I’ve had to remind myself how to behave in meetings: rule one, don’t just say whatever pops into your head | Zoe Williams
So, after a two-and-a-half-year hiatus, I’m at an in-person meeting that occurred quite regularly before the pandemic, sharing a theory about a cabinet minister whom I won’t name except she goes by the nickname “leaky”. I got this notion off Twitter, by the way, and it involved a lot of premeditated twists and turns, acts dressed as accidents that were actually carefully plotted, all part of a complex and gestalt long game. I made no attempt to verify this theory. As far as I was concerned, this was the “shooting the breeze” phase of the meeting, where you just say whatever pops into your head, like the first 20 minutes in a pub, before you have settled on who you want to bitch about.
There is no such phase, reader: as I was swiftly reminded, a meeting is not the same as a pub. “It is pretty well sourced that it was all an accident,” someone pointed out politely. “This sounds a little bit like a conspiracy theory,” said someone else. Well, sure. Things that are fun often do sound like conspiracy theories. The first forgotten rule of the meeting: they’re not supposed to be fun.
I really idealised the face-to-face during the endless months of Zooms. I thought a lot about in-room chemistry, how physical togetherness generated a wordless creativity that may or may not pop out at the end in words – the warmth, the suspense, the meeting-magic. God knows where I was getting these ideas – it’s possible that I didn’t get invited to many meetings even before the pandemic. In reality, the only benefit of all being in the same room is that it enables the silent, minute physical signals that tell boring people they’re being boring; they had no way of knowing from a screen, and some of them are still talking to this day.
Speaking only for myself, some really basic skills have been lost. Before you even get to the meeting, someone has to decide what it’s supposed to be about. I’ve now had a large number of small-group meetings at which none of us had a clue, and these were indistinguishable from golf, right down to the longueurs and the time spent staring at something far away. To establish what it’s about, it is useful to go back to an axiom of the American left, “Never have a meeting whose only outcome is another meeting.” If you can think of any actions that could plausibly proceed from your meeting, that might hold the clue as to its true topic. This is particularly helpful if the meeting is political rather than professional: people who give their time freely to the furtherance of a dream are above averagely likely to have no idea what an action would look like.
“Chairing” is not the same as “writing down stuff that people say”; if you get them mixed up, it’s likely someone will just lift your chairing crown off you, and thank God for that. If you have a meeting at which not everyone was present and do write stuff down, don’t just forward that to everyone who wasn’t there. Yeah, I also wondered why not, and had it explained: “Partly because we’re not the governance board of a small charity, we’re a radical utopian cell, but mainly because you were drunk by the end and you’ve made us all sound drunk.” Don’t drink at the meeting, unless your meeting is in Downing Street, where you will stand out otherwise.
If your meeting is hybrid, make sure there are Jammie Dodgers for the in-person element, as this will drive all the remote participants back into the room. These events live or die by whether or not anyone wants to be at them, and if people are there, that’s a really good start. Begin every meeting with a close-harmonised rendition of The Room Where It Happens, from the musical Hamilton, as this will give everyone the impression that something might happen. If, in the account you give of the meeting later, it sounds a lot like an anxiety dream, you did it wrong.