Is this a meeting? Or a presentation?

Why companies are discovering that most meetings are never quite what they seem.

By Jesse Karjalainen

Put your hand up if you have ever sent out a meeting invitation in your organisation and had the following question come back:

What kind of meeting is it?

My guess is that your hand is not raised. A meeting is a meeting, surely? You get given a time and place (or link), and everyone shows up. Simple concept.

So, it’s a strange question, isn’t it?

Or is it?

Now put you hand up if you have ever gone to a meeting, sat down and then endured a long presentation of slides and/or monologue that took up 80-90% of the allotted time – leaving a tiny amount of time for “any questions”.

Perhaps it is just a century of habit. Or maybe it comes down to a paucity in the English language, but should we really call the above scenario, “a meeting”?

“This way, the traditionally passive meeting can turn into something more engaging for everyone involved.”

Stuck in Presentation Mode

“Unfortunately, a lot of people think that a meeting is where one person talks for 80% of the time and everyone else listens … and zones out after 20 minutes,” says Peter Nilsson, a communication and leadership expert from Sweden.

It might seem like an obvious concept, but when we stop and think about it, there are many different types of meetings that take place in companies and organisations everywhere.

When we step back for just a second, we see that there are, indeed, discussion meetings, presentation meetings, engagement meetings and decision meetings.

Don’t forget the “vent all your frustrations here” meetings.

Each one of these meeting types has a different agenda, a different purpose and a different set of expectations when it comes intended outcomes.

Yet, these various get-togethers are all still called meetings.

This, argues Peter Nilsson, is just one of the many reasons people can get so frustrated in daily work meetings.

“The problems arise when everyone enters the meeting with a set of assumptions based on their own ideas of what they think the meeting is really for. And afterwards, they leave thinking that it was a waste of time. Or not knowing what happens next, or what is expected,” he adds.

From his time working with companies around the world, the biggest mistake that Peter sees companies and people make when they hold meetings is to not make the purpose and intention explicitly clear from the start.

“The same is true of many those tasked with holding meetings. They assume the expectation is that they must give a long presentation and do most of the talking. Sadly, this is the expectation in many companies.”

“So, it is any wonder that people go into automatic Presentation Mode,” he notes.

“This is how you remove all engagement from the room and lose people to their own thoughts. This, again, stems from not defining the intended purpose and what the expectations are of the person holding the meeting.”

“Just because everyone is present in the room, it does not equate to engagement."

Use ‘frames’ for better meetings

There are many ways to analyse the cost-efficiency of meetings. On one level, the larger the attendance the higher the internal cost in terms of working hours that are eaten up. On another level, the cost per meeting increases the more senior-level management it involves. Lastly, costs of meetings can also be calculated across frequency and duration.

Meetings are, of course, necessary but there are many often-overlooked efficiency gains to be had when companies either review the frequency of their meetings or strive to make them more efficient. It is also worth asking the question: does everyone need to be here?

“Just because everyone is present in the room, it does not equate to engagement if there is no time – or desire – for questions or group discussion,” explains Peter. “How many times do we attend regular meetings just because that’s what we always do on this day and that time? Simply out of routine habit.”

Having worked with international clients around the world, Peter Nilsson advocates taking a fresh approach when it comes to meetings. This involves approaching meetings first by defining their intended purpose and then structuring them into so-called ‘frames’.

For example, if an all-hands meeting consists of 95% presentational material, then it is simply an information-giving exercise that takes people away from their active duties. Does it really need to be held as a face-to-face meeting? Is it really a meeting? Does it need to be held at all in the first place?

“Think of the time allocated towards a meeting. A presentation is one block or frame, and then discussion is another frame. Most meetings have no introduction frame, no expectations frame, no outcomes frame and no inclusion frames,” he adds.

“It is rarely talked about, but meetings can be so much more effective, inclusive and achieve intended goals when you break away from a long presentation-mode framework and instead include short frame for questions – perhaps even right in the middle.”

The best method for maximising the effectivity of meetings is to plan it by breaking it into a series of frames – each with a specific intention. This allows the organiser to then choose from a selection of frames build from and to include (content, discussion, summary, etc), to think about the sequence of frames (should questions always be at the end?) and the think about the proportional duration of each frame.

“This way, the traditionally passive meeting can turn into something more engaging for everyone involved,” he observes.

By making the organiser think about the allocated time in terms of frames, it immediately allows them to become more creative and engaging. It also means that presentations don’t need to be designed to fill a whole hour – something that everyone else benefits from, too.

“The next time the CFO presents the latest financial results, perhaps the presentation time can be cut in half and more time can be allocated to group discussion about what went well or not so well from the employees’ perspectives,” he concludes.  

“Or maybe … the meeting can finish early and everyone can get back to work. Since it wasn’t really a meeting after all!”

Speaker, author and coach Peter Nilsson has 24 years of experience in companies around the world. His focus is on helping large organisations be better communicators and learn to collaborate smarter and more efficiently.
Stuck in Presentation Mode
Click here to find out about his courses, Meeting Excellence and Communication Excellence, and discover how to improve your organisation from the inside.

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