Why We Continue To Have Awful Meetings

Ed Zitron 8 min read

In the last week, I’ve had three clients thank me for keeping meetings brief. This surprised me, as I’ve always had an internal anxiety about ending meetings quickly - that it would suggest I don’t value the client, that I’m not being “service-oriented,” and so on - and thus I have always been worried about how, when things are done, that I simply say “okay, that’s all we’ve got for you, anything else to go over?”

The truth is - based on the discussions with the clients that have been grateful - that most people think they have to keep the entire meeting because that’s what the assigned time on the calendar is. People’s brains are such that they like to reserve the amount of time that a meeting might need, and when the amount of time is less, they choose to fill it - not necessarily with smalltalk, but with ideation and “brainstorming” that doesn’t really do anything but fill the air and make everyone think they’re doing work.

Meeting-Based Trauma

PR people are the worst for this, because they are continually having to justify their own existence through long meetings that feature roughly 400 people. A friend of mine told me of a previous engagement where there were quite literally 25 people on the weekly status call, an act of violence that frankly should have resulted in multiple arrests. Though I’ve never heard of quite that many people, this is a classic way in which service-oriented companies like PR firms try and pretend they’re providing a good service - they overstuff meetings with people that all have “good ideas” and “angles” to go over.

Then, of course, there is the truly cursed phrase - the brainstorm, a word created by people that want to get on a call and yell ideas at each other with no rhyme or reason. It is a vortex of productivity, fertile ground for tangents to grow and for people who love to hear the sound of their own voice to sing. Brainstorm ideas are oftentimes not doable, but are fun to talk about - I used to call them “Time Square sessions” because they would inevitably lead to someone on a team suggesting doing something in Time Square, an idea that sounds big and fun but is not actually productive or realistic in any way.

Meetings exist, in my mind, for a reason. If it’s a weekly call with a client, you’re there to give updates, get updates on things, make plans, or follow up on loose threads that may have been missed on Slack. Meetings also exist to put faces to names, and potentially hash out any issues. They are at times also a quicker way to hash out a series of questions than in writing, depending on what they are. If it’s a specific call with a specific goal, such as “planning for a funding announcement,” you should go on said call with a goal of locking down the date, what you want to say roughly, and set some goals.

From what I understand of some people, they like going on meetings so that they can talk for a while. This isn’t the case with any of the current standing meetings I have, but across my career I’ve run into people who absolutely love to talk for half an hour about nothing, or discuss a bunch of stuff irrelevant to the call, or enter into a circular dialogue about something with no conclusion other than “that’s an interesting idea.”

I am lucky in that none of my current slate of calls do this. It only really pops up when I have to interface with another agency, and thankfully the only time that currently happens they’re nice and normal.

I think that the reason that this happens is people are not particularly focused on calls in general, and we have been raised to “contribute” by society - we must show we’re go-getters, trailblazers, coming up with “great ideas” that make the room applaud. I believe that some people see meetings as a chance to flex their brain-muscles and show off how many words they know. Previous managers of mine would encourage me to “speak up” and “share ideas,” and I’d always be confused - what ideas? The ideas I used to pitch? Okay, I shared those last time, and I got results with them, and it’s still working. Why am I repeating myself? “Because the client needs to know we’re being proactive.”

Meetings have become weird mating dances for employment and promotion - ways in which people prove value rather than providing value. Negative evaluations are made against people who don’t speak up enough in them, because that person “isn’t contributing” to a meeting that, ostensibly, has a focus and a goal. If someone doesn’t need to speak, why should they?

My slight tinfoil-hat theory is how much work has wormed its way into our personal lives, and how we’re expected to see our careers as core parts of our personality. We go into these meetings and we’re expected to be personalities, and create micro-peer groups that we are expected to both interact with and build narratives within. There is an expected performance as part of meetings where we contribute “enough” that we’re noticed, and if we don’t contribute, we’re “not doing enough,” or “not a team player.”

It is a pathological approach to contribution - something that remote work has shifted away from slightly - that the most presence and talkative person is the one doing the most work. And sometimes there’s a person in the meeting who is a deliberate contrarian, just to “be devil’s advocate” and “work through some ideas,” and that person is seen as erudite and outgoing, versus an annoying timewaster. The justification for such acts are usually “well, one time it gave us something useful,” and so it goes on.

It’s also created by management that doesn’t actually know how to manage or evaluate contributions. The bright, breezy, enjoyable person who does absolutely nothing off calls will often be the person promoted over the quieter person who does simply because it’s easier to say “they’ve got great energy” or “they’re a team player.” Worse still, sometimes people are like this because of the nature of team projects - they get the credit for the group because they’re able to excitedly talk about what the “team” did, taking an outsized amount of the credit, which is coincidentally how every manager I’ve ever had (except one) has been. Meetings are an easy, lazy popularity contest for some, existing to promote their work rather than report it, and take the mic to make some “more of a comment than a question” statements.

To be blunt, I also think that having meetings makes people think they’re doing work, and having meetings with service providers makes them feel like they’re getting value. It’s clear-set time that’s taken up for a reason, and thus, no matter the utility of that time, it can be considered a contribution to a goal, even if it was a big waste of time.

More empathetically, I also think that human beings are poor moderators of their own speech, and at remembering what was already said or what they were going to say next. It’s easy to forget whether you’ve said something, or not realize that you’re saying much the same thing but packaged up differently, and it’s also difficult for those listening to notice that and, even if they do, a little uncouth to say that you’ve already said it. It’s yet another reason Clubhouse sucks - the spoken word is an endless continuum and without an agenda and moderator oftentimes goes on and on and on.

The Cure Is Honesty and Ruthlessness

There are good reasons for meetings to happen, even in brief, especially if you’re working remote. It’s good to put a face and a beating heart to a name. It’s nice to say hello. It’s good to go over stuff quickly and efficiently and answer questions. Hell, sometimes it’s nice to riff for a few minutes just to blow off some steam - I generally really like my client calls, and many I genuinely look forward to for the little bit of shooting the shit (Hi, Ian!) each time, and have made actual friendships from them. I have one on Fridays I’ve lost 10 minutes on just hitting funny videos. It’s great. These social interactions are fun, and meaningful - to paraphrase said client, these little funny clips and laughs break down walls and get to the real human being.

It’s also fine, sometimes, to say “okay, we don’t have a ton of updates, we’ve done this, this and this,” and then end the meeting. It’s totally fine. I have one client call on Tuesdays that rarely hits ten minutes - we get on, we say hello, we report, they report, we get off the call. I DM the client sometimes for quick things. I love this client. We do great work together. When our meetings go longer, it’s because we are talking over targets and upcoming things. And if we’re not doing that, we’re not talking. It’s great!

This is partly because I am the EZ in EZPR, and I am the captain, and thus I am not anxious about evaluating people based on the amount of times they talk on a call. I’m also very big on making sure that we don’t put more than 30 minutes on a client calendar - if we need more, we can take more, but I don’t want to give or take more time than that to a call unless it’s necessary. If a meeting isn’t going to happen but things can be put in an email, I’ll ask - at times, the client will say “we really wanna go over this over the phone” but oftentimes they’ll say sure, give me a written report.

I don’t know if this means I agree with the “this could’ve been an email” thing. There are times when you can get paragraphs of stuff done on a short call, and the real issue is when something that could’ve been a short call turns into a session for everyone to share how smart they sound.

There are also people who are not that good at writing stuff down and need to “riff” to get words out. I am very sorry if you are this type of person, but you are actively wasting people’s time if you use this as a reason to add endless extra meetings to their calendar.

And so, I think we all need to realize:

It’s totally fine for you to end a meeting early.

It’s totally fine for you to make it super quick.

I think that most people will be very relieved, and those that are not will say “oh, there’s some other stuff to go over,” and everyone should realize that ending a meeting quickly is not a sign that you don’t deeply value the person, it’s that you value time, and don’t need to take up theirs talking about stuff.

It’s fine to come to a meeting with an agenda - vague or otherwise - and make sure you go through it, and when you’re done say “okay, great.” And we’d all do a lot better if we didn’t bring expectations to meetings of people’s investment of time as a way of evaluating their contribution.

The core thing I want to say is that you do not even have to have meetings at all. You probably should, and having a regular touchpoint with people is worthwhile, but when you add meetings just because you think you have to you must think about the people involved.

A lot of the psychosis around meetings mostly comes from the unrealistic expectations that people put on others, and I am encouraging you to take a minute and realize that someone talking a lot does not mean they’re actually doing anything. Sheesh, you read this far, isn’t it obvious?

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