Is Anyone Listening to You?
Have you ever had the feeling that no matter what you say or how you say it, you might as well be speaking in an obscure foreign language, because no one even seems to be aware that your mouth is moving?
This feeling can manifest itself in many different contexts. Parents of young children are certainly familiar with the phenomenon. It’s especially acute in bi-lingual households. The conventional wisdom is that to raise bi-lingual children, the ideal case is that one parent consistently speaks only one language, and the other parent only speaks the second language. The child, or children, will at some point switch back and forth effortlessly between the first and second tongues.
(While true, this also involves a “Tower of Babel” stage in which no one in the family seems to be speaking any common language.)
This is also a common occurrence in the workplace, especially in organizations which — like so many in China — have a lot of meetings. And there are, let’s face it, some organizations in China which have an incredible number of long, boring meetings. This is perfectly OK with me, as long as I am not required to attend them.
I hate excessive meetings, especially of the non-productive kind where someone up at the podium is reading page after page of achievements and statistics, and people in the rest of the room are hypnotized by the screens of their mobile devices. Like zombies. This is what I call a “Zombie Meeting.”
I had a teacher in high school who was brilliant but had quite a temper. If a student was goofing off or did something which required a disciplinary intervention by the teacher, the teacher would multiply the elapsed “wasted” time of the incident and ensuing lecture (e.g. 15 minutes) by the number of people in the room (e.g. 21 students plus one teacher), and proclaim that so-and-so had just wasted 5 ½ hours of our time. He had a point.
Using this metric,calculating the total collective time wasted by very large boring meetings (VLBMs)in China could involve significant chunks of the calendar.
I’m not saying meetings are not important, but there is a huge different between a productive meeting and a Zombie Meeting. One big difference in outcome is that a well-organized meeting can motivate the people in the room, whereas a Zombie session has the opposite effect, taking the wind out of peoples’ sails, sending them out of the room in a daze, albeit with a slight sense of relief, akin to those involved in a successful prison break.
Meetings are an embedded part of organizational culture. This is not easy to change unless leadership can be sold on the idea of improved results through better, shorter, more effective meetings.
In my own organization and through involvement withvarious boards of much larger ones, I’ve learned a few simple rules for running effective meetings.
Let people know in advance that the meeting will start promptly at the scheduled time, and follow through accordingly. If people are late, that’s their problem. Don’t make the majority pay for the lateness of a handful of people.Announce the closing time when you announce the starting time, and conclude the meeting on time.
Provide participants at least a basic agenda in advance, especially if any audience participation is welcome (which is usually desirable as a general rule of thumb; otherwise why have a meeting?). Give people a chance to think and prepare in advance.
If you are chairing or directing the meeting, try to incorporate some appropriate humor into your opening comments to break the ice, and get the audience relaxed.
Recently my brother Bob told me about a situation he had encountered at a previous employer. In departmental meetings, there was always one individual — who happened to be very smart and very articulate — who would dominate the question and answer and discussion part of every meeting. The boss didn’t discourage this, and the rest of the group deferred to this guy’s bright ideas and aggressive style. Over time, the meetings evolved into a virtual dialogue between the boss and this one individual.
As the chair of the meeting, it’s very important that you find ways to encourage rather than discourage participation and dialogue. Some people tend to be quiet and won’t speak up without encouragement and coaxing.Quiet people are just as capable as talkative ones of coming up with bright ideas and perspectives. A well-run meeting will help bring these ideas out.
Some meetings require the presentation of data, which can be greatly enhanced by the use of appropriate audio-visual aids. PPTs are also frequently mis-used, however, to the detriment of the meeting’s effectiveness. The best example of a very bad way to use PPT is to put the speaker’s entire comments on the slides. He or she then reads them out word by word, line by line, slide by slide. The effect is the same as slipping sleeping pills into the drinking water.
This is a matter of personal style to some extent, but I tend to use PPTs very sparingly. If you think about what you really remember from that meeting way back when, it’s more often than not a story or anecdote rather than a chart or graph.
Also, although this is also a cultural issue, it is commonplace in international meetings for the chair to ask the audience to disable the ring tones on their mobile devices. Like “No Smoking” signs, this practice is embraced somewhat inconsistently in China, but I think it is an inevitable result over time, out of simple politeness.
As for the question of whether anyone is listening to you or not, the answer is also part of running an effective meeting : making regular eye contact with your audience. If you do this, you’ll enhance engagement and your own sense of how focused your audience is. The answer to the question will be clear.
Down with Zombie Meetings!
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