There are common mental images that go with the words “parliamentary procedure” or “Robert’s Rules.” One of them is a person waving his arm and yelling “Point of order!” with all the vigor needed to move a mountain. But what is a point of order anyway?

Here are three defining facts about a point of order that will help you understand when to say those words – with or without the arm-waving and vigor.

A point of order is an announcement that the rules are not being followed.

If you’re in a meeting and the group’s rules are not being followed, a point of order is the way you deal with that.

Here’s the picture: It’s the chair’s job to know the group’s rules and enforce them. And if he’s not paying attention, and something’s happening that shouldn’t be, a point of order is the way to let him and everyone else know: Hey, we have rules here because we care about members’ rights. Here’s how the rules are not being followed right now. Can you please fix that?

And remember, organizations have many different kinds of rules: statutes, bylaws, special rules, parliamentary procedure. You can use a point of order to address violations of any of these rules.

A point of order is not a “viewpoint” that you want to share with the group.

It’s common for members to get confused and think that a point of order is their opportunity to wax eloquent about whatever they think is wrong with the organization and the world.

Example: Adam Always-Right jumps up, hollering “Point of order! I have had issues with this board of directors for years. They’ve driven the finances of our group into the ground, and they’re against progress. It’s time for a change!”

I hate to break it to Adam and everyone else, but that’s not a point of order. That’s just regular, old debate about who should be on the board of directors. Save those comments for the time on the agenda designated for discussing that issue, or share them during the members’ forum.

A point of order is not a way to show off your Robert’s Rules expertise.

Many groups have a Nancy Know-It-All – a member who makes it obvious she knows more parliamentary procedure than everyone else. If that’s you, that’s awesome that you’re in the know, but please use your knowledge for good and not to slow down the meeting with points of order about Robert’s Rules minutiae when members’ rights aren’t actually being stepped on.

And if you’re Nancy, you’re probably thinking that I just sold you out. After all, aren’t professional parliamentarians like me supposed to be consumed with making sure every last rule is followed?

Not really. The rules are helpful, and even the picky points have their place. But the fundamentals are what’s important in running a meeting fairly.

And believe it or not, Robert is with me on this one. Robert’s Rules states that making points of order “on minor irregularities of a purely technical character” is “undesirable” if there’s no real harm to members’ rights or the transaction of business.

So, if you’re a walking resource on all things parliamentary procedure, that’s great. Just make sure you use your familiarity with the rules for the benefit of the group and the goals it’s trying to achieve.