When Meeting Matters
Have you ever sat through a meeting that could have been a memo? Have you listened to announcements that should have been an email? Have you looked around a conference table and wondered why so many brilliant voices yielded to a single monologue? Have you ever sat in a classroom where the instructor or student presenter read directly from the handouts they gave you? Have you ever wondered why meeting with others matters at all? Many of us have a phone or computer where we can experience the material on our own time, so why all the fuss about coming together? When does meeting matter?
Anyone can bring people together for a meeting. One could post a sign for free pizza and a few dozen, hungry people would show up. Of course, it’s not truly a free meal because while the famished gobble, the hosts make known the purpose of the assembly. The food keeps people seated, but once it’s gone so is, ahem, the captive audience. As everyone leaves, having contributed nothing more than consuming a fair share of pie, one can’t help but wonder if any goals were achieved. Did the host simply want to feed everyone? Or was this another case of a wasted meeting—not to mention wasted money for the pizza?
Everyone knows a little bit about communication, but few recognize what makes gathering worthwhile. Many measure successes entirely based on how many people show up, with little concern about creating a memorable experience for those in attendance. This is especially true of repeated events. We slip into old habits of doing what we’ve always done, mistakenly believing that if something “worked” before it’s foolproof. We proclaim things like, “Why mess with success?” or, “If it isn’t broken, don’t fix it.” But what if it is broken? Would you recognize it? Would you hold a meeting that should have been a memo?
Since I teach communication, I’m often asked to share my appraisal of speeches at various gatherings I attend. While I always oblige, I regret not being queried about the larger picture, meaning— “Why did we need to assemble together for this?” Or, to put it another way, “Could I have watched a film of the speech later that resulted in the same experience?” Sadly, too often the unspoken answer is that coming together didn’t matter.
Few people are as underappreciated as a talented host. The reason for this oversight is that a majority of what makes for a consequential meeting is completed before the actual event. Many people plan for meetings, but few design gatherings that maximize the interpersonal human experience.
In my oral communication class, I plan activities and assignments that help students master the skillset they’ll need for effective mass communication. While I’m diligent in assuring they leave the course knowing what it takes to be an engaging orator, I’ve shortchanged our time together if that’s all I’ve done. After all, one could argue that students could read the text, watch webinars of my brief lectures, and send in films of their own speeches. Cynics could proclaim that we would never have to meet in person.
My class meets because my parallel, interpersonal goal is to build an academic community where students share their successes and fears with one another. I do this by requiring them to fulfill defined, measurable tasks in unique, small-group, in-class projects. Each student plays a specific part in creating an accessible speech on seemingly inaccessible topics such as a eulogy for a melting snowman, their old cassette tapes, or even a Christmas tree well past its prime. But they work together, encouraging one another on how to use the course material while chipping away at their dreaded fears about public speaking. When they present their group speech, the entire class checks off whether the requirements have been met and gives real-time feedback. The result is a fun trial run amongst peers that builds confidence and support for the following week’s solo speech. To put it another way, it’s a universally beneficial course meeting.
Priya Parker’s brilliant audiobook The Art of Gathering: How We Meet and Why It Matters should be required listening for anyone hosting a meeting. Parker has advised businesses, conference planners, and even the Obama Administration on how to reap benefits from gatherings. Her text offers invaluable insights for any committee chair, party host, or classroom instructor. She reminds us that while hosting a book club to discuss books is admirable, the time could be more meaningfully structured if the club had a purpose such as comparing the richness of diverse works. Parker also explains how best to decide whom to include or exclude for an intimate meeting and how restrictions, such as not using last names or talking about one’s work, can actually liberate an audience to converse on a deeper level. Read with calming precision by Bernadette Dunne, this audiobook offers invaluable wisdom to even the most seasoned host and captivates the curiosity of a casual listener.
So when does meeting matter? When your goal is to connect people in significant ways that can’t be replicated asynchronously. My charge to you all is to not waste your meetings. Instead, plan gatherings effectively, explain motives succinctly, moderate conversations diligently, and enable those assembled to share ideas while creating something meaningful. Memos and emails have their place, but when executed correctly, meetings matter because they allow for a collective experience where invaluable breakthroughs come to fruition.
Ryan Winn teaches English, theater, and communication at College of Menominee Nation, where he has been recognized as the American Indian College Fund’s Faculty Member of the Year.
Parker, P. (2018). The Art of Gathering: How We Meet and Why It Matters [digital audiobook]. New York: Penguin Audio.
Editor’s note: The opinions expressed in the Writer’s Corner or any other opinion columns published by the Tribal College Journal (TCJ) do not necessarily reflect the opinions of TCJ or the American Indian Higher Education Consortium.