Friday, March 14th, 2014

BY David Raether, Head Writer

Have you ever been in an unproductive meeting?

Putting together a unproductive meeting is pretty simple.   The most basic rule is this: invite me, David Raether, to the meeting.  That will solve about 95% of your problems right there in making sure the meeting is unproductive, ineffective, and amusing.  Believe me, I’m a nightmare.

What happens if I — or someone very much like me — am in your next meeting and you want the meeting to be productive?  How do you handle this sort of situation?

You can overcome this by following these simple rules and your meetings will go great.   I am writing this as a guide to myself because I am certain virtually nobody else behaves like this in a meeting.  Any similarities between myself and anyone else in a meeting who exhibits these behaviors is impossible because I’m pretty unique in my ability to turn a meeting into an ADHD festival of fun that accomplishes nothing.  So this is a cautionary tale for those working with me.  Or someone like me.

1. Have an agenda or plan for the meeting. Figure out what topics will be discussed and who will lead those discussions.  One thing that’s really difficult for me to remember — and a reason why I often have been such a disaster in a meeting — is it’s okay for me to shut the hell up and just listen.  Let’s say Agenda Item 1 is “Product development feedback from customer survey”.  Remind me that what I might consider doing, since I had nothing to do with this whole area, is just quietly listen to the persons involved make their presentation.

But what if I have a pertinent question? Say the following to me: ‘No, David, the question you just asked that started with: ‘Before we go any further, is it supposed to rain tonight?’ is not a pertinent question.’  If I start to ask a question about what we’re doing for lunch, how to solve a problem I’m having with my health insurance, or if any of you saw ‘The Daily Show’ last night, cut me off and let me know that I, in fact, do not have a pertinent question.  Remember the basic rule: Any question that starts with ‘Before we go any further…’ Or: ‘Hey, did anyone see…’ is not pertinent.   And you can be rude to me about it.

You know what else? I don’t have an anecdote that’s relevant either.  Any sentence that starts with me saying, “You know, that reminds me..” is bad news.  I may think I have a great anecdote about my days as a newspaper editor that could really make this area seem more interesting.  If I start on one of those, stop me immediately with these words: “No, David, in fact you do not have an illuminating anecdote.  I’m certain it will be a funny and people will be laughing and amused, but it will have NOTHING TO DO with the topic under discussion.  So shut the hell up, David, and just listen.  Don’t chime in.  Thank you.”

You are fortunate indeed if you get to work for a company that doesn’t have me asking non-pertinent questions or regaling your group with irrelevant but amusing tales of my life as a comedy writer.  But on the off-chance you have someone who is like me, remember to keep the meeting strictly focused on the agenda you set.

2. Set a time limit to the meeting. A good time limit is 30 minutes.  It ensures that everyone knows the meeting has an ending in sight, and keeps everyone focused on the agenda.

If I’m there and start yammering away and get things distracted with amusing or heartbreaking tales from my life and then I start asking you about your health or your mother or how things are going with your partner or what do you think about Tom Cruise movies (and do not get me going on Tom Cruise movies), stop me or you’re doomed.  If you don’t, this meeting is going to go well into the afternoon and then adjourn to an adjacent saloon where there’ll be drinking and crying and singing along with Merle Haggard songs until suddenly the bartender is closing the place down and you’re all looking for cabs in the middle of the night.  And that’s not even counting the people in the group who are headed to the emergency room for possible hospitalization for severe situational depression.

Announce up front that the meeting is going to last 30 minutes, that we’re covering these topics, and that we need to get this accomplished in 30 minutes or less.  If you stick to that time limit, the meeting is going to be productive.  And if you hear me say anything about Tom Cruise or ask anyone about their mother, tell me to pack up my stuff and get out of the room right now.

Obviously, your company doesn’t have me or a person like me, so these problems won’t arise.  Everyone who works with you is keenly focussed and sensible. k But should your company, by some enormous mistake in judgement,  hire me, or a person like me, just remember: this phrase: “The clock is ticking.”  And then shoot me an angry glare.

3. Avoid counterproductive phrases that lead to unnecessary disputes or distractions. As with any group activity, certain phrases can be provocative and lead to almost immediate disputes or distractions.  As the meeting leader, your job is to caution the participants that while disagreements are a natural part of any meeting, you will not tolerate using the phrase “the company’s mission…” as an opportunity to go off on how the engagement party scene at the beginning of the first  “Mission Impossible” was an embarrassment and then getting everyone in the meeting to start arguing about whether Tom Cruise is an irritating, overacting weird guy with a complex about how short he is or not. Which he is.

So there you have it.  Three simples rules to keep your meetings productive:

  1. Set and agenda and keep to it.

  2. Limit the time for the meeting to 30 minutes.

  3. Avoid inflammatory phrases that naturally lead to distracting disputes.

Follow these simple rules, and your next meeting will be productive, focused and successful.  Oh, and keep me out.