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I Hate Meetings

Posted on June 25, 2006

By Joan Eisenstodt

I hate most all meetings: staff, board, committee, conferences, conventions, seminars …. 

Phew – that’s out of the way. Then again, it’s not a secret  – it is something I’ve said for years.  It’s because meetings all pretty much look and feel and sound the same.

This week, we’re going to look at meetings differently.  We’re going to talk [which means I hope you will also get involved in the conversation] about different kinds of meetings, different learning and participation styles, peer-to-peer learning, and other methods of creating community. 

I’m not the first one to write about these issue.  I’ll reference others – Jeffrey Cufaude, Art Shostak, Sue Pelletier among them – as we talk this week.  I’ll pose questions throughout for you to consider alone and with others with whom you plan meetings.  This is not nor will it be a tutorial – this is an opportunity to begin to get your brain engaged in the process.
Your first day of our discussion is easy:  take your hands off the keyboard, sit back, and close your eyes. If you have a ball or a “magic spring” or even a real Slinky ™, keep that in your hands to play – it will help stimulate your brain even with your eyes closed.

Envision the worst meetings in which you’ve been involved – we may as well get the “bad part” done now!  Think about the elements that made the meetings bad: lack of or ignored goals and objectives? speakers who were uncomfortable in front of an audience? content and delivery of material that left you wondering if there was anything you could use? uncomfortable setting?  While you do this remember to take deep breaths – you may experience an anxiety level that you don’t want and for which I am disclaiming that I warned you to be careful.

When you complete that part, open your eyes, shake your head and realize that it doesn’t have to be that way.  Now you can think about the BEST meetings in which you’ve been involved – planning, attending, experiencing, watching.  Think about the elements that made these meetings great. Think about what you heard, felt, experienced – what you took away from the experience or watched others take away.  What made these meetings so different? 

Jot some notes down for yourself; consider sharing those thoughts among those reading this week’s MiGuru section.  I’ll share more about thinking about meetings differently as we go through this.

Oh – an apology: as you do these exercises and we have these discussions, I am so sorry we are not face to face where I could provide some toys for you.  Maybe get a few so that while you read, your hands can be engaged and your brain more actively involved.

A recommendation before we talk again: go to www.wfs.org and do a search on the name “Arthur Shostak.”  Look for an article entitled “High Schools for Futurism” from November/December 2004.  It will cost you $2.00 to purchase it to read.  It’s worth every penny.  Read at your leisure. You’ll want to keep it to stimulate thoughts and as a reference as we look differently at meetings this week.


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» Why Joan hates meetings from Face2Face Meetingsnet
Meetings consultant/expert/listserv mistress/all-around maven Joan Eisenstodt hates meetingsfor all the same reasons I do. She's going to be taking on the latest round on VNU's MiGurus blog this week, talking about how we can make meetings bette... [Read More]


Liz Jackson

Theater seating is driving me crazy and should be abolished! If I can't participate in an interactive manner to learn from a speaker and from colleagues, my concentration fades away. Roundtables, gathering chairs around the room in freely selected groups or even standing suits me. Now how can we get MPI and PCMA to change? Maximum learning does not result from being a listener!

Sue Pelletier

Go, Liz! I agree 100 percent.

A note on peer-to-peer learning: I always find it fascinating that, while everyone seems to agree that the best learning comes from the "hallway sessions," people tend to gripe when a formal session breaks up into small group discussions, saying, "I paid good money to learn from the experts, not Joe Shmoe." Even when they admit that they learned a lot, found solutions to their problems, etc., they still gripe. Weird, eh?

It's almost as if peer-to-peer learning only is recognize as learning when people instigate it themselves; the expectation for the formal sessions is still the "sage from the stage" model, and people get upset when that expectation isn't met.

Is the answer to address that expectation from the outset? To provide more on-their-own learning opportunities outside of formal sessions? Both? Something else?

I recently attended a workshop that struggled with just this concept, and it was pretty interesting. Even though it was marketed as being highly interactive and being all about peer-to-peer learning, and attendees were high-level adult educators, and the session leaders repeatedly pointed out the adult ed. concepts they were putting into practice as they went, they still ran into this wall (though those who "got it" loved it, raved about it, and couldn't wait to try to do something similar with their educational programs).

I'm not sure why there's this disconnect--probably because we've been drilled since kindergarten in the didactic way of learning--but it's something every planner who wants to make a more interactive meeting has to grapple with, I would think.

Joan Eisenstodt

I'm all about a revolution - and picketing w/ signs and all. Just as those who don't like a govt. policy show up and then unfurl signs, why are we not doing it? More, why is the "rule of 2 feet" (always part of "open space") not in effect for all meetings? ["2 feet": if you don't like it or if you are not getting something out of it, walk out.]

Why are we tolerating all this?

Liz - you were w/ hotels - why do you think hotels are still trying to do the same old sets and formulas? (Other than of course the owners who want higher $$ ROI and space use.}

Sandy Biback

Well, I've taken Joan's advice and without a slinky-I just had to eat! I read the material and read the posts. I thoroughly enjoyed Shostak's article & have made lots of notes.

Here goes: This is going to be long

Worst meetings:
-no interaction
-all powerpoint, flash & dance
-no 'alone' time
-not enough learning time
-no objective
-lack of creativity & imagination in design
-often about the organizor, NOT the attendee
-wrong kind of food
-poor lighting
-speakers who are self-promoting blathers & say nothing
-uncomfortable seating, room (classrooms I teach in come to mind!)

Best meeting:
-one that is the opposite of the above AND one that takes my interests to heart AND one that has forward movement with 'stuff' that happens after the meeting--moving towards a vision. I have an example of what could have been if anyone is interested, from a conference I just managed

Reading Shostak's article, I'm reminded of a book I had to read for college many yeas ago (A Systems View of the World) that says everything is interdependent.

In reading about how wonderful school could be, I have to ask, how can we apply this to our conferences? Kind of a here is what was, here is what is, now what? And that, my friends, is a meeting with an outcome.
How do we as planner do it? Well, the Talmud says "leap & the net will appear... grow, grow..."

Can we do it one step at a time? Can we take one session and make it futuristic & get feedback?

The best way, to my mind, to design a conference, is to ask those attending what they need to have it successful for them. Yes, harder, more successful? I believe so. I do this with my 2 & 3 day courses. And you'd be surprised at what comes from those attending!

And for goodness sake, get rid of the theatre or classroom style seating!

This article has led me to a new bonus assignment for my students--about the meeting of the future. Will be fun!

Read a bit about the funding. We all know how Buffet gave US$31billion to Gates foundation & how Gates is spending more time there. Can we as a profession access some of this $$ to do research to make our meetings better? Just thinking out loud. And where better than to launch this partnership than a NYC Library? Brilliant! A place of learning.

Sorry I've gone on, brilliant topic & one I know is dear to Joan's heart. Begin the evolution now.


Well, as long as we're taking shots at all that is wrong and evil about meetings, I might as well sling my bucket of mud here too......


The first thing to ooze down the wall is basic meetings content. You can be as creative with the seating, presentation formats, media used, etc. as you wish, but if the content itself isn't worth the price of admission, then all you have is a rotting skunk wrapped in pretty paper.

The smartest thing (of many smart things) that Sandy noted above is the fact that meetings seldom take the interests of their participants very seriously. There are a lot of reasons for this - from the egocentric boss who wants the meeting to be about his/her agenda, to the pablum slop of most tradeshow conferences where vendors provide most of the education for free, seldom more advanced in the topic than the audience.

Naturally one asks, "What can we do about this?" Unnaturally, I respond with "I don't know." It's a thorny problem. If you look at the internal feedback provided by attendees to corporate meetings, most of the time you'll see that they give the meeting high marks. Yet they complain bitterly in private about the next meeting that comes up as being a total waste of time. So what's up?

I suspect that you have results skewed by that good old fashioned concern over ticking off the boss - so you say what the boss wants to hear and move on, because you sort of know that things will never change.

What might be helpful for those types of meetings is to pay every employee who attends double pay from the time they leave for a meeting until the time they return. That way, the boss has abetter idea of how much his/her ego is costing the company or department, so they may - MAY - make an effort to find out what people want to learn about beforehand. And if they don't, well, as an attendee, I guess I might feel a bit better about wasting my time if i got paid double for it.....

Tyra Hilliard

Sue brings up a great point about learning from "Joe Schmo." It's too bad that people can't see the value in peer-to-peer learning. I'm fascinated with the adult learning literature that talks about the value of informal learning (experiences from everyday living) and nonformal learning (organized activities outside educational institutions - like meetings!). In particular, I find the concept of "incidental learning" interesting - just the kinds of hallway chats you describe, Sue. I've always been a big believer in the principle that if I need an answer, the universe will provide that answer to me - not always in a classroom or a book. Sometimes at a reception or a hallway between sessions. I'm open to it and think meetings would benefit by supporting incidental learning with longer breaks, tables and chairs or sofas for people to relax in, and maybe "topic teasers" at the ends of sessions that people can discuss at breaks.


MaryAnne Bobrow

Reading all of this brings to mind an issue I have with an industry organization, who like others, has a "committee" or other "giraffe" planning large meetings. Group think is engaged and a program agenda is set. Then the organization, when faced with constructive criticism, defends the agenda without ever addressing the concerns about the "learning" expressed in the constructive criticism. In the end, you think to yourself, "why do I even bother to try to make it better?" when in reality the organization should be embracing all ideas. People express concerns when they believe something is NOT working. Now how do we get the organizations to LISTEN.

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