May 2018 | VOLUME 16, ISSUE 5
Building a Better Meeting
It's said that death and taxes are the only sure things in life. In a business context, though, there's actually another. Where business is being done, meetings are being held. There are 25 million meetings per day in the US, most of which are unconsidered unproductive. That equates to more than $37 billion per year in wasted time. You'd think that with that kind of cost profile, not to mention years of practice, we'd have gotten better at the whole meeting thing. But we haven't. Meetings remain hugely unpopular and suffer from a number of chronic problems. One is a lack of planning and structure, which leads to meetings that go on too long. Another is a lack of engagement among the participants (especially remote participants) which leads to multitasking and a lack of focus.
There are lots of clever ideas to make meetings more productive. First of all, keep them to a reasonable size. Amazon has an informal "two-pizza" rule, which says you should never have a meeting where two pizzas couldn't feed the room. Second, keep them as short as possible. It's tempting to block them out in 30 to 60 minute chunks, but Parkinson's law predicts that the meeting will expand in order to fill whatever time has been alloted. Don't let people hide behind a formal presentation. Steve Jobs banned PowerPoint, believing that people who know what they're talking about don't need slides. Perhaps most important is simply being clear about the purpose of the meeting, and giving people enough time to prepare. Business meetings are a fact of life, so we need to make the most of them.
Infographics have been all the rage for the last decade. Good ones attract attention on a website and help people understand complex content more quickly. They're more likely to be clicked on and shared. However, the term has come to be used a little casually, and applied to all kinds of things that aren't really infographics at all. This article makes the point that if it's not fundamentally making content easier to understand, it's not an infographic.
It may be a nice illustration, and it may still add visual interest. It may add value for people who like to skim the content rather than read it word for word. Adding icons to a typical bulleted list does not turn that list into an infographic. To be worthy of the name, infographics need context, useful visual cues or some sort of comparison. The data points used should also be referenced appropriately. You're telling a certain story to your audience, and you need to back it up. Of course, you may not really need an infographic, and there's no reason not to add visual enhancements with things like pull quotes or key metrics. Just don't add confusion by being too loose with the nomenclature. And if you do need an infographic, we can help. Here's one of ours.
Street Smarts 175: Start on time, end early.
Elsewhere in this issue, we look at some ways to make meetings more productive. But there's a cultural factor that can undermine even a well planned event. In some corporate cultures, arriving late to a meeting is taken as a sign of status. That is, the last person to arrive is the most important. It's a kind of oneupmanship that can be toxic when it comes to fostering collaboration. In the most extreme examples, you might have a person calling in from the car, apologizing for the unavoidable delay and explaining why it was in fact unavoidable. Accidents happen, but be wary of people who make a point of demonstrating that other things are more important than your meeting.
Starting meetings on time is a way to say thank you to everyone in the room. It demonstrates a respect for those who are active participants, and helps establish a culture that values the efficient use of resources. And if you can, end early. You don't want to rush, and you want to give all the participants an opportunity to contribute. But if you can give them back even a few minutes of time, it's a little thank-you gift. If you start on time and end early, you're laying the foundation for better meetings in the future. (Both of these principles are drawn from Edward Tufte's 10 Rules of an Effective Presentation.)
It's Not About the Slides
People remember great presentations, but if they do, it's not because of the slides. It's because of the presenter, not the software. PowerPoint dominates the speech-support marketplace, and its broad acceptance and ease of use has made it both a blessing and a curse. PowerPoint gives people a platform for structuring their ideas and telling a story. It works as a tool for time management and to support a kind of extended agenda. But some presenters fall into the trap of putting virtually everything they intend to say on the slides themselves. They build massive decks that are impossible to cover in a typical presentation window, and undermine their own role in the process of transmitting information. Those giant decks force a kind of paralysis on the audience, discouraging interaction and understanding. It's one thing to put a Q&A slide at the end of a deck, but good presenters will maintain eye contact with the audience, and be willing to open the floor for questions anytime people look confused.
It's useful to think of the slides as an adjunct to the main thread of the presentation narrative. If you're doing a presentation on web interfaces,use the screen to show examples of good (or bad) design. If there's a financial model in the mix, build a spreadsheet to show people how different factors influence the results. In this article, the author makes the point that presentations should never be about the software used. They need to be about conveying information in a memorable, engaging way. Slides are still expected in many venues, but the best presenters don't need slides at all.
Everyone talks about collaboration, but only a few companies are doing anything about it. Whether we're talking customers, or departmental teams or communications between sales and delivery, we always want the relationship to be a collaborative one. Most people intuitively recognize that the richest, deepest level of understanding is based on trust and an open exchange of ideas. There is so much information today about collaborative business models (not to mention tools, techniques and software) that you'd expect it to be easy. Experience tells us it's not.
That leads to the interesting question of whether collaboration can be taught, and to answer that we first need to consider what "collaboration" means. According to this article, it includes jointly agreeing on common goals and the mechanisms for reaching them, then bringing together the expertise and experience of a stakeholder group with a single aim in mind. It's teamwork in its most intricate and effective form. To build collaborative capacity, start by finding opportunities that can be assigned to a cross-functional team. Then assign a coach to help the team understand the need to cooperate, respect different levels of aptitude and the importance of working through any differences of opinion. Once workers have tackled a few projects in collaborative mode, it will become second nature.
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