Filed in Business storytelling, Collaboration, Communication, Employee Engagement
Communication is essential for workplaces to function effectively and, in the main, meetings are fora for communication. Yet, meetings are one of the most complained about aspects of our work lives. All too often they are dull and boring. At worst, they are a complete waste of time or where conflict (often passive) takes place. Most people leave meetings thinking, Thank goodness that’s over… Now I can do some work.
By rethinking some of the basics of meetings, and by using the natural power of story, you can run meetings that are much more productive and engaging, and which can make your job easier.
We call these Story-Powered Meetings.
When you first meet someone—a stakeholder, a senior executive, a staff member, a customer—they are often a little sceptical about you. They don’t know you, what you want, or whether they can trust you. If the interaction goes well and you manage to establish a connection, there is a magical moment when they go from being sceptical about what you are saying to being receptive. Story is a great tool for rapidly establishing this connection and rapport; for creating this magic.
Meetings are much more productive when you achieve the transition from resistant to receptive. To do this, invest a few minutes at the start of a meeting to share a recent experience that reveals a bit about your character. As the saying goes, They don’t care what you know until they know that you care.
Setting the scene
Too many meetings are agenda driven and, in many cases, there are too many agenda items for the allocated time. An alternative is to focus on purpose rather than agenda items. You can use a simple story structure, a clarity story, to help get everyone crystal clear on a meeting’s purpose.
In a meeting context, a clarity story might look like this:
- What’s the backstory? We started delivering our training programs in 2004 and they have improved each year. Clients rave about how good they are. We firmly believed that we could not replicate this with virtual programs.
- What changed? In 2020, we had to adapt our programs for virtual delivery due to the coronavirus pandemic. We invested lots of time and money to do this and, to our surprise, virtual delivery offered many benefits that actually improved learning outcomes. What’s more, our clients are even more enthusiastic about the virtual programs.
- So now (the purpose of the meeting)… As the world approaches COVID-normal, in-person delivery is starting to return. The purpose of this meeting is to explore how to adapt our future in-person programs to benefit from the great lessons we’ve learned from virtual delivery.
- What’s the objective? If we can do this, we will ensure our programs, both in-person and virtual, continue to be the best in the world.
The clarity story framework can be used for any meeting, regardless of topic or context. Give it a try for your next meeting. You might be surprised at the… Er… Clarity… It helps you achieve. Having a clear purpose is a great way to make meetings more productive.
We’ve all been in those meetings where there is a lot of heat and very little light. Mostly this occurs because people are transmitting assertions and opinions. All too often this simply creates conflict. If we hold a different opinion, we generally see two options—argue or keep quiet. Neither of these responses contributes much in terms of progress and it almost always makes meetings less productive. Fortunately, there is a third option—whenever you hear someone espouse an opinion or assertion that you disagree with, simply ask them for an example that illustrates their perspective. It’s amazing how a specific example can help resolve differences and make conversations more productive.
In all our work, we put a lot of effort into supporting people through the behaviour change needed for them to embrace new behaviours. We recently received this message from a workshop participant.
In a meeting today, I had a debate with a colleague about why he thought (my function) doesn’t support him enough. We exchanged many abstract judgements. But we only made progress when we started sharing real life examples (stories) of when we may have failed and explained how we felt. We had notes to take and lessons to learn. We also shared stories of successes we’ve had and discussed how we could replicate them. It is powerful and meaningful to talk real life stories instead of just abstracts or impressions. The latter just brings negative vibes without progressing to the point.
This is a great example of how focusing on specific events (stories) can help overcome tension and differences and help make meetings more productive.
This point is especially important during performance reviews. Research from the Corporate Leadership Council in 2001 suggests that in performance reviews you should always ground negatives by using very specific examples.
Time and attention are two of my most valuable commodities. You’re probably the same. Anything that wastes time reduces productivity, right? And that’s something we want to avoid. Yet all too often our time is wasted in meetings. Here is an example:
In 2017, I was running a workshop with a group of senior leaders. We were talking about the issue of workplace harm and why it needs to be eliminated. One of the leaders started talking about why the issue was important and why he was so passionate about it. After about four minutes, I interrupted him and asked for his permission to do an experiment. I asked one of the other participants what they remembered from the leader’s monologue. The participant just shrugged. I asked someone else and got the same result. Another person, and again the same thing. No-one could recall what he’d been saying. And it wasn’t because the leader was not eloquent or coherent… He just was talking too abstractly for people to understand or remember his points.
One of the easiest ways to make meetings unproductive is to do what this leader did—to talk at length at an abstract level that people don’t understand, and which effectively disengages them from you. The solution is to find examples that illustrate your point. They are much more concrete, understandable, and engaging than your opinions or assertions. And they save lots of time. You can read more examples of this here.
You can easily test for yourself how prevalent this is in our organisational lives. At your next meeting, divide a sheet of paper into two columns. Title the left column, ‘Opinions and assertions,’ and the right column, ‘Examples’. Every time someone says, “I think,” or, “Everybody knows,” or, “Research says,” or similar, make a tally mark in the left column. When someone gives an example—recalls an event—make a tally mark in the right column. After a meeting or two you’ll see the pattern. The vast majority of talk in meetings is opinion and assertion.
Stay curious for longer
One of the problems with meetings that are driven by agenda, and when time is consumed (wasted?) by long and windy statements of opinion, is that we are under time pressure. We don’t take the time to understand why people might hold the opinions that they’re expressing. Rather than shutting people down and moving to the next agenda item, it can be very productive to pause and be curious about why they hold their opinion. This situation is beautifully described by the following experience, which we first shared on our blog in 2017.
The other day I was talking to my son about the marriage equality debate in Australia, and it made me sick to my stomach when he said, “It’s wrong!”
I took a moment to compose myself and instead of immediately questioning him on where he’d gotten this belief from—as we’re a family who’s voting yes—I calmly asked, “Ok Jason, why do you believe this?”
He said, “Because it’s wrong for two men to marry each other!”
Completely shocked, I asked again, trying to understand his reasoning. “But why do you believe this?”
He looked at me incredulously and said, “Because who would wear the dress?!”
I was relieved—after explaining that both men could wear suits, he was fine with the idea.
As this example shows, remaining curious for longer can help make progress and make meetings more productive.
By adopting some of the ideas in this post you can make your meetings story-powered and much more productive as a result.
About Mark Schenk
Mark works globally with senior leadership teams to improve their ability to communicate clearly and memorably. He has been a Director of Anecdote since 2004 and helped the company grow into one of the world’s leading business storytelling consultancies. Connect with Mark on: