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The Silent Meeting Manifesto v1: Making meeting suck a little less

The Silent Meeting Manifesto v1: Making meeting suck a little less

1. Intro

U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 1st Class Timothy Tamargo (Licensed for reuse with modification) https://coastguard.dodlive.mil/2013/06/coast-guard-senior-leaders-discuss-strategic-approach-to-leadership-issues/adm-papp-addresses-flag-and-ses-meeting/

2. The problems with meetings today

  1. No agenda: Loud meetings often have vague agendas. It’s not uncommon for a broad meeting to be called with no clear purpose. This lack of preparation often ensures meetings will meander with no clear outcome.
  2. No shared reading material for the whole group: Meetings often just have a loud presentation that is accessible only to the presenter. The audience can’t go at their own pace, nor can they back back to re-read anything they missed. If a meeting attendee tunes out, there’s no way to catch up.
  3. Unequal time-sharing: Often a few people in the meeting speak more than the majority of the audience. As a consequence, most attendees don’t have an opportunity to comment and provide their thoughts.
  4. Bad presentations — too slow, too fast, and meandering: When someone is presenting content to a group it’s most often a bad use of time since most people are bad presenters. Even in the best of cases where there is shared reading material, when a presenter decides to read the material out loud, the presentation is going to go too slow for some audience members (those that have context for example) and too fast for others (those new to the topic).
  5. Most meeting attendees don’t comment: Since raising one’s hand and interrupting the speaker can seem like a forceful action, it’s common for meeting attendees to spend an hour in a meeting and say nothing, particularly if a meeting is large. This is particularly true for introverted attendees or attendees further down a corporate hierarchy. As a consequence, loud meetings don’t take advantage of the audience’s expertise.
  6. Reading is faster than listening: Most attendees likely read faster than they can listen. This means a meeting where information is distributed orally is less efficient.
  7. Favors native speakers: Attendees that are native speakers of the presentation language often interject more quickly and can follow along with presenters better than non-native speakers. This can put many attendees at a disadvantage and limit their participation.
  8. Bad for remote attendees: Loud meetings benefit in-person attendees much more since they can often see the presenter and can chime in non-verbally. Remote attendees need to be much louder to interject and often have a poorer meeting experience.
  9. Rambling questions: In loud meetings only one person can speak out loud at a time. This means that a rambling, meandering question can kidnap the group’s time until the speaker realizes that they are doing so (which is uncommon), or someone interrupts (which is also uncommon). Silent meetings allow simultaneous questioning which short-circuits this behavior.
  10. Comments from the meeting often get lost and aren’t captured in any doc: In the best-case scenario for a loud meeting, an assigned note-taker can transcribe the meeting and take notes of the discussions. Most often though, this doesn’t happen making it very difficult for people that can’t attend the meeting to follow along.
  1. Prepare an agenda and choose a Facilitator: This step of meeting preparation acts as a conscious decision to ensure the meeting is worth having. The agenda and assigned roles require the meeting preparer to think through the logistics of the meeting, the needs of the group and the objectives.
  2. Create a “Table Read”: This is the key to Silent Meetings. This doc, otherwise known by the misnomer “pre-read”, creates a shared artifact for the meeting that becomes the main source of discussion, commenting and reflection.
  3. Read and comment in the Table Read: Reading is the main activity of a Silent Meeting. This one change modifies the meeting dynamics since attendees can now read at their own pace, click links, refer back to other material, and think. This evens the attendee playing field for non-native speakers and remote attendees as well. With the magic power of collaborative documents (e.g., Google Docs, Figma), meeting attendees can add comments in the Table Read as needed. This ensures all attendees have a chance to add their thoughts. It also has the added benefit of putting questions in the commenters’ original language and constrains the ability for rambling questions to side-track discussion.
  4. Facilitator helps synthesize comments and leads discussion: Meeting facilitators are the grease that make Silent Meetings function. While meetings can work without the role, a good facilitator turns an OK meeting into a great one.

3. The Silent Meeting basics

Step 1. Prepare an agenda and choose a Facilitator

  • Meeting goals (What do you want the meeting to achieve?)
  • Meeting non-goals (What is not in scope for the meeting?)
  • Meeting process (For a 30 minute meeting it could be, “Read doc silently for 20 minutes and then discuss for 10 minutes”)
  • Assigned facilitator (Who is facilitating the discussion?)
  • Assigned note-taker (This is optional but it’s often nice to have if it’s a very large meeting)

Step 2. Create the “Table Read”

Step 3. Read and comment in the Table Read

  1. Read the Table Read for the amount of time allocated
  2. Readers should leave comments in the doc where they have questions or comments
  3. Once readers are done with their first pass of the document, they should go back to the beginning and read the comments that others left. The readers should respond to others where needed.

Step 4. Facilitator helps synthesize comments and leads discussion

4. When and when not to use Silent Meetings

When Silent Meetings work

When should you not use Silent Meetings?

What Silent Meetings don’t solve

5. How to make a good “Table Read”

Vertical docs not horizontal

Table Read Structure

  1. Meeting Agenda: What is the purpose of this document and this meeting? What is the meeting process?
  2. Background: What are we here today to discuss? What is the problem we’re trying to solve and what is the background information we need to know?
  3. Principles: What are the parameters for solving the problem? Do we have core company, team or product principles we need to ensure we keep in mind?
  4. Options identified that can solve problem: What are the potential ways we can solve the problem and what are their pros and cons?
  5. Recommendation: What is the team’s recommendation for solving the problem and why? What does this imply as next steps?
  6. Discussion questions: Where do we want to focus the discussion? Are there clear decisions that we want to make or areas that we want input on specifically?
  7. FAQs: This is where Frequently Asked Questions get documented. I’ll elaborate more on this below but this section is where you can put details that are relevant to a subset of the audience.
  8. Appendix: Put anything here that you want to keep track of for later but don’t really need the audience to read for the meeting. Some typical examples includes, research details, data tables, glossaries, etc.

“Clarity of Angels Singing”

The Art of Comments & FAQs

What are the parameters to a good Table Read?

6. Common Pitfalls of Silent Meetings

Conclusion

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