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

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

Meetings suck. It’s a universally accepted truth.

I’m here to tell you that they don’t have to. I’m writing with the fervor of a missionary to stop terrible meetings. After discovering Silent Meetings I am converted.

This article is meant to be put to use. It’s part workbook and part guide. It’s the 6800+ word expansion of my tweet on this topic but with tons more detail. It’s made to be re-read as you practice Silent Meetings yourself.

Here’s the outline: after a broad introduction we’ll jump into the problems that loud meetings pose today. We’ll then going to dive into the Silent Meeting basics: the agenda, Facilitator, creating a Table Read, commenting and discussing. We’ll follow with when and when not to use Silent Meetings. We’ll also deep dive on how to make a good Table Read and we’ll close out with the common pitfalls of Silent Meetings. According to Medium this is about a 20 minute read so let’s get to it.

1. Intro

Let me take you into what is a common corporate scene: You’ve been invited to a meeting to discuss something important. You’re sitting in the conference room along with 10 other bright colleagues. You’re optimistic about what you might accomplish together. Your optimism quickly fades. At the front of the room the meeting organizer drones on with poorly-made slides about something that most people in the room already know. Next slide. 20 minutes into the meeting, most are tuned out. The presenter continues with their slides disregarding that half the room is checked out. Next slide. It’s now minute 55 of the 60 minute meeting, you finally have time to ask the two questions you came here initially to discuss. Before you do, however, someone else raises their hand and asks a different question. This takes up the remaining time in the meeting. The question was only half-answered but it’s the end of the allotted time so that’s the end. You walk out hating meetings just a little bit more than before.

Here’s where typical meetings fail: Almost none of the attendees’ expertise was used in any way. 60 minutes wasted with almost no exchange of ideas. It’s no wonder meetings get such a bad reputation…

Enter Silent Meetings.

“Silent Meetings” are meetings where most of the time is spent thinking and discussing the topics at hand. Functionally, they are based around a “Table Read” that everyone at the meeting reads silently, comments in and then discusses. An assigned facilitator leads the comment synthesis and discussion to ensure the meeting is valuable. (If you’re itching to learn more about the specifics, jump to Section 3.)

Is it 100% silent? Not really. Sometimes it can be 95% silent. Sometimes less. A good rule of thumb is that a meeting is “silent” when more than 50% of the time is spent silently and the time that is not silent is spent on topics that can’t be resolved through comments in a doc (e.g. coordination problems, difficult conversations).

The main reason that Silent Meetings are valuable is they focus the attendees around a piece of shared context (the Table Read). This document centers the discussion and cuts off most of the channels that lead typical loud meetings astray.

Silent Meetings also enable entirely new ways of working. For example, in a typical meeting setting you don’t really have many-to-many interactions: there is the presenter and then the audience. The relationship is mostly static: one speaks, others listen. In Silent Meetings there is the creator of the original Table Read and the audience that then become creators themselves through their comments. This dynamic enables in-meeting creation instead of just information dissemination. Meetings can become a forum through which work happens instead of corporate, coordination overhead.

But do Silent Meetings work? From personal experience I can say, they absolutely do. About a year ago I learned how to use Silent Meetings at Twitter and it has been a liberation: Questions are asked by most attendees in the meeting. Discussions get into nuance and details. Meetings end ahead of schedule. There is better remote attendee participation. And (more often than not) we don’t generate begrudging attendance. Not all Silent Meetings are a panacea (it’s still work after all) but meetings suddenly can become a productive forum for creation instead of one-to-many broadcasting reminiscent of bad elementary school days.

Silent Meetings first started at Amazon with Jeff Bezos. At some point in Amazon’s history Bezos declared that Powerpoint would not be allowed and “Narratives” (6-page long-form text documents) would be the main communication vehicle. Since nobody had time to read pre-reads, the document would be read silently during the meeting instead. And so Silent Meetings were born.

Silent Meetings then spread through the Amazon diaspora including Alyssa Henry, a former VP at Amazon Web Services who’d worked at Amazon for 8 years. When Alyssa moved to work at Square in San Francisco she brought Silent Meetings with her. As of writing she is the Head of Seller & Developer Business Units & Infrastructure Engineering at Square where Silent Meetings have become established practice.

Jack Dorsey, as CEO of Square and Twitter then spread the fire to Twitter where I work as Product Manager. Over the past few years the techniques have morphed at Twitter. I’ve expanded Silent Meetings for my teams to make it our default approach. We use it for small and large meetings — recurring and special events. The largest forums in which I’ve used Silent Meetings are day-long 70-person planning sessions but I also regularly use them for meetings with 4 to 40 people.

To help visualize the difference, here is what a typical loud meeting looks like: By my count there are at least 25 attendees with one speaker in this picture. My guess is this meeting might have been better than average given everyone seems focused. However, the one-to-many nature of this meeting makes it extremely likely that this is a bad use of time for the meeting attendees compared to what this group could have achieved through Silent Meetings.

U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 1st Class Timothy Tamargo (Licensed for reuse with modification)

For comparison purposes, here is a Silent Meeting at @TwitterBoulder. There are 60 people in attendance. Everyone is collaboratively working. There are Computers and iPads. There is no presenter. The person in the front of the room is facilitating the discussion. Instead of just listening to a presentation, this meeting is a vehicle of work. Most attendees later said it was a great use of their time.

Enough background, let’s dive into why traditional meetings suck.

2. The problems with meetings today

If you’re reading this, you’ve probably been in your fair share of meetings. If you work at a larger corporation, this is probably what you spend most of your day “doing”. Probability indicates that most of these meetings are likely very bad uses of your time.

Most of us hate going to meetings. It’s something that unites us.

Typical “Loud meetings” are bad for a multitude of reasons:

  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.

Silent meetings fix all of these issues. There are a few short interventions that constitute a “Silent Meeting” and that end up making all the difference:

  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.

A meeting with these four components constitutes a Silent Meeting. Let’s dive into each step a bit more.

3. The Silent Meeting basics

Silent Meetings have four basic steps:

Step 1. Prepare an agenda and choose a Facilitator

A few minutes of preparation goes a long way towards making a meeting more successful. This is a universal truth beyond Silent Meetings. A rule of thumb is that the meeting organizer should spend at least as much time organizing the meeting as the meeting itself will last. I find this rule a bit aspirational for the realities of modern corporate workplaces but the general point stands — if you’re calling a meeting to take up everyone’s time, treat that time with respect and make it count.

Before your meeting create a basic agenda that includes:

  • 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)

With this high-level plan in hand, we then move onto the “Table Read”, the Silent Meeting entree.

Step 2. Create the “Table Read”

You might have heard about “pre-reads”, the unicorn doc that everyone aspires to send before a meeting. It’s common to hear, “This meeting should have a pre-read we all can read before we meet.” In this mythical land, someone sends out a comprehensive document for meeting attendees a day or two in advance, everyone reads it thoroughly and shows up prepared for discussion like a university seminar. What ends up happening in reality is that nobody has time.

This is why Silent Meetings don’t rely on pre-reading anything. Since the main document is read at the table during the meeting we call them “Table Reads”. As Jeff Bezos states:

“And so, you’ve got to actually carve out the time for the memo [Table Read] to get read — and that’s what the first half hour of the meeting is for. And then everyone has actually read the memo, they’re not just pretending to have read the memo.”

The change from pre-read to Table Read creates common knowledge through a shared artifact for discussion. Everyone at the Silent Meeting has all of the context required. All facts needed are in the doc so everyone is on level footing. This helps foster a productive conversation.

Step 3. Read and comment in the Table Read

Once you have the Table Read, and you’ve convened the meeting, everyone reads and comments in the doc. This is the bulk of the Silent Meeting.

To kick off the meeting, the Facilitator or meeting organizer should have everyone follow the process outlined in the Agenda. For the Silent Reading portion the main steps are:

  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.

While this process might seem odd at first, it eventually becomes habitual and makes it very difficult to go back to normal, loud meetings.

This portion of Silent Meetings often results in a quiet din of clacking keyboards. For meetings with remote participants, it’s nice to mute mics during this time.

While reading and commenting, it’s important to note that comments should be left unresolved in the doc: Do not delete or resolve others’ comments during this time. Attendees often benefit from seeing the comments left by others and resolving too early shortcuts this process. After the meeting the Facilitator or Table Read owner can read and resolve comments as needed.

Step 4. Facilitator helps synthesize comments and leads discussion

While attendees are reading the Table Read, the Facilitator is at work combing through the Table Read comments and making sure the right people are tagged throughout. For example, supposed that there is a question about a statistic mentioned in the document. The Facilitator will find the comment and tag whoever is best equipped to answer the question (e.g., in Google Docs terminology “+PersonToAnswerQuestion”).

Scanning the comments also gives the Facilitator a sense for what the main questions are from the attendees and what are the most important topics for discussion. Once the reading and commenting period is over the Facilitator can then focus everyone on these topics.

For example, if the Facilitator sees two key themes, they can start the discussion period by saying “I see two main themes in the comments. I also see a number of comments with questions that we can discuss outside of the meeting including Theme X that will require a completely separate meeting. For today’s discussion, the main themes that we should discuss are Theme 1 and Theme 2. For Theme 1, let’s look at Attendee 1’s comment…”

While occasionally discussion questions are listed in the Table Read, this Facilitator-led method allows the meeting to focus on areas with the highest need for the attendees’ input. This is where a Facilitator can shine and turn an OK Silent Meeting into an excellent one.

One final note: Facilitators also own the clock. If you’re approaching the end of the meeting, the Facilitator should try to “land the plane” and identify clear next steps as needed leaving enough time to do so.

4. When and when not to use Silent Meetings

Silent Meetings are powerful. When they’re well done they can transform a company culture and turn meetings into productive encounters to actually produce value. That said, there are some times where they’re not appropriate.

When Silent Meetings work

The rule of thumb for when Silent Meetings are great is for any complicated decision that requires deep thought. For example, let’s suppose you are working through a strategic decision like which country your company should go into next. It’s a large meeting with 20–30 attendees representing different functions. In a typical meeting, you’re very likely to end up with many side conversation about tax considerations or other detailed topics. With Silent Meetings, all of these conversations can happen in comments so they don’t distract everyone else. The Table Read provides nuance for the complicated topic and space for attendees to reflect. Meanwhile the discussion can focus on the most important topics that need to be hashed out by the group.

This holds true for small and large groups.

I’ve found success using Silent Meetings for giant meetings with 40, 60 or more attendees. The Table Read becomes a masterwork of comments which can at times become overwhelming but the amount of thought and connections you can make in a short amount of time is worth it.

For meetings with 6–10 people, Silent Meetings work very well. It’s a small group so you don’t have too many comments but it allows deep focus on select topics that then enable deep discussion.

This is also true for even smaller meetings. Even one-on-one docs with recurring agendas benefit from silent reading since the attendees can then get through the logistical items quickly and spend most time on the important topics that need verbal discussion. Since most people read faster than they talk, this makes what would normally be a quick 30 minute meeting much more productive than a loud meeting with no clear agenda.

When should you not use Silent Meetings?

There are a few good reasons not to use Silent Meetings.

The first is if the purpose of the meeting is to develop group rapport or to discuss difficult, emotional topics. You don’t need a Table Read for this. You also probably don’t want a typical meeting for this either — you just need to sit down and get to know people on a human level and have a real conversation.

The second reason not to use Silent Meetings is when the meeting is meant to inspire. I call this the TED Heuristic: Would a TED Talk be appropriate in this situation? If yes, don’t do a Silent Meeting. Making people dream requires storytelling — storytelling is done best by talking out loud with pauses, non-verbal gestures, proper intonation and more.

Examples of where TED-talks are appropriate include large conferences. Say you’re presenting your findings from years of work — you want to show off your work through a tight story arc and you don’t really want audience feedback anyway. In this situation, keep the loud meeting format and spend time refining your presentation and slides.

Finally, there are large gatherings where the purpose of meeting is broader and more purposeful than just discussing specific topics. For example, large conferences, company all-hands events, social offsites, and ceremonies of all kinds. The objective is to commemorate and connect human-to-human. Silent Meetings are mostly not applicable here.

The one area other area where Silent Meetings only half-work are Brainstorming sessions. The best form of brainstorming is when people think independently and then get back together to refine jointly. In other words, they look a lot like Silent Meetings! The main difference is that the overall percent of time spent in silence during a brainstorming session can skew much more heavily to talking vs. reading and often involves a lot more creation. (There is a full art to doing a brainstorming sessions well and that’s for another piece.)

What Silent Meetings don’t solve

While I believe Silent Meetings are a fantastic format and solve a lot of problems with meetings, at the end of the day they don’t solve broken processes nor broken culture. Here is a short list of what they can’t solve:

Do you even need this meeting? There are many, many cases where you actually don’t need the meeting in the first place. Can the topic be resolved asynchronously? Then don’t call the meeting. The only exception to this is when the meeting also has a social element that is valuable in and of itself (i.e., the meeting is more of a “home room”). An example of this is a team “daily stand-up” where everyone checks in on what they are doing. There is value to having these meetings synchronously but using elements from Silent Meetings can make them more efficient.

Do you need all these people? One large downside of meetings is they take a lot of time. A 1 hour meeting with 20 people is 20 hours of time. Try to keep meetings as small as you can. If you can’t keep them small, try to keep them short. If you can’t do either, spend the effort upfront to make them productive.

Is there a clear decision-making process? Picture this: the meeting is coming to a close. A clear decision with pros and cons is on the table. It’s unclear who makes the decision. Everyone looks around confused and the meeting ends ambiguously. I wish I could say that Silent Meetings solve this but alas, they do not. Silent Meetings make it clearer that there is a lack of a clear decision-making process but they won’t solve it for you.

Now that I’ve proselytized about how great Silent Meetings are, let’s talk about the core artifact: a good Table Read.

5. How to make a good “Table Read”

The Table Read is the main entree of the Silent Meeting. This is the document that everyone will read and comment in. It has the main discussion points and the context meeting attendees need to participate. So, what makes a good Table Read?

Vertical docs not horizontal

Let’s start with the format. A good “Table Read” is a vertical document. By this I mean you scroll up and down, not sideways. This means no PowerPoint, keynote or other form of presentation. Presentations have a role (see prior chapter) but in most meetings they detract from serious discussion. Jeff Bezos articulates why in this email he sent Amazon in 2004:

“Well structured, narrative text is what we’re after rather than just text. If someone builds a list of bullet points in Word, that would be just as bad as powerpoint.

The reason writing a good 4 page memo is harder than “writing” a 20 page powerpoint is because the narrative structure of a good memo forces better thought and better understanding of what’s more important than what, and how things are related.

Powerpoint-style presentations somehow give permission to gloss over ideas, flatten out any sense of relative importance, and ignore the interconnectedness of ideas.”

To top this all off powerpoint also detracts from meetings because the amount of time people spend formatting presentations is often greater than the thought they spend on the content. The formatting then leads to compromises: if the content doesn’t fit on a slide it’s often discarded. This is where nuance goes to die.

The main tool you want to use instead of slides is some form of vertical, ideally also collaborative, document — I recommend Google Docs.

(Sidenote: I know Microsoft has some nice options nowadays but I’m entrenched in the Google Suite. For designers I think Figma can serve similar purposes.)

Table Read Structure

The Table Read is a flexible document. You can adjust it to fit your needs.

Below is an example outline of a Table Read based loosely on Amazon’s Narrative (6-page memo) structure. Note that this is just an example — you can modify the structure of the Table Read to the type of meeting you have. For example, if you often review Pricing decisions or User Research results, you can make Table Reads that are appropriate to those topics.

A common Strategic Narrative Table Read often involves mixing and matching the pieces below:

  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.

I’ve also included an example Table Read in this Google Doc if you want to copy it as a template. This is just an example format and you should create new templates for your particular needs.

One final note: if the idea or meeting you are having is brand new and you don’t know what to put in a Table Read, use the beginning of the meeting as the forum for the creation of the document. For instance, the Facilitator can set out the main headers based on the attendees in the meeting (e.g., “Finance” “Accounting” “Tax”) and then fill the doc in throughout the meeting. Afterwards, you now have a new template for future Silent Meetings with this group or on this topic.

“Clarity of Angels Singing”

What is the desired outcome from the Table Read? Let’s go back to the source at Amazon. Here is Jeff Bezos’ in Amazon’s 2017 Shareholder letter talking about Amazon’s“Six-Page Narratives”:

We don’t do PowerPoint (or any other slide-oriented) presentations at Amazon. Instead, we write narratively structured six-page memos. We silently read one at the beginning of each meeting in a kind of “study hall.” Not surprisingly, the quality of these memos varies widely. Some have the clarity of angels singing. They are brilliant and thoughtful and set up the meeting for high-quality discussion. Sometimes they come in at the other end of the spectrum.
[…] The difference between a great memo and an average one is much squishier. It would be extremely hard to write down the detailed requirements that make up a great memo. Nevertheless, I find that much of the time, readers react to great memos very similarly. They know it when they see it. The standard is there, and it is real, even if it’s not easily describable.
Here’s what we’ve figured out. Often, when a memo isn’t great, it’s not the writer’s inability to recognize the high standard, but instead a wrong expectation on scope: they mistakenly believe a high-standards, six-page memo can be written in one or two days or even a few hours, when really it might take a week or more! […] The great memos are written and re-written, shared with colleagues who are asked to improve the work, set aside for a couple of days, and then edited again with a fresh mind. They simply can’t be done in a day or two. The key point here is that you can improve results through the simple act of teaching scope — that a great memo probably should take a week or more.” [Emphasis added]

What does it look like to make a good Table Read? How does one do this practically?

The key is iteration.

The Table Read author needs to get many rounds of feedback and then incorporate them into the doc. Most of this can mostly happen asynchronously or in small, focused meetings. As the author gathers feedback, the challenge then is how to incorporate it all. This is the Art of Commenting & FAQs.

The Art of Comments & FAQs

As you prepare your Table Read you will very likely get feedback from someone either directly in the doc or indirectly through other conversations. Every question you get is a gift: they are the clues that will guide you to the the hot-button issues of the doc, they tell you what parts are not clear and they show the way to greatness.

The main strategy for handling questions and comments is to either incorporate them into the main document or add them to the FAQs.

While this sounds straightforward, there is an art to handling comments, especially during a meeting when they can accumulate quite quickly. The main way of triaging comments is by type.

Some comments are about specifics: “Do you have the link to this data? What does this acronym mean? Who can I talk to to learn more about this sentence?” These comments can be answered directly and eventually incorporated into the main document by adding links or footnotes.

Another type of comment is more strategic: “Why do you believe that X is the case? I disagree with your interpretation of this data. This is a bad idea.” These comments are flagging hot-button topics. They are your guide-posts for the important discussions you should have in the non-silent part of the Silent Meeting. Once the questions are settled, they should be documented into the main doc (e.g., “here is why we think this is a good idea after further discussion”) or added directly to the FAQs (e.g., “Why do we believe that X is the case? {here is the summary of our discussion}).

A final type of comment is more tangential: “How does this proposal relate to Y? What about the costs of Z?” These questions, while related to the main Table Read, are not important enough to the main narrative to be included in the document. However, they are important to add to the FAQs to track over time. If they are irrelevant though, they can be removed outright.

Frequent comment management makes Table Reads stronger.

What are the parameters to a good Table Read?

Table Reads often have the following rules of thumb:

They are not too long: Table Reads should be read in ⅓–½ of the allotted meeting time. Adjust this towards the lower range if you anticipate lots of comments in the meeting. For example, it should take about 10 minutes to read a Table Read for a 30 minute meeting. If there are lots of comments it’s likely this Table Read could easily occupy 20 minutes. If it’s a controversial topic or if it’s an area that is new to the commenters, budget even more time.

6-pages is enough for a complex topic: The Amazon rule of thumb for a Table Read is that it should be less than 6 pages of written text (excluding the Appendix). Assuming the Table Read is for a strategic topic with a lot of discussion, 6-pages is appropriate for a 1-hour meeting with about 15 minutes of reading, 10–15 minutes of commenting and 30 minutes of discussion.

Include any information needed for the attendees in the Table Read itself: Avoid using the Appendix, or clicking out to other docs as much as possible to avoid attendee attention leakage. Spell out acronyms. Use links for external sources of information but don’t expect audience members to click through. Use footnotes where nuanced points need to be made that are only relevant for a subset of readers.

If a meeting is very long consider breaking the Table Read into sections: Optimal reading size per section should be less than 30 minutes. If it’s longer than this attendees will lose interest. For example, say you have two hours worth of discussion. It’s then worth splitting the Table Read into halves. For each half you can read, comment, discuss, take a break and then repeat the process. You can organize full day sessions this way by stringing together reading periods with a series of breaks.

6. Common Pitfalls of Silent Meetings

You have a Table Read. Everyone’s in the room. You start the meeting. Magic?

Almost… There are a few common pitfalls that befall people new to Silent Meetings — especially if they benefited from loud meeting structures. Here are some common scenarios:

No Facilitator: The Silent Meeting starts and nobody is implicitly nor explicitly the Facilitator. While everyone starts reading, chaos lies in wait. Since nobody is assigned to facilitate the meeting and guide discussion, as soon as a difficult conversation arises the conversation is almost certainly going to rabbit-hole. Most often, nobody will reclaim the reins of the meeting to ensure focused group discussion. The meeting will then revert to being loud and unproductive.

Bad facilitation: Similarly, you could have a Facilitator in the meeting that is ineffective; the Facilitator could either be oblivious to group dynamics or not have sufficient gravitas to steer the group discussion. Bad Facilitators often feel bad about interjecting — they can let very loud people run off with the meeting. Bad Facilitators can also not keep the meeting strictly on track — they don’t monitor meeting timing, they don’t drive to conclusions and they leave questions open ended without clear next steps.

Verbose Table Reads: Another common pitfall is where all the elements of the Silent Meeting are in place but the Table Read is too long. The tell-tale sign of this is when the Facilitator calls the silent portion to a close and the audience is still commenting in the doc. This is a subtle flaw but a real one. Since the group was not able to fully comment, the result is that a large number of burning questions haven’t been recorded in the doc. These questions are now likely to come up in the group discussion. In a proper Silent Meeting most questions get asked and answered in the Table Read ensuring the discussion focuses on the most important topics. Without this, the full power of the Table Read is missed and the meeting is likely to revert to being loud with tangential questions.

Comment overload: Suppose you’re in a 30 minute Silent Meeting. Comments are flowing — small questions, large existential questions. Everyone needs more time to think and reflect. The Facilitator calls an end to the silence at the 25 minute mark but there are dozens of meaty questions to discuss. The common mistake in this scenario is that the Facilitator tries to cram all the answers into the remainder of the meeting when there is no way to effectively have these important discussions. This is likely a sign that the meeting was premature and the Table Read could have benefited from a lot more iteration. It could also be a sign that this topic merits a lot more discussion than the time allotted.

Bad post-meeting comment management: It was a great meeting. Everyone left good comments and the Facilitator led a good discussion on the most important topics. However, there were a number of outstanding small and large questions in the Table Read that required follow-up. And yet they remained untouched… forever. The Table Read became a dead-doc instead of a vehicle of work. The solution here is to ensure that someone is on the hook for going through and resolving comments appropriately. (See “The Art of Comments & FAQs in Chapter 5 above)

Bad Table Reads: You budgeted time. Everyone is in attendance. You start reading and realize the doc has not been edited — it’s sprawling and not ready for group consumption. The doc amasses tons of comments and some of them are very basic (e.g., “How does this recommendation tie to the recommendation below? This is illogical.”). This is a clear sign that the meeting was premature and the Table Read needed more work. The doc could have been shared asynchronously (e.g., email) and improved upon outside of a meeting before convening everyone to discuss.

Unexplained acronyms & lack of context: Most companies have new people joining teams frequently. A polite Table Read spells out acronyms and includes basic context on key topics. Absent this, many comments are just clarifying basic points in the document instead of the more strategic questions.

Right discussion, wrong forum: Often Table Reads will lead to great questions and deep discussions. Occasionally the questions might be outside of the purview and purpose of that meeting. For example, suppose you are discussing the best pricing scheme for a new product but then there is a question about the company’s overall strategy or mission. This might be a great question but it’s most likely the wrong forum to discuss. A good Facilitator will identify this and table these questions for separate discussion outside of the meeting.


I believe Silent Meetings are just in their infancy. They expand our conception for how group work happens and they have the potential to change much more of corporate and non-corporate world. Silent Conferences, Silent Board Meetings, Silent All-Hands, Silent Government meetings, Silent Town Halls… I’m want to see their evolution and expansion globally. Silent Meetings fundamentally change the nature of work.

This manifesto is v1. I intend to keep updating it in future versions as Silent Meetings continue to develop.

If you use Silent Meetings and have suggestions for how to improve them, please tweet suggestions to @SilentMeeting on Twitter. I will keep track of the suggestions and then incorporate into future versions of this doc.

Use Silent Meetings. Make everyone’s day better. Make meetings suck a little less.

For more on Silent Meetings follow @SilentMeeting on Twitter. I also tweet about more varied topics @gasca.