A Rant on Big Meetings

Big meetings give no thought whatsoever to how much learners actually can absorb.

By Dan Cooper, CEO, ej4.com

A special piece of the classroom experience is a standard ritual in organizations—the traditional “big meeting.”

A front-line Marketing specialist attended the annual two-day sales extravaganza. The meeting consisted of a steady stream of product manager presentations for full eight-hour days, with a 15-minute break in the morning and afternoon.

She and her buddies were trying to guess how many slides they were going to see, so she decided to bring an attendance clicker and count them (with money changing hands based on the total). The result for the two days was more than 700 slides. And these weren’t simple slides. They were chock full of pictures and charts and heavy with specifications and statistics.

She said it was like the old joke about why you can’t teach pigs to sing—a pig can’t sing in the first place, and it irritates the pig. She noted there was no way the attendees could absorb all that content, and they were definitely unhappy afterward at being put through the experience.

Management is relentless in designing ridiculously killer meetings. You hear this attitude all the time in comments such as these leading up to a big event:

“Let’s plan on having a working lunch.”
“As long as they’re here, we should work them.”
“We need to keep them until 6 p.m.”
“We have to add three more presentations somewhere.”
“If it’s important to them, they’ll remember it.”
“We shouldn’t have to spoon-feed them. It’s their job.”
“We can only tell them what they need to know. We can’t make them learn it.”

It’s no wonder attendees always say the highlight of meetings is trading stories with their peers afterward in the bar. Let the rant begin.

Too long.

Let us see if we have this right. You give attendees one 15-minute break in a four-hour morning. You overload their stomachs with a heavy lunch. Then you give them a single 15-minute break in a four-hour afternoon. And this is assuming you don’t keep them past 5 p.m. because the presentations ran long and you have to get caught up. Then you do it again tomorrow. Is that how it goes? Are you kidding?

We all have between five and 15 minutes of attention span. So basically, everything after 8:15 a.m. is getting something less than full attention. Even if we assume that attention span restarts after every break, you’re probably getting less than an hour of full attention per each eight-hour day.

Too much.

Nothing quite compares with taking active professionals who are used to moving around, talking, meeting, and working on a fast-changing variety of projects and making them sit for 16 hours over two days.

This is not drinking from a fire hose. It’s making a snowball in the middle of an avalanche. You’re not talking about cognitive overload here. You’re talking about cognitive “numb-nification”—that out-of-body feeling at the end of a long meeting day where you’re happy just to have survived the experience.

Big meetings give no thought whatsoever to how much learners actually can absorb. These are primeval “see” events where the goal is to make certain all the required content is flashed past attendees’ eyeballs. Once the photons have hit the optic nerves and their eardrums have been vibrated, management doesn’t care what happens after that. “Are they here and are they awake?” is all that counts.

The entire meeting is one big interference event, where the next pitch happily overlays what went before it. Then you’re so tired by the last pitch that you don’t remember much of it, either. So the end result is that attendees remember nothing.

Too hard.

Most of the presentations individually are too complex and generate massive cognitive overload. They are not only too long for maintaining attention but also typically include a classic PowerPoint death march, with every slide a master’s thesis.

Poor presenters.

Don’t get me started on the typical quality of the presentations themselves. We’re not talking about motivational speakers here. We’re talking about SMEs who have an abiding and deep love for their content and want the captive attendees to share in their depth of knowledge and affection for the topic.

Or we’re talking about presenters who have been assigned to give this pitch and are frantic to get through it without tripping up. Add to this the specter of dry content, and you have a vision of Ben Stein’s political science class in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off with drool on the desk and allonly it’s not for just a 50-minute school period. It’s for 16 hours.

Slides for notes.

Assuming attendees don’t leave their binders on the table at the end of the meeting…where do they usually end up? On someone’s shelf back in the office, never to be touched again until they finally are trashed when the employee moves.

It’s no better to give out a CD containing all the presentations. This is just a cheaper way to produce something that’s still useless. Have you ever actually loaded a meeting CD and fired up one of the presentations for review? No? Even if you did, how much sense did it make considering you didn’t have the presenter’s narration to go with it? Not much?

Too expensive.

The overall costs of such meetings are ridiculous. Most of the budget is devoted to logistics that deliver no added value: travel, food, housing, meeting room, meals, snacks, A/V directors, equipment, entertainment, and so on.

One and done.

Meetings are a single event that have no refresh learning process associated with them. Long term, what do attendees have to show for the meeting? Nothing.

Too inefficient.

All this is for what? Having attendees say, “You know, I got two or three good ideas from that one-day meeting.” Three good ideas max? In 480 minutes of presentations? One idea every two hours and 40 minutes? Are you serious? And management thinks this is a good idea?

There is a simple learning point to take away from this:

Enough already with the big meetings!

Traditional big meetings are the ultimate lose-lose. The organization spends tons of money and yet has little to show for it. Why? Because the entire focus is on the content and not on the attendees. All that matters is what’s being shown versus what’s being learned.

Whew! I feel so much better now having gotten that off my chest. See you at next year’s Marketing meeting. …

Dan Cooper is CEO of ej4.com. Fast 4ward your learning—find out more at http://www.ej4.com.

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