Meetings suck. But they don't have to.


November 3rd, 2010

by John J. Walters

As of right now, MeetingCaptain is in a state of transition.  We are going to look for ways to strip the product down to its bare essentials and pair it with an existing service so that it’s no longer a standalone startup.  Luckily, the WasabiVentures network of tech and productivity companies is fairly expansive, so it shouldn’t be too difficult to figure out a way to beneficially incorporate meeting organization/execution software into one of them.

The thought of merging what has been my first startup experiment with another product got me thinking: what was my favorite part of working on MeetingCaptain?  Honestly, it’s the blog.  Not only did I have the most fun writing it, I feel like there’s some great information here just waiting to be discovered.

I spent a good amount of time looking for articles on meetings all over the internet during the past several months and I found few sources of information that condensed things the way I did here.  Sure, there was the occasional article that summarized a few ideas, but most “meeting blogs” are just tech manuals and promotional venues for competing meeting programs — hardly a good resource for someone actually looking for help with their meetings.

Since we’re working to preserve the core of MeetingCaptain because we believe it can be a useful utility to small companies who want to leverage technology for their meetings without breaking the bank to purchase software or upgrade their hardware, I think it’s only fair that we also preserve the blog.  That’s why I am going to turn it into a sort of “meetings mini-series” on the WasabiVentures blog so that it’s there and ready to used by the entrepreneurial community.

Both the company and the blog will be on a bit of a hiatus starting now, although I will pop in with updates as often as possible.  I am determined to make this first foray into the world of the entrepreneur something of a success, even if it was mostly a learning experience that led to the creation of a halfway decent blog and an unfinished product.

The State of the Company Address

October 27th, 2010

by John J. Walters

When I took over MeetingCaptain it was only a partially-developed concept of a company in a competitive market.  Since then we have added a lot of new features and overhauled the central program but done little to make it marketable to the common man.  The site doesn’t quite tell you enough about the service, and things are still a little less intuitive and bug-free than I would like.  Clearly, we still have some work to do.

On the plus side, we are on our way towards a “version 3.0.”  We have detailed plans for improvement of the program itself as well as the website.  We are developing a marketing strategy to get it into the hands of you, the business professional who wants help with meetings but probably doesn’t yet know we exist.  On the negative side, we are also working on getting the investment and support we need to turn these plans into reality.  I am confident, but nothing is certain in this world.

Included in our plans to improve MeetingCaptain:

  • A more intuitive profile setup that will make MC work the way you want it.
  • Improvements and streamlining to the meeting creation process.
  • Creation of a new “meeting interface” that will make MC a destination for meetings as well as a way to organize and follow-up on them.

Of course, we’ll still be offering out free trial, and we won’t be changing the fact that it’s free to participate in meetings.  We also are sticking with our price point of $5 per month for meeting organizers, which may be proof that we either have no idea what we’re doing or don’t like money as much as our competitors.  Most importantly, we are keeping everything “in the cloud,” which means you will never have to download any software or upgrade your computer to use our service.

Finally, I will continue to blog about how meetings suck and why they don’t have to, even if I continue to be our only regular reader for a little while.  Why?  Because I know that eventually someone who needs the information will find it.  That’s the nature of the internet — and the nature of MeetingCaptain.  We actually do feel passionate about making meetings better for everyone.

Here’s hoping we get to continue.

Let’s Talk about PowerPoint

October 20th, 2010

by John J. Walters

I ran across the best PowerPoint presentation I have ever seen today about the evil among us that is known as PowerPoint.  This is a bit of a curiosity.  While others are content to make lists such as “Top 10 Reasons Your Presentation Sucks!” (there are actually two of these on the same site, each with their own helpful hints on how to stop the suckage), this man boldly made a PowerPoint presentation that illustrates his point: that most PowerPoint presentations are horrible.

Here is the link to the presentation, which was prepared by Alexei Kapterev four years ago.  I highly suggest flipping through it.  If nothing else, it’s a good work-time diversion and a break from the monotony.  But take a moment to appreciate that — a PowerPoint presentation that you actually want to see?  Now there is a rare thing.

Of course, I’ve seen some pretty interesting PowerPoint presentations.  Usually they’re the ones that people make as parodies of real presentations and then upload them to YouTube with funny voices and inappropriate pictures.  Yet this one is a real presentation, with real information.  Moreover, it’s 61 slides long, and yet you can breeze through it in five minutes and still learn a thing or two.  Truly, a rare thing indeed.

I’d like to point out a couple things that make Kapterev’s presentation so exemplary:

  • It reads very quickly.
  • It has plenty of information.
  • It breaks this info up so you’re not reading one slide for very long.
  • It works on its own but obviously could be supplemented by a good speaker.
  • It introduces, explains, and then reiterates its main points to reinforce them.
  • It is scalable, meaning it can be read through in five minutes or expanded.
  • It makes good use of imagery to keep you interested but the focus is on the text.
  • It doesn’t use any gimmicky transitions or sound effects to distract from the message.

I’m not a huge fan of PowerPoint, but I do recognize it has a place in the corporate world as the standard method for conveying information to a room full of professionals.  The trick is not to let this become a crutch so that you don’t have to work on making your presentation worthwhile.  It should, instead, be used as a supplement to your talk — a way to keep the audience interested and to illustrate the information that you are sharing.

If you want, you can even “supplement the supplement” with a handout that includes both the slides and your speaker notes so that people will have something to use as a reference later on.  But be careful: if you can’t think of a good reason why they would want to reference your presentation after it’s over, perhaps you should be taking everything back to the drawing board.  After all, your meeting will still be a waste of time if you didn’t have a good reason for calling it, no matter how well you prepared.

The Practical Alternative to Work

October 13th, 2010

by John J. Walters

I stumbled across this humorous image about meetings as I was scouring the web for seed ideas for this week’s blog post, and it reminded me of why we started this site in the first place.  Simply put: meetings suck.  But they don’t have to.  Most people regard meetings as pointless wastes of time, and in many cases they’re right to do so.

The idea of paying employees to sit through weekly (sometimes daily) meetings that can only be described as “complete wastes of time” must make most business owners cringe.  But if they’re all bad, then why don’t we abolish meetings entirely?

Meetings are an unfortunate reality of life in the business world, but they certainly don’t have to be as bad as they are.  We have emails, phone calls, and text messages to keep employees updated.  We have services like PBworks (which MeetingCaptain syncs with, incidentally) to allow coworkers to facilitate collaboration without anyone being in the same room.  Most people resent the technological leash that businesses are using these days, but I’m sure they would resent it a lot less if it meant a massive reduction in the number and length of pointless meetings they are required to attend.

True, some things need to be hashed out in a group setting.  When my team was working together on the first draft of our book, our weekly meetings were essential to keeping the project rolling and maintaining a high quality of work.  The idea that we would all have to justify our work to each other on a weekly basis provided a healthy atmosphere of competition and accountability.  In fact, we often found ourselves going over the allotted time because we had so much to accomplish.

If I wanted to keep the meeting to a manageable length, I found that I sometimes had to shortchange my own work even though I was the team lead and project manager.  Then I realized that if I didn’t want to cut work time, I had to make an effort to cut the seemingly obligatory logistics update at the beginning of the meeting.  How did I do this?  By making good use of technology.

Unfortunately, I didn’t have MeetingCaptain or PBworks to help me back then.  Instead of adding everyone to one online workspace and using that to store the latest files and communicate important updates I had to send a lot of emails and keep painstaking account of each and every draft.  It required a lot of preparation, but it also allowed me to keep the meetings shorter than two hours.  It also placed the burden almost entirely on me to make sure we had a good meeting, even though I was only one of the seven participants.

Running a good meeting requires a lot of strategizing and coordinating.  That’s a fact.  But if you can take care of the first part, then technology can take care of the second.

Are You Being a Bit of a Bore?

October 6th, 2010

by John J. Walters

It’s okay.  Everyone does it from time to time.  It usually happens when you are talking about some topic that you care about more passionately than the conversation’s other participants, like that time you did that thing in that place with those people.  It gets even harder to be interesting in a business setting, when all the dirty jokes and crazy stories are off limits.

The tricky part is, sometimes we have to impart some information that is not interesting in the least.  This is a sad fact of life in the business world, and one that is not likely to change no matter how slick our technology may get.  Even when we have those holographic briefing centers from science fiction films, it will still be hard to keep people interested in a presentation on TPS reports.

So what to do?  First of all, you need to know when you are being a bit of a bore.  There’s lots of ways to tell this, from body language and averted glances to a lack of participation.  Sometimes just the awareness that you’re boring the other parties is enough to make you change your tune.  Ask some more questions, try to wrap things up faster, or toss a joke in there from time to time.  Don’t get frustrated but learn from your experience being the (boring) center of a meeting.  Work to improve.

The other piece of the puzzle is to consider carefully what the best mode of presentation might be for the particular information that you need to convey.  PowerPoint might be the preferred option, but it’s not really suited to every type of lecture.  Indeed, not everything needs to be a lecture.  If you need to teach people something, then make an effort to include some interaction.  If you need them to listen carefully to a lot of details that you know they won’t remember, give them a brief overview verbally and then distribute a handout that they can consult only when they need it.  Be creative.

Think about one of your favorite professors from back in your college days (or teachers from your high-school days).  What made their classes more interesting?  It might have been the subject material, but more than likely they were also an interesting orator who varied their style regularly and encouraged participation.  These aren’t just good ideas for teachers — we can use them quite effectively during business meetings if we’re willing to practice and pay attention to our audience.

The 80-20 Rule

September 29th, 2010

by John J. Walters

Ever heard of the 80-20 rule, also known as the Pareto Principle?  If you have: good, that’ll save me some time.  If you haven’t: go read up on it.  It will kinda-sorta blow your mind.

I have heard all sorts of different interpretations for the 80-20 rule in my life.  The first one I heard was that 20% of the workers at a company do 80% of the work, and since then I have felt this to be painfully true at each and every one of my jobs.  I have also heard two more interpretations that make some sense.

First, that 80% of a product’s value is realized with the first 20% of effort.  I have found this to be especially true when I write.  I get nearly everything out during the first go-around; then I can spend as much time as I want editing.  But the final product is never that much better than the original draft.

Second, that 80% of everything is crap.  This one is catchier, but I am still a little wary of it.  It may be true and it may not be — but I think a more palatable version of the rule would be that 80% of everything is non-memorable.  20% is generally enough to get the basic idea from something, and that’s usually all people will bother with.

So what does this have to do with meetings?  Just that: people are usually going to walk out of the conference room having only heard about 20% of what you said.  It’s sad but true.  From this, we can learn three very valuable lessons.

Lesson 1: Meetings can be shorter. If people are only going to remember 20% of what is discussed then you might as well not keep them hostage for quite as long as usual.  Who set the standard meeting length at 1 hour?  Seems arbitrary to me.  Perhaps a good motivator for getting people to pay better attention would be to say that the meeting will end as soon as it seems like everyone gets the gist of things.

Lesson 2: You must be careful what you emphasize. Most people will only remember 20% of what you say, but not everyone will remember the same 20%.  This is why you need to make it clear which bits are the important ones and which ones are the details.  Use the three-step salesperson/teacher method:  Tell them what you’re going to tell them.  Tell them.  Then tell them what you told them.

Lesson 3: The follow-up is crucial. Ok, so people are walking out of your meeting with only the basic idea of what’s going on in their heads.  Disaster, right?  Not really — the basic memories of the meeting are still there.  They just need to be nudged a bit.  Best way to do this is by sending out notes as a follow-up right away so that people will have them as a reference.  This way the other 80% won’t simply get lost.

I’m sure you can find other applications for the Pareto Principle in your life and work.  Just don’t take things too far.  Remember, it may be true that you get 80% of a project’s value from the first 20% of work, but the difference between success and failure in the business world is often a margin much slimmer than 20%.  It’s important to spend that time polishing.

Worst. Meeting. Ever.

September 22nd, 2010

by John J. Walters

What was the worst meeting you ever attended?  For most people, this is a difficult question, because the competition is fierce.  I went searching for common meeting complaints this morning, and I found a few decent articles written by people complaining about various behaviors that should be avoided at all costs.

Of course, everyone will have their pet peeves and there will always be professional cynics.  You can’t please all of the people all of the time, but with a little preparation you can organize a decent meeting that won’t bore everyone, especially if you are careful only to schedule one only when it really needs to take place and when you invite only the people who will have relevant input.

But sometimes a decent meeting can turn into a train wreck despite the best preparation.  How?  We’re all familiar with “that guy” who commits a meeting faux pas that derails everything, so I figured I’d post a couple links to help you avoid turning into him by accident.

First, here’s a very short list of a few things to avoid at all costs.  It says it’s a “top five” list but only lists four things.  Oh well.

CNN also has a pretty decent piece with ten things that will either make you look bad during a meeting or will distract everyone else from the task at hand.  It boils down to being prepared, acting professional, and staying on topic.  Good advice in general, really.

Finally, I stumbled across an interesting role-playing activity to help meeting participants and team members to analyze their own behaviors and get them thinking about how to improve their interactions.  Activities like these can easily fall into the category of “time wasters” if they’re poorly executed, but can just as easily be valuable introductions and ice-breakers for both new and established teams.

The important thing to remember is that most people don’t want to be there, just like you.  So if you’ve been roped into a meeting that you don’t want to attend, try not to make it worse for everyone else with poor behavior.  And, as always, doing your homework beforehand and coming ready to be productive is the key to doing your part for an effective meeting.  You might not be able to make things perfect, but at least you can avoid making things worse quite easily.

Staying Awake during Meetings

September 15th, 2010

by John J. Walters

I’ve been writing a lot of posts about how to make meetings the best they can be for meeting organizers.  But what about those unfortunate souls who get dragged into boring meetings from which there is no escape?  How do you keep yourself from screaming?  Often, we zone out, but the problem with that is it runs the risk of us zoning out so completely that we fall asleep.

So I did a quick Google search for “staying awake during meetings” and found a few short articles full of hints and tips to keep your mind from snoozing away during your next boring business meeting.  Most of them gave a bunch of simple tricks you can do to keep yourself awake that I’m sure we all figured out when we were in college.  Several of them recommended pretending to have to go to the bathroom so you have an excuse to leave the room.

Two articles stood out from the rest.  One because it was such a towering example of a bad idea that I feel like I just have to pass it along so that you too will be tempted the next time you get dragged into a corporate crap-fest.  The other because it actually gave some very helpful hints on what you should do to not only get through the meeting but to stand out from the rest of the herd at work and get noticed by your boss.

I’ll start with the silly one.  In a nutshell, it gives simple rules for how to play a game that basically amounts to “corporate-speak bingo.”  Not only would this be a terrible idea that might get you fired, it also requires a small amount of prep-work that workers would presumably do instead of actually preparing for the meeting.  I do have to give it some credit, though: it’s clever, creative, and if you actually find yourself in a meeting where people are talking like this then I feel deeply sorry for you.

On to the good one.  This one has a couple generic hints and tips but also advises workers to do such unconventional things as prepare in advance, take careful notes, and participate.  It advises that the best way to get through a boring meeting is to do everything you can to make it meaningful, productive, and worthwhile.  Imagine that!

Of course, these tips won’t always work.  Sometimes you’re tired or you get dragged into a meeting at the last minute that has nothing to do with you.  In that case, maybe trying out a few of those tips and tricks might be a good idea (because it’s never a good idea to sack out).  But if you’re frustrated with the kind of meetings that your company keeps having, make every attempt to get involved to make them better.  If your higher-ups don’t want to encourage that sort of thing, then maybe it’s time to start looking for a career elsewhere…

Happy International Meetings Day!

September 8th, 2010

by John J. Walters

Right from the get-go, I have to admit that I just made up “International Meetings Day.”  But it does seem to be true.  Yesterday was the first “official” day back at the office from the summer, a time when a lot of companies put things on hold so that people can enjoy their vacations.  And what better way to celebrate a return to productivity than a day (or even a short week) filled with unproductive meetings!

I have two theories about this “IMD” phenomenon. Theory number one goes that this week is also often times the first week back at school.  In college, this first week was known as “syllabus” week by most students, as our classes were little more than meetings with the professor to discuss the syllabus that we were all more than capable of reading ourselves.

But why read on our own when we knew the teacher was going to waste the first seminar droning on about his classroom policies and course pacing?  Everyone just got used to printing their syllabi off at the last second right before class and then waltzing in to sit, listen, be bored, and check out their new classmates.  After 4 years of that, maybe we just got in the habit of making the days after Labor Day “meeting days” — that is, time to sit, listen, be bored, and check out our new co-workers.

Of course, this situation could easily be avoided (and sometimes was, by the smarter professors) by a little preparation on the part of the teacher (the meeting creator) and the students (the meeting attendees).  Design the syllabus to be something worth the student’s time (like an assignment that would factor into their grade) and they will read it in advance, thus saving the first seminar for real productivity.  Just like with meetings — a little preparation goes a long way.

My other theory on IMD is that people are using it as one last chance to enjoy the summer’s lack of productivity.  They know they have to get back to work in earnest soon, but why not give themselves a day or so just to sit on their asses and listen to people talk about stuff beforehand?  It’s procrastination, pure and simple.

If that’s the case, and if you’re one of the people who actually has to schedule a productive meeting during this time, my advice to you is to be very clear what you expect each and every attendee to bring with them to the meeting in advance.  This way they are warned that this isn’t just a grown-up version of syllabus week, where they waddle in wearing their Hawaiian shirts and sunglass tans and listen to the boss talk about what they’re going to do over the next few months.  They need to know that they are expected to participate.

“Preparation!” is becoming my rallying cry on this website, but that doesn’t make it less important.  Every office employee is expecting to waste this time in pointless meetings just as they have in the past, and it’s your job as a meeting creator to do something about this.  So do your prep work and figure out what your meeting is all about; why it needs to be called.  If you can’t do that now then postpone it.

When Should You Schedule Your Meetings?

September 1st, 2010

by John J. Walters

I was surprised to discover recently that a Google search for the best time to schedule a meeting came up with only one helpful post suggesting a productive time and the rest of the hits were mostly just how-to posts from the various meeting organizer programs out there with nothing to offer on when people are most alert.  So I set out to fix that.

What is the best time to schedule a meeting?  When are people ready to be productive?  I stumbled across a BBC News article about a “simple formula for staying awake” (you do want people to stay awake during your meetings, right?) that I thought might give me some indication of the time most people are alert, but it lacked a real explanation of how to apply the formula.  Apparently the key to staying awake is — you guessed it — getting enough sleep.  In fact, the British Sleep Society has concluded that, “If people are tired during the day then they are not getting enough sleep.”  Shocker.

Another study suggests that the time that people, on average, are most alert is early evening (between 6 and 7 pm).  This is because humans used to spend their evening time “securing the hearth for a safe night’s sleep.”  I’m never one to discredit evolutionary conditioning, but it would seem to me that the evening is a less-than-optimal time to schedule a meeting, as most people have already gone home for the day by then.  The study’s second choice, dawn, is an even less likely time to find your coworkers at the office — unless you’re a farmer, perhaps.

The American Time Use Survey provides an excellent (and interactive) way to look at how most Americans spend each day.  If the graph is to be believed, the most likely time to find your co-workers at the office is between 9 am and 3 pm, so logically the best time to schedule a work meeting is somewhere between these hours (although when attempting to schedule a non-work meeting you should clearly look at other times, such as the early evening).

If you schedule the meeting well enough in advance and do all the necessary prep-work (preparation is very important) then you’re already “semi-there.”  People generally have no problem arranging their schedules around a meeting that they know is important and will be relevant to their work.  But what about when you don’t have enough time to schedule something a week in advance?

I guess you could always take the WikiAnswers route and shoot for 2 pm on a Wednesday, as this is a nice midpoint in the week after people have returned from lunch and before they’re checking out for the day.  Or you could let your attendees do some deciding and make use of a helpful program that allows you to propose times and take a vote of when everyone invited will be available — like MeetingCaptain.