Monthly Archives: August 2013

Angela’s 8 Meeting Rules


1. No meetings longer than an hour without the introduction of alcohol.
At a recent budget meeting, it was starting to look like we would never get finished. The inherent difficulty of a budget meeting hinges on the idea that decisions to give or take money from a certain area means more philosophical debates regarding the value of that area. Those wanting increased funding are defending it, others are challenging the worth of the program. We all have our pet projects and opinions, and everything spews out onto the table willy-nilly. Time will elapse quickly before any hope of consensus begins to surface.
Then came that moment in the proceedings when heads were hurting and clocks were given more attention than a swimsuit model parading through a room of adolescents. We wanted to leave, but we also wanted to do so with the knowledge that we would not have to return for a second round. In that moment, the host of the meeting left, and returned with a handful of cold beer bottles. I’d never seen such a transformation before: sullen faces now beamed with enthusiasm for the task, and we had a balanced budget before the first bottles were finished. From then on, I was sold on the idea that if the meeting was inherently difficult or long, there should be libations available. You may call it a crutch or a consolation prize; I call it an essential building block to success.

2. If you break rule number one, be prepared for me to leave before the meeting is over.
I hate leaving a meeting early, almost as much as I hate being late. I don’t like anything that calls too much attention to myself. That being said, I will walk out somewhere around the 2-hour mark even if I have no other pressing plans. It’s really a matter of principal at that point. If the meeting leader cannot structure our conversation and respect the time we are giving, then I am not obligated to give them free reign with my attention. On one Board, notorious for chatty, long-winded meetings, I stayed as long as I could, out of a perverse curiosity to see how long they would keep us. They were still talking at the three-hour mark when I departed in disgust. I served on that Board for 2 more years, attended almost very meeting, and never once stayed to the end.

3. Every meeting should have someone in charge, and that person should follow an agenda.
If we follow the assumption that nobody really enjoys being in a meeting, then the person who called it owes the attendees a productive and cohesive dialogue. No matter how many meetings you have led, you need to know exactly what you want to accomplish and how you plan to do it. The only thing worse than a too-long meeting is a chaotic one. We’ve all been in enough of these gatherings to be able to recognize when someone is “winging it”. Don’t do it.

4. Whether you’re in charge or in attendance, remember that a meeting is not the place for problems that only apply to one person.
I’m always amazed when a person feels compelled to waste precious meeting time with a complaint that only affects them. They selfishly direct everyone’s attention to an isolated issue with no relevance to the group at large, one that could easily be addressed in a one-on-one conversation after the crowd disperses. Before you comment or pose a question, ask yourself if it really would be of interest and relevance to the others, or do you just have a random thought that could be held for the speaker’s direct attention after the meeting is over?

5. Do not talk to the person next to you when someone else is talking!
This one amazes me the most, and is very prevalent. People don’t realize how distracting and noisy the whispered “side conversations” really are. I am not above giving people the evil eye when I hear the vexing murmurings. If someone tries to engage me in conversation directly, I ignore them completely. If what you need to say or ask someone else absolutely cannot wait, at least write it down and silently share notes at the table. Even texting would be better. As much as we all know the etiquette behind a text-free meeting, it’s still better than whispering to your neighbor. There is no quicker way for a meeting to devolve into chaos than one or two side-bar conversations gone astray.

6. Be succinct.
I’m sure by now I have demonstrated the value of time, so I challenge everyone-leaders and participants- to edit their comments down to the bare essentials. Keep the anecdotes brief and relevant, do not repeat yourself, and do not monopolize the conversation. It’s a meeting, not a lecture or performance. A meeting implies participation by members, so let’s all be adults and share the spotlight.

7. Dont forget the power of the sub-committee.
If a conversation on one topic becomes too time-consuming and animated with a wide range of opinions, it may be a signal to form a smaller group built with the most vocal participants. These impassioned members can address the topic in a separate meeting and report back.

8. Finally, a gentle reminder of the fine art of listening.
We all have something to say, and we are all waiting for our time to say it. If we hope to accomplish anything with our time together, however, we absolutely must put our own thoughts on hold and really listen. I try taking notes when people speak, so that my ear is open to the main message. In the end, we can only expect the time to be valuable if the atmosphere was one of open sharing and equal exchange. If, as meeting leader, you are having difficulty getting your group to that point, don’t forget you can always excuse yourself and return with some bottles of cold beer.

The Delusional Writer

I remember thinking I had writing talent when I was in Mrs. Alalof’s 9th grade English class. One day, while handing in one of my flowery essays, I felt a rush of confidence that my work would be one of the best of the stack. Sure enough, the graded paper was returned to me with praise of my vivid descriptions and creative vocabulary. At the time, my young distorted ego was quite impressed with itself, and I entered adulthood with fancies of my innate skills.

I realize today, however, that the praise had less to do with my talent, and more to do with the comparative apathy of my classmates, who churned out a bunch of words just to fill the page and be done with it. In my young writing days, I thought that details and big words could woo my reader beyond any concern for grammar or content. This is not unlike my step-son’s strategy of assuming that his charming talk can make up for a lack of effort at school. It’s the age-old style-over-substance trick, one that always catches up to you, sooner or later.

My epiphany came in my 30’s, when I asked a colleague to offer comments on an article I’d written. He was Mensa-level smart and severely critical of everything, so my young ego awaited the healthy boost it was going to receive when he offered rare accolades for my obvious ability. In truth, I was really only sharing it to impress him, since I had a little crush and was eager to show off. I didn’t really care about any suggestions for improvement, because the piece was not important and was clearly already amazing.

When the article was returned to me, however, I was devastated. It had been slashed with more red than a Halloween movie sequel. The Mensa-critic was kind enough to preface his comments with, “I’m only telling you this because you asked,” knowing enough to be embarrassed by the amount of errors in my work, but not enough about my motivation for letting him read it in the first place. If he shared my affections, he would have lied. It turned out to be fortuitous for my writing that he did not.

When I started reading the feedback, I realized his suggestions were quite legitimate and mortifyingly simple: I had made numerous sloppy mistakes. Had I proof-read the article even once, I would have caught most of them. Other comments were eye-opening to me, notes about efficiency in sentence construction that I had never before considered. If there is a way to say something that offers more clarity in less words, isn’t that a better approach? A whole new writing world was opened to me: the world of editing.

I began to spend time in this world, seeking to teach myself how to edit. I soon realized what Blaise Pascal meant when he said, “If I had more time, I’d write you a shorter letter.” (This quote is often attributed to Mark Twain, but part of editing turns out to be fact-checking, as well.) I have yet to master the art of the edit, as evidenced by the fact that it takes me a good 4 hours to finish a decent blog, wearing out the “preview” button as I hone it down to the clean essentials. I finally hit the “publish” button, not because the editing is complete, but because I am exhausted and on the edge of vomiting if I read the same words one more time.

So, with continued practice, there is hope for my writing on a technical level. On a content level, however, there might be a teensy problem that is a little more tricky to overcome: personality. It turns out that you have to have one to be an engaging writer. I know there is a slight deficiency here, from spending a lifetime of being called “overly serious”, so I find myself with a late start on two levels.

Sometimes when I read an essay that blows me away -like David Sedaris, for example- it makes me want to abandon all of my own vague writing ambitions. David Sedaris has spent his entire existence both being funny AND practicing in a journal everyday. What hope is there for the rest of us? I admit to some similar feelings of jealousy and surrender towards a few of the writers on the Jezebel blog, which has a staff of confident, witty and articulate columnists. Do aspiring golfers feel this way when they watch Tiger Woods? Shouldn’t we have role models who inspire us to greatness? My role models inspire me to expletives and defeat.

In the end, I always come back to the advice given by my favorite poet, Rilke. (Or, as Lou Andreas-Salome called him, “the only poet”.) In his “Letters to a Young Poet”, he advises his protege to only write if he feels so compelled that he might die if he could not. This is really an overly-dramatic way of stating something we should all heed: only write if you have something worthwhile to say. We have to live a full life and develop a full self in order to have the content worth sharing. All of the grand words and savvy editing will not save a lack of heart and imagination. So for now, I will focus more on the living than the writing, blinded by my ever-present delusions of talent.