What's the Difference Between Formal and Informal Meetings?

By Tina RuhlowLast Updated May 20, 2021 1:24:16 PM ET
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Whether you enjoy their social aspect or think they tend to run too long, meetings are one way that things get done. But not all meetings are created equally, and there are differences between two of the main types: formal and informal meetings. Understanding the differences can make your meetings more effective and even boost attendance in the process.

Some of the differences between formal and informal meetings are easy to spot. There are variations in formats, participant sizes, time spans, locations and structures that a meeting can take. In examining the scope of meeting formats, it’s important to understand how they’re different and how they’re the same.

Formal Meeting

Formal meetings are common and have strong structures and protocols in place, so they're considered more predictable. They have written agendas, which are typically delivered to participants beforehand, and may have strict formats regarding who will speak, how long people will speak and what the protocols are for responding.

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Most formal meetings also have a notetaker to document who attended and what happened, creating a record of the meeting. Some higher-level formal meetings may even be recorded for public distribution or to create records groups can refer to if there are questions about proceedings after the meeting has concluded.

Formal meetings may also have a structure in place to manage conversations and the decision-making process. There may be whiteboards for writing down ideas that participants don't have time to explore. There also may be breakout sessions during which small groups plan a section of the activity and then report results or findings back to the larger group.

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Although there are some exceptions, formal meetings are normally pre-scheduled and participants are notified in advance about where they need to be and when they need to be there. Some of the most formal meetings — including municipal meetings for city and state governments or board of directors meetings for businesses and nonprofit organizations — may also follow a very specific format for proceedings. One example of this type of meeting format is Robert’s Rules of Order.

Informal Meeting

Informal meetings don't have the same kinds of rules and formats; they're looser. Usually, though not always, they're smaller. They can take place in a variety of venues, whether that’s someone's living room, a break room at work, someone's larger office or even someone's desk in a cubicle. They can even take place at a restaurant during a quick lunch or at a bar after work.

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Just as the meeting locations are flexible, the process for notifying participants about an informal meeting also spans a broad range of possibilities. Some notifications can happen through interoffice messaging systems or as one participant walks around an office, talking to people about what's needed and setting a time and place along the way. Other times, a conversation can evolve into a meeting, or an informal meeting can follow after a more formal meeting has concluded. This "meeting after the meeting" approach can help participants process what's just happened and build a stronger sense of teamwork, but it's important to be sure that participants at the bigger meeting aren't accidentally excluded from this smaller gathering.

Still, other characteristics distinguish informal meetings from their formal counterparts. One of these centers around the way that information flows. In informal meetings, there aren't agendas, participants with strictly designated roles or specifically defined speaking times. People speak freely, and there may be more room for brainstorming and creativity in problem-solving processes.

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Formal and Informal Meeting Characteristics

Despite their differences, there’s a number of characteristics that both formal and informal meetings have in common. First, at formal and informal meetings, it's typically a smart idea to have someone taking notes. These can be distributed after the fact and keep everyone on the same page regarding tasks going forward and the followup to ensure that those tasks are completed. They help guide the meeting towards productivity and make it easier to determine the ways the meeting was a good use of everyone's time.

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In all meetings, it's also important that participants have the chance to speak uninterrupted, that there’s a level of respect among all participants and that everyone has the chance to ask questions or respond to what's being said. If needed, meetings can have someone designated as both a timekeeper and a moderator to make sure communication stays both clear and civil. If this role is necessary, it’ll likely be assigned ahead of time in a formal meeting, but it may happen based on natural leadership tendencies and group dynamics in an informal meeting.

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Another characteristic of both meetings, and perhaps the most human one, is that there's one thing that makes any kind of meeting better: having food. Whether it's a serious and formal board of directors meeting or a group of individuals gathered together in someone's home to plan a party, more people are likely to attend and be productive if there are things to sip and munch on. Unless there's a reason not to have food — such as hosting a municipal meeting in a location where food isn't allowed — a meeting planner should consider providing snacks in advance, even if it's only a few beverage options.

The fourth characteristic shared between both meeting styles is that it makes sense to choose the format deliberately and intentionally. How do you know what kind of meeting to hold? Many times, if there’s a large number of participants who need to share information, if a meeting needs to be documented for the public record or if some participants' approaches to a work task may be at odds with others’ views, the more rigid structure of a formal meeting may be beneficial. On the other hand, if just a few people need to process something that happened at work or need to ask a few supplemental questions, this could be easier to accomplish using a more flexible meeting structure.

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Perhaps the largest defining characteristic of any kind of a meeting is its goal: to get things accomplished. This is often what most people want out of a meeting, and when it doesn't happen, it's what makes people regret that they had to spend time attending.