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

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

David Gasca
Jun 6 · 26 min read

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.


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

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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).
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. 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.
  9. 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. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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

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.

  • 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”

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.

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.

  1. Readers should leave comments in the doc where they have questions or comments
  2. 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

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”).

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.

When should you not use Silent Meetings?

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

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:


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:

Table Read Structure

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

  1. 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?
  2. 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?
  3. Options identified that can solve problem: What are the potential ways we can solve the problem and what are their pros and cons?
  4. Recommendation: What is the team’s recommendation for solving the problem and why? What does this imply as next steps?
  5. 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?
  6. 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.
  7. 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”

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”:

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.

What are the parameters to a good Table Read?

Table Reads often have the following rules of thumb:

6. Common Pitfalls of Silent Meetings

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

Conclusion

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.


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David Gasca

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San Francisco | Product Manager @Twitter | @gasca

The Startup

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