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Edward Southerland: Meetings
By Edward Southerland
Jan 13, 2017
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According to studies done by the North American Society for Keeping Track of Such Things, located in Red Wing on the Fleur, New Mexico, the cost for the time American businesses spent in meetings in 2016, and by that we mean 2014-15 divided by 2, was between $6,759,247.86 or the gross national product of Bolivia, whichever comes first. This leads us into our topic for the day, business meetings and how to survive them.

The first business meeting on record was held at the Stone Tool and Drop Forge Company during cave-dwelling days. It was called to discuss ways of dealing with the saber-toothed tiger problem. Seems the fanged felines were having the assembly line workers for lunch each day, thus slowing the production of the newest model stone axe.

There is no record of the resolution of the problem, as during the mission statement by the general manager, Og or Ugh, (there seems to be some controversy on this point), several members of the committee dozed off and were gobbled up by some tigers who had come in early to avoid those annoyingly long lunch lines.

So runs the history of committee meetings, staff meetings, productivity meetings and the like. Somebody drones on, a few get gobbled up and the rest sit quietly, trying to recall the capital of South Dakota or drawing three-dimensional boxes on a pad.

Personally, I prefer making diagrams of the basic plays of the Oklahoma split-T that I learned in the seventh grade. I used to have an official professional reporter’s notebook almost filled with these diagrams, if anyone cares to see it. I know it was a professional model because it said so on the front cover as big as life: “NEWS” and under that, “Professional Reporter’s Notebook.”

I didn’t use it for professional reporting, as I found I couldn’t always decipher my handwriting after an interview and would be forced to make up stuff. While that might well be more illuminating, not to mention more interesting, than what was actually said, the practice is considered a no-no in journalistic circles. Now I used a recorder.

Most meetings are composed of someone in charge (We’ll call him, or her, Mr. Mellish, not his, or her, real name.) and a group of people (faceless automatons who need not be identified), most of whom wish they were back at their desks making paper clip chains, sitting around a table trying to look involved. The greater the authority to discharge employees that is vested in the leader, the more the audience tries to appear alert.

When the opening remarks have been made and Mr. Mellish weighs in on how to save money by recycling copying paper, or the importance of printing neatly on all seven copies of requests for colored chalk, most of the listeners have assumed the concentrated note-taking position. This involves resting one’s head in one’s hand and staring at the note pad on the desk. As only the top of the head is visible to the speaker, he is not aware of dozers.

These days the word “presentation” is used a lot in reference to meetings, which, by the way, are now “taken” rather than merely attended. Presentations used to consist of Mr. Mellish displaying a series of hand-drawn charts and graphs to illustrate the long term profit impact on the amortization of recyclable special purpose bonds if the employees used only one Styrofoam cup, per employee, per shift. That was then.

Today, thanks to personal computers, the same information takes on the attributes of the Ziegfeld Follies of 1919, when a show was really a show that sent you out with kind of a glow. Busby Berkeley, eat your heart out, wherever you are.

Being able to dazzle with smoke and mirrors and bytes and bits also keeps folks from falling asleep when the lights are turned off. Following the presentation, Mr. Mellish usually opens the meeting for questions.

It is axiomatic that in all meetings of three or more people, any really dumb question will be asked and answered at least twice. There is no need for the novice meeting taker to risk derision and humiliation by advancing what he thinks might be a dumb question. If he waits patiently, someone else in the meeting will do it for him—usually the guy from accounting who wears the purple tie with gold acorns and canvas sneakers. If the meeting involves any members of the advertising department, the dumb question guarantee rises by a factor of three, or four during Michaelmas.

Special attention should be given to the large meeting or seminar. Remember that in numbers there is anonymity, and these types of gatherings are easier to duck than their more intimate cousins. This action usually should not be undertaken until after the free lunch which is often included as an inducement to attend.

Sitting well to the back, in a dark corner if possible is recommended. As with retail, location is everything, and sitting in the back facilitates the completion of many personal projects, which might otherwise go undone due to a lack of time. One skilled meetingneer (my own coinage) managed to complete Tolstoy’s War and Peace, a correspondence course on the history of the common housefly, and carve a passable bust of the Father of Modern Turkey, Kemal Ataturk (1881-1938), out of Ivory Soap, during a week-long meeting of registered tick infestation inspectors held in Fon du lac, Wisconsin, in 1987.

I could offer a few more tips, but I’ve got a meeting in a few minutes and have to get ready.