The Blog

How Not to Die in Meetings

Dave Barry puts it like this:

The modern business meeting might better be compared with a funeral, in the sense that you have a gathering of people who are wearing uncomfortable clothing and would rather be somewhere else. The major difference is that most funerals have a definite purpose. Also, nothing is really ever buried in a meeting.

In the literature of meetings, there are two genres: advice on how to run a meeting and sarcasm about how badly that advice is being applied. It occurs to me there is a large unserved niche here: how to effectively attend a meeting.

The horrible aspect of meetings is, generally, you are hostage to someone else’s PowerPoint ambitions. (Marketeer Seth Godin claims to have uncovered the worst PowerPoint slide ever, but his survey of the field is limited by his unfamiliarity with the stultifying subculture of Department of Defense presentations.)

There is also now clinical evidence that spending long periods in meetings decreases brain function. Read Montague, a researcher whose title is so long I’ll just link to it, used neuro-imaging to study brain function in meeting attendees and concocted the following publicist-friendly sound bite:

You may joke about how committee meetings make you feel brain dead, but our findings suggest that they may make you act brain dead as well.

His co-author, Kenneth T. Kishida, earns an assist with a sidekick’s sense of wonderment:

There’s something about being in a group context that interferes with how we express our intelligence.

It is important to attack meetings in a way that both preserves neurofunction and creates value for yourself, and perhaps even others. So from now on do these things:

Set a maximum length for the meeting. This is easy for the meeting organizer but trickier for the attendee. It’s best to bring this up when the meeting is scheduled by asking, “How long do you think this is going to run?” and then explaining that you have an obligation limiting your participation to, say, 45 minutes. Conference calls, lunch, picking up the kids at daycare, some vague medical obligation — the world is heavy with important but unverifiable events that simply can’t be moved. Inventing one limits how much of your life can be burned up by one meeting, and may have the salutary effect of forcing the organizer to stay on task. If the meeting improbably proves to be valuable, you can step out to take a call and — hey presto! — your gum massage got moved to Tuesday or your four-year-old is going to hitchhike home.

Understand why the meeting is being held. Most meetings are about something. Knowing what a meeting is about isn’t good enough. Ask the person who called the meeting what the desired outcome is. Knowing an outcome will help you prepare, and will also require the host to define the meeting by its product, which improves the chances that the meeting might actually be both valuable and finite. In a particular dreary consulting gig a few years ago, I calculated (during a meeting!) that 80% of the client’s internal meetings had been called because someone thought they needed to have a meeting on some subject. Everyone knew what the meetings were about; they just had no idea what the meetings were for. Had someone simply asked the hosts to articulate an outcome, I’m betting at least half of those would have been either cancelled or significantly improved.

Prepare. Read the materials. Spend 15 minutes thinking about the subject matter. Dull meetings are made duller when everyone spends the first half-hour pretending they know what’s going on while surreptitiously skimming the background. Your ability to steer the meeting in a worthwhile direction correlates directly with your knowledge of the subject matter. Being prepared is also a basic sign of respect. You want to impress the meeting leader? Read the materials.

Have a goal. Even if you’re not running the meeting, you should have a goal for the meeting. Perhaps you want to introduce some concept to the ongoing discussion, or cement a relationship with someone who can help you in the future, or get someone on the record in front of witnesses. Having and achieving a goal gives the meeting value even if the meeting is in no other way worthwhile. Remember: the goal must in some way relate to the subject of the meeting. Otherwise it will just be weird.

Follow-up immediately. It shows you’re on the ball and, in most cases, gets follow-up out of the way so you never have to think about the meeting again.

This post is derived from a post originally published at