Meetings are the cornerstone of business communication, but they are notorious for being unproductive and inefficient.
When leaders decide to “get serious” about improving communication in meetings, they most often do two things:
1. Commit to sharing pre-reads.
2. Promise to follow strict agendas.
Inevitably these methods fail as attendees have no time to read the pre-read, nor do they find it possible to stick to the agenda.
If communication is going to increase in effectiveness, it’s time to try something new. The question is, what does “new” look like?
In 2004, Jeff Bezos famously banned PowerPoint from Amazon, instead encouraging his team to bring deep work into the meetings and create space for debate.
This approach is indicative of what needs to happen in most meetings.
Leaders can improve communication by following two simple steps:
1. Create space for deep thinking within the meeting.
2. Move away from delivering updates and toward targeted discussions, debating suggestions, recommendations, and/or decisions.
Create Space for Deep Thinking
Pre-reads are a great idea. The problem is we work in a world of distractions. Almost all the time participants come into the meeting having not looked at the pre-read or having scanned it without absorbing the material.
Professor of Computer Science at Georgetown University, Cal Newport, writes in his book Deep Work that “human beings . . . are at their best when immersed deeply in something challenging.” Leaders know this is true and want their team to work in this space.
Unfortunately, meetings themselves are full of distractions - Teams messages, side chats, emails to read, and fires to put out. It’s simply impossible to pay attention to a 60-page slide deck being shared on your third monitor.
Newport reminds us that, “efforts to deepen your focus will struggle if you don’t simultaneously wean your mind from a dependence on distraction.”
The leader of the meeting can eliminate distractions by providing space within the meeting for deep work.
If there is a slide deck to be reviewed, an article to be read or a proposal to consider, give space in the meeting to read it and write down thoughtful responses and/or questions.
You will have a more productive meeting with 15 minutes of silent deep work followed by 45 minutes of discussion than an hour of talking about a pre-read no one’s looked at.
Move from Delivering Updates t Targeted Discussions
Leaders know that delivering updates is an inefficient use of time and yet they’re not sure what else to do.
Adam Grant is an Organizational Psychologist and Professor at the Wharton School of Business. In a recent interview, Grant, states that meetings should only occur if they fulfill 1 of these 4 purposes - to decide, learn, bond or do.
Updates often do not fulfill any of these 4 purposes.
Instead of giving updates require that participants share a suggestion, recommendation, or decision which they put on the table for debate or discussion.
If they don’t have one of these things to share, they don’t share in the meetings, they send an update via email or Teams.
For example, rather than allowing a team member to give an update on current CRO performance and the need for a new vendor, have the presenter start with the end in mind.
They share one slide and open the discussion.
“We recommend that we terminate our relationship with CRO ’A’ and begin to work with CRO ‘B.’ What questions do you have?”
If this is too abrupt, revert to the first suggestion in this post. Allow “heads down” time in the meeting for participants to review materials and then ask the above question.
During the discussion, some of the details from the update slides will be shared but in an engaging way. Most will not be asked about and prove irrelevant to the conversation. They can easily be reiterated through email after the meeting.
After a pre-determined amount of time, end the debate with a direct call to action, “have we decided to support or not support this recommendation? If we cannot yet decide, what is the right next step?”
While every leader knows the importance of improving meeting efficiency, few dare to try new methods.
It's important to diagnose your team's unique communication challenges and try a novel approach.
You may not ban PowerPoint, but over time you will find a targeted treatment that works for your specific situation.