Reader's Digest, September, 1986


Dave Barry on Meetings


To really succeed in a business or organization, it is sometimes helpful to know what your job is, and whether it involves any duties. Ask around among your co-workers. "Hi," you should say. "I'm a new employee. What is the name of my job?" If they answer "long-range planner" or "lieutenant governor," you are pretty much free to lounge around and do crossword puzzles until retirement. Most other jobs, however, will involve some work.

There are two major kinds of work in modern organizations:

1. Taking phone messages for people who are in meetings, and

2. Going to meetings.

Your ultimate career strategy will be to get to a job involving primarily No. 2, going to meetings, as soon as possible, because that's where the real prestige is.

It is all very well and good to be able to take phone messages, but you are never going to get to a position of power, a position where you can cost thousands of people their jobs with a single bonehead decision, unless you learn how to attend meetings.

The first meeting ever held was back in the Mezzanine Era. In those days Man's job was to slay his prey and bring it home to Woman, who had to figure out how to cook it. The problem was, Man was slow and basically naked, whereas the prey had warm fur and could run like an antelope. (In fact, it *was* an antelope, only back then nobody knew this.)

At last someone said, "Maybe if we just sat down and did some brainstorming we could come up with a *better way* to hunt our prey!" It went extremely well, plus it was much warmer sitting in a circle, so they agreed to meet again the next day, and the next.

But the women pointed out that, prey-wise, the men had not produced anything, and the human race was pretty much starving. The men agreed that was serious and said they would put it right near the top of their "agenda!" At that point the women, who were primitive but not stupid, started eating plants. And thus was modern agriculture born. It could never have happened without meetings.

The modern business meeting, however, might be better compared with a funeral, in the sense that you have a gathering of people who are wearing uncomfortable clothing and would rather be somewhere else. The major difference is that most funerals have a definite purpose. Also, nothing is ever really buried in a meeting.

An idea may *look* dead, but it will always reappear at another meeting later on. If you have ever seen the movie "Night of the Living Dead" you have a rough idea of how modern meetings operate, with projects and proposals that everybody thought were killed rising constantly from their graves to stagger back into meetings and eat the brains of the living.

There are two major kinds of meetings:

1. Meetings that are held for basically the same reason that Arbor Day is observed - namely, tradition. For example, a lot of managerial people like to meet on Monday, because it is Monday. You'll get used to it. You'd better, because this kind accounts for 83 percent of all meetings held (based on a study in which I wrote down numbers until one of them looked about right). This type of meeting operates the way "Show and Tell" does in nursery school, with everybody getting to say something, the difference being that in nursery school the kids actually have something new to say. When it's your turn, you should say you're still working on whatever it is you're supposed to be working on. This may seem pretty dumb, since *obviously* you'd be working on whatever you're supposed to be working on, and even if you weren't, you'd *claim* you were, but this is the traditional thing for everyone to say. It would be a lot faster if the persons running the meeting would just say, "Everybody who is still working on what he or she is supposed to be working on, raise your hand!" You'd all be out of there in five minutes, even allowing time for jokes. But this is not how we do it in America. My guess is, it's how they do it over in Japan.

2. Meetings where there is some alleged purpose. These are trickier, because what you do depends on what the purpose is. Sometimes the purpose is harmless, like somebody wants to show slides of pie charts and give everybody a copy of a big fat report. All you have to do in this kind of meeting is sit there and have elaborate fantasies, then take the report back to your office and throw it away, unless of course you're a vice president, in which case you write the name of a subordinate in the upper-right-hand corner, followed by a question mark, like this: "Norm?" Then you send it to Norm and forget all about it (although it will plague old Norm for the rest of his career). But sometimes you go to meetings where the purpose is to get your "input" on something. This is very serious, because what it means is, they want to make sure that in case whatever it is turns out to be stupid or fatal, you'll get some of the blame. So you have to somehow escape from the meeting before they get around to asking you anything. One way is to set fire to your tie.

Another is to have an accomplice interrupt the meeting and announce that you have a phone call from somebody very important, such as the president of the company, or the pope. It should be either one or the other. It would sound fishy if the accomplice said, "You have a call from the president of the company. Or the pope."

You should know how to take notes at a meeting. Use a yellow legal pad. At the top, write the date and underline it twice. Now wait until an important person such as your boss starts talking. When he does, look at him with an expression of enraptured interest, as though he is revealing the secrets of life itself. Then write interlocking rectangles, like this: .

If it is an especially lengthy meeting, you can try something like this:

If somebody falls asleep in a meeting, have everybody else leave the room. Then collect a group of total strangers, right off the street, and have them sit around the sleeping person until he wakes up. Then have one of them say to him, in a very somber voice, "Bob, your plan is very, very risky. However, you've given us no choice but to try it. I only hope, for your sake, that you know what you're getting yourself into." Then they should file quietly from the room.