A few years ago, I wrote a piece for my book Granite Grumblings ( Snap Screen Press, 2011) that discussed the difficulty of surviving meetings as we achieved a more “energy-deprived” age.
I am a veteran of many years with two Fortune 500 companies as well as serving on over a dozen corporate and non-profit boards. I thought my observations on what goes on in these types of meetings could be a useful review for all of us.
The “business of life” can be stressful and tiring but I hope that today’s entry in my blog will prove both useful, and something that you could perhaps surreptitiously read on your I Phone if you start to have a “nap attack” in one of these own meetings.
Glenn K. Currie
The Challenge of Meetings
As I continue to distance myself from age fifty, I am finding a steady stream of additional burdens that those of us who have passed that magic mark seem to share. One of these is that I am having an increasingly difficult time staying awake in meetings, presentations and speeches.
And, as I look around me, while attending these events, and before my thought processes begin to blur, I can see others, generally also over fifty, wrestling with the same difficulty. I see a gentleman facing the wrong way at his table during a luncheon speech, clearly doing some serious introspection. And I see another, hovering dangerously over a plate of mashed potatoes.
I understand that certain speakers and subjects can bring out these tendencies even in younger participants, but it seems to strike more frequently now that I have passed my golden birthday. I have been trying to determine why this inclination towards “meeting somnolence” seems to afflict those of us over fifty more extensively. (Maybe it is partly the result of too many speakers using words like a couple of those in the last sentence.)
After some careful analysis, I believe I have isolated a few factors that may contribute to why we are more susceptible than younger people to this malady.
1) Those of us over fifty have already had to sit through a lot of these darn things.
2) I think most of us are more tired. (Hey, I didn’t say this was rocket science.)
3) In an informal survey, 98% of us hate acronyms and speeches laced with PC (politically correct) double talk or bureaucratic wordspeak that advocates intelligence-challenged protocols, requiring interventions and consensus-building. (No matter how many cups of coffee I have had, I am going to lose my focus and go comatose after about thirty seconds of this stuff.)
Because there is some justification, as listed above, for our condition, the good news is that when you get past fifty, people have a tendency to excuse a few sleep indiscretions.
This basically means that fellow attendees will generally ignore, perhaps even envy, you as long as your head doesn’t hit the table hard enough to break china, and you don’t snore too loud.
In business, I have seen some absolute masters at “meeting sleep”. My first boss in civilian life had perfected this skill to its zenith. He sat through almost all meetings with his eyes closed, so no one knew whether he concentrated better with his eyes shut, or just slept a lot. I learned that he had a remarkable ability to keep a mental tape recorder going so that, almost invariably, when asked a question at a meeting, he could answer it. After several years of observation, I realized that I could tell if he was really sleeping by how long it took him to answer. If he had to stare off into space for a while, demonstrating deep thought, and maybe did the “ church and steeple” thing with his hands, I knew that he was having to rerun that tape recorder back a fair distance to get a true sense of the discussion leading up to the question. It was a skill that required a special and perhaps unique genius, and the man was one of my idols as I learned the ways of the business world. A young man, however, could never have pulled this off. Young guys have to keep their eyes open at business meetings.
Another amazing display of successfully converting meeting time to sleep time was demonstrated by one of my own employees in Houston a few years ago. He was a 55-year old hardened field operator whom I had brought back from one of our Saudi Arabian projects. He was a veteran of some of the most boring meetings on the planet. Those were held in Saudi Arabia and involved 20-25 people. They were conducted almost entirely in Arabic, generally lasted three to four hours, and required almost no contribution from English-speaking westerners. When he came back to Houston, he was required to sit in on our operational meetings. He had a reputation for being taciturn and lived up to it. But halfway through the second meeting I asked him a question and got nothing. He was sitting there staring at the table, but it was like he was dead. A hand waved in front of his face didn’t even draw a blink. We were about to dial 911 when the commotion woke him up. He had absolutely perfected the art of sleeping sitting up with his eyes open. Since he was older and valuable in many other ways, he could get away with it. In fact, he also got out of most of our meetings since his presence could be distracting and a little creepy.
While I find myself now facing the same problem, I don’t possess any of the special skills of these gentlemen. I only have the standard defenses and they aren’t working as well anymore. I used to be able to drink five or six cups of coffee and be confident it would enable me to endure any meeting. Now, however, after six cups of coffee, I spend half the day in the bathroom. I’ve also found that this can have a negative snowball effect, because certain unscrupulous people will take the opportunity when you are out of a meeting, to appoint you to additional committees where you will have to attend even more meetings.
I also used to go stand in the back of the room if my eyes were really starting to glaze. Because of the severity of recent nap attacks, however, I now worry that I’ll lose my balance back there and incur serious injury.
In a desperate effort of self-preservation, I would therefore like to make the following suggestions/pleas to speakers, presenters, and callers of meetings.
1) Don’t darken the room after people have eaten.
2) Try to avoid using nouns as verbs, or speaking in the language of acronyms and abbreviations. This can lead to MEGOizing your audience. (If you don’t know what MEGO means, you haven’t attended enough meetings).
3) Only speak to groups in rooms where the temperature is below 40 degrees. That way if we fall asleep we risk freezing to death. (Fear is a good stimulant).
4) If you must drone on interminably, do it quietly, and don’t make any sudden moves or loud sounds. (People can get injured and a lot of the potential victims in this town are lawyers.)
5) If you are doing a dinner speech, never start it after 8:00 P.M.. If I were home, I would probably already be asleep on the couch. An uncomfortable chair and indigestion at 9:00 P.M. will just make be a grumpy sleeper.
6) Oh yeah, and finally, if you call a meeting, please make your point, get the decision and get out of there. And if someone looks like they are doing some deep thinking, leave them alone and let them sleep.