Bullish: How to Get Out of Meetings, Permanently

If you’re a very junior person in the meeting and you feel that printing out agendas for everyone would be taken the wrong way, trying emailing a “suggested agenda” to your boss ahead of the meeting, and emphasizing that you just wanted to make sure all those things get discussed so you have enough information to do your work. Or, just don’t call it an agenda — name it “Discussion points for 1/6/10″ or something. Personally, though, I’ve found that no one’s ever been offended by my bringing copies of an agenda to a meeting; if someone feels that they’re above you, they’ll regard your efforts as secretarial rather than commandeering.

Even if your agenda attempt doesn’t allow you to seize control of the whole meeting (undoubtedly there are things other people want to bring up), there’s a good chance that your effort will get the items on your agenda discussed first, after which it may be possible to escape once “your” portion is done.

Stop Powerpoint Robots

I recently attended a conference in which a man began reading every word off his Powerpoint. This is rule #1 of presentations: unless you are making a presentation to blind people or toddlers, DON’T FUCKING DO THAT. After about 8 slides, the man caught himself (he seemed quite nervous), and said, “Well, I’m sure you can read this yourself. Let me just add….” Problem solved, right? Until a woman in the back of the audience spoke up, “Hi, can you please read all of the slides to us? I can’t see back here.”

Unfortunately, I was there representing a company, or I would certainly have suggested (aloud) that bringing her glasses might have kept her from wasting one hundred people’s time. (I’m also the person who “reminds” people in the subway to “Stand to the right, walk to the left!” And, as long as we’re talking about speaking up, here’s a column about shutting down street harassment).

In any case, here are some more socially acceptable suggestions to stop people from reading their Powerpoints to you as though you are a child and they are Teddy Ruxpin.

After a meeting in which this occurs (ideally, a meeting in which there is more than one offender, so it looks like you are arguing against a practice rather than a person), suggest via email or to a superior that, in the future, all Powerpoints be emailed at least 2 hours in advance of the meeting. If you can get this to happen, that won’t necessarily stop a Powerpoint robot from reading it to the group, so pre-empt that behavior by saying — very early on, before the person begins — “I’ve read your Powerpoint, thanks for sending that. Since we’ve all already got what you sent, I was really hoping you could elaborate on X in slide 3.”

If still faced with a Powerpoint reader, try to politely interrupt every time the person starts reading by jumping ahead and asking a question — “I see that your next bullet point is ‘increase sales by 20%’ — can you give us more information about that?” Maybe they’ll get the hint.

Ruthlessly Re-direct

Many meetings are far, far longer than they have to be because, for some people, meetings give them a bigger audience than the area immediately around the water cooler for sharing industry-specific anecdotes. At nearly every job, there is some class of people everyone has awful stories about — often, the clients. Hearing funny stories about them is often the most pleasurable part of a meeting; however, it is socializing, not moving the meeting efficiently towards its natural end. When viewed in the context of the rest of the meeting, such anecdote-sharing seems really fun. But when compared to actually socializing after work with your actual friends (which you would get to do more of if you could get the same work done in less time), it doesn’t seem so fun anymore.

So, look out for anecdote-sharing and ruthlessly redirect. As soon as someone starts telling a story, other people smile and are generally thinking of their own similar story to follow with. This will seriously derail a meeting. You can keep it on the rails. Try to pull this off politely: “That’s hilarious! I’m sure we all have awful client stories. So, are we all agreed that we’re moving forward with item 2 on the agenda?” Or how about, “We have so many terrible client stories around here that we could start StupidClientStories.com. Ha.” That makes it kind of obvious that you really can’t be hearing all of those stories today.

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    • Thaler

      I had to deal with this issue running a theatre company in college. Every Monday, we had meetings with all the shows that were happening in the next four weeks–they were supposed to be 25-15 minute meetings each, depending on how close you were to opening, and it was to get the basic info the company needed: set plans, budgets, curtain times, et cetera. We would give basic information in response to these: here’s who approves that, you can’t buy this but you can buy that, etc. When I was just a staff member, however, these meetings DRAGGED ON. Any question a show had, we’d talk about in depth. We’d give people advice on specific technical things, give answers that were already in their information packet, etc. Meanwhile the following show would be waiting for 20 minutes, and the next one 40 minutes, and designers would have to leave and the later meetings wouldn’t even be productive because we wouldn’t have everyone. I had to put my foot down: we’d cover only what was on the agenda, stick religiously to the time limits, and other questions would be dealt with at another time, with the show’s Technical Advisors rather than the whole group. I actually got resistance at first, from the old guard, but in the end everyone was reasonable and happy with the change.

      I should add that this was before I was running the place–everyone was allowed to put in their opinions, and my efforts to improve how we ran things were basically WHY I ended up running it. So with some groups, taking a stand on this can really build people’s respect for you.