I was inspired by this post at 43 folders to start thinking about meetings. I seem to be at different meetings to most people, perhaps because I have the luxury of running many of the ones I attend. Many posters complained that meetings they were attending were boring or irrelevant. I may be a bit hard-assed here, but I feel that you should then be questioning the purpose of the meeting. It is highly professional to say respectfully and without malice that a meeting is not relevant to you.
Of course being able to say that with conviction depends on knowing the purpose of the meeting! My favourite question for starting any meeting is, "why are we doing this? What do we hope to achieve?". You would not believe how often people give me blank looks or contradictory answers. Do not back down from this question. You need to quickly determine the purpose of the meeting, so that you can work out what your outcome is. If you cannot see any useful outcome inside the meeting then state that in a respectful way and depart: you will be more productive elsewhere.
Another benefit of asking the why question is that it gives everyone a common focus. If a number of people do not agree on the desired outcome then you need to have that conversation before trying to decide anything else. Everyone needs to be pulling in more-or-less the same direction!
Once the outcome is clear the job of the chair is much easier: it is to ensure that everyone remains focussed on achieving the outcome agreed to at the beginning. Having clarity about purpose, is crucial: it allows her to decide whether what is being said is germane. If we all know that we are deciding how to handle a specific risk to the project, rough-up figures for the product introduction or choose a training programme for next year it will be clear when someone is going down a "rabbit trail" and you can close them down without friction.
I also feel that I have an obligation towards any meeting I attend: I must ensure that I understand what is going on or I shall not be able to contribute usefully. That is why I ask questions about anything I do not understand.
Finally, at the end of the meeting, you can check whether you achieved your outcome.
That is the quality check: did we do enough in this meeting or are there more actions needed to achieve the desired outcome? What next-actions did we define, for who? Do not wait until the last minute to call for next-actions, it always takes a little while to get that clarified.
Question for you fine folks: how do you keep meetings on track? What are your golden rules?