific because the meeting will have a guests sitting in or higher-ups who want to see a presentation of findings and ideas.

Formal Meetings Require Defined Roles

At a formal meeting, a chairperson is typically in charge. The rest of the attendees may have defined roles that tend to be based on organizational hierarchy. Some individuals may have been assigned a presentation to give, for example.

In informal meetings, the roles can exist, but they're often different. For instance, an informal meeting may be a one-on-one discussion, and it can be off-the-record. A team meeting can also be informal, and it may take place every day before work or as problems and issues arise. Finally, informal meetings can be informational in which large groups join together in the hope of learning more about a project or upcoming events.

Formal Meetings Take Place in Specific Locations

For the most part, formal meetings take place in planned locations, like meeting rooms or a formal meeting room at the office. On the other hand, an informal meeting takes place anywhere, including a committee member’s house, a cafe or a restaurant.