"Robert's Rules of Order" is the go-to guide for how to run a meeting, accepted from board rooms to government bodies to churches. It's not the only option, but Robert's rules of procedure are widely used and are easily available to study. That makes it simple for organizations to adopt them.

The Birth of Robert's Rules

In the 19th century, engineer Henry Martyn Robert was asked to preside over a meeting at his church. He had no idea how to run a meeting, and unsurprisingly, he failed. To prevent that from happening again, he studied parliamentary procedure and discovered that different groups and different regions all did it differently.

Like a good engineer, Robert set out to build a standardized structure for organized meetings. "Robert's Rules of Order" sets out the order of conducting a meeting and standardized procedures for voting and debating. The book has been revised several times, so rely on the most recent version.

Adopting Robert's Rules

"Robert's Rules of Order" sets out rules for parliamentary procedure, the process by which organizations make decisions. There are other rule books with different guidelines, but Robert's is used by 85 percent of organizations.

Courts have held that any sort of legally organized group, such as college boards, government bodies, businesses or religious councils, needs some sort of formal parliamentary procedure. If you're chairing a meeting of an established business or charity, the rules are probably already in place. If it's a new group, you may want to formally adopt them.

  • When the group is organized, write in the bylaws that you'll follow "Robert's Rules of Order" in conducting meetings.

  • If the bylaws don't set the order of conducting a meeting, the gathering can vote to change them.

  • If there are no bylaws, you can adopt "Robert's Rules of Order" on a voice vote. Depending on the type of meeting, this may require a simple majority vote or a two-thirds majority.

Many meetings include a parliamentarian, someone who knows "Robert's Rules of Order" front to back and can advise you if you're unsure about proper procedure.

Setting Your Agenda

The work of using "Robert's Rules of Order" starts well before you actually pick up the gavel. Parliamentary procedure requires advance notice, including an agenda listing topics and showing the order of conducting a meeting.

It's important to think through what needs to be on the agenda. The participants typically vote to adopt or amend the agenda at the start of the meeting, after which it's set. Sticking to the agenda is also practical, as everyone can come prepared for the topics of discussion.

Another question to consider is who will be allowed to speak and for how long. Giving stakeholders a chance to speak even if they can't vote is often important because even if the board or council doesn't agree with them, they want to be heard. Setting, say, a five-minute time limit for each speaker can keep controversial discussions from dragging on until after midnight.

Order of Conducting a Meeting

Voting on motions is how things get done in parliamentary procedure. One member makes a proposal, another seconds, the group discusses the motion and then you vote. Just as "Robert's Rules of Order" sets the order of conducting a meeting, it also sets the order for dealing with motions.

  • If you're running the meeting, you have to recognize each member before he gets to speak.

  • Vote on a motion to amend before voting on the original motion.

  • Some motions, such as a vote to end debate or table a question, require an immediate up or down vote without further discussion.

  • In a formal meeting, you don't discuss a motion unless it gets a second. Small, informal meetings may waive this rule.

Handling debate over motions is a key part of running the meeting. Good leaders bring everyone into the discussion and give all participants a chance to air their views. If it becomes obvious that discussion is going nowhere, you may want to table or postpone further discussion or delegate your staff to research questions.