Our Meetings Suck

Prospect Park Neighborhood Meeting on Prospect North. February 14, 2015

Prospect Park Neighborhood Meeting on Prospect North. February 14, 2015

Dear planners: I love you, but our meetings suck. That might hurt a little to hear, but the good news is I’m here to tell you why it’s not our fault (entirely), why we suck (specifically), and how we can do better.

I am a regional transportation planner. Before that, I worked in the sales world for 10 years. As an inside sales rep I grew $10 million in national accounts to $15 million over three years. As a local sales rep I grew a $600,000 local territory into $1 million in one year, and I managed $6 million as a national sales rep. The company I worked for would eventually became so successful that they were purchased by and incorporated into The Home Depot. I’ve distilled the most important things I’ve learned about designing good meetings into this article.

So why do our meetings suck? Because the system is set up that way. A sales rep works tirelessly for weeks, months (years sometimes), to get just 15 minutes of their prospect’s time. And when the sales rep finally gets that 15 minutes, they must discover the information they need, or effectively communicate the information the prospect needs to know. If they don’t, the sales rep doesn’t get paid. They can’t pay rent, can’t buy groceries… you get the idea. The sales rep lives or dies in those 15 minutes, and there are rarely second chances. The stakes are high.

Now let’s take a planner. The planner has a plan they’ve been working on. So the planner calls a meeting to talk about the plan. Some people show up, the planner talks about the plan, people (maybe) ask some questions, and then everyone disperses. What happens to our planner if no one at that meeting learned a thing? Or if our planner didn’t learn a thing? Often, nothing.  At least in the short-term. Our planner still collects their salary at the end of the week, pats themselves on the back for another great meeting, and goes about making another plan. Many times, the stakes are about as low as you can get.

So it’s not really the planner’s fault. The system is set up to reward mediocre communication, and the consequences of ineffective communication are long-term or non-existent. That said, you should still design engaging and effective meetings even though they are not so closely tied to your ability to eat. Below are some common mistakes I see and some general advice for how to communicate more effectively in your meetings.

You don’t visualize yourself attending your own meeting and try to think of creative or innovative ways to do it better:

This is probably one of the most effective things you can do to design better meetings. Think of your meeting like a paper. When writing a paper, you: brainstorm, write rough drafts, revise, ask for feedback, and rack your brain until everything’s just right. Do the same thing for your meetings! Picture yourself attending the meeting as you’ve currently got it planned and try to think of ways to make it more engaging. Where might you lose them? Where do you have too much monologue you could break up with a check-in question? These are the kind of questions you should be asking yourself. For example, if you’ve got a plan that features many projects: don’t hit your audience with the 20 bullet points that make a project eligible for your plan. Tell a story about a specific project that perfectly fits all the criteria of your plan. Tell the story, and then tell why it’s a perfect example of the kind of projects in your plan. People are more likely to remember stories, and then they can work backwards from the story to recall what you wanted them to learn about your plan. Simple tweak, huge impact.

You haven’t realized that how you communicate through print is not an effective way to communicate in person:

Packed room at St. Louis Park SW LRT meeting.

Packed room at St. Louis Park SW LRT meeting.

A well-organized list of bullet points, supporting graphics, and tons of great content to support your ideas can be a fantastic way to communicate information in print. It is (usually) not an effective way to communicate in a meeting. We’ve all been to this meeting before. The speaker fires up the PowerPoint (or not) and speaks for 60 minutes straight. The speaker occasionally check in with the audience, but none one responds, so the speaker just keeps going. After a few short minutes of listening to the presentation, you find other thoughts start to creep into your head, or something the speaker said sparked an idea, and suddenly you find yourself unsure of how much time has passed since you were actively listening. We’ve all been to this meeting, yet we continue to conduct them ourselves. Don’t! People have short attention spans. Their ability to focus on any one speaker drops quickly and sharply. As a rule, if you have talked for more than a few minutes without engaging your audience or pausing to let your words sink in, their ability to absorb anything is almost nonexistent, unless it’s very relevant to them. If you must communicate a lot of information, break it up. Check in with questions. Ask for feedback. Poll with a show of hands. Have people reference something specific on a handout. Do something! Pro tip: if you ask for questions or thoughts and no one speaks up, call on someone. There is a reason that every high school teacher you’ve ever had did this. It works, if only by putting everyone one else on notice they could be called on next.

It’s hard to get everyone together, so you try to cover too much:

When I sat down the write this piece, I had 19 common mistakes I wanted to address. But if you’re like me, the first thing you do when you find an interesting article is skim it to determine how long it will take you to read. If I have time to read it then, I will. If I don’t, I must decide to let it go or bookmark it to read later (assuming I don’t forget). By putting everything I had to offer out there at once, the number of people who didn’t have 20 minutes to commit to my article at that time would learn absolutely nothing. Instead, I’ve decided to break this article up into a few different pieces. Do the same thing with your meetings! People can only absorb so much in 20, 30, or even 60 minutes. Break your information up into multiple meetings, or communicate it in different ways if that’s not possible. For example, cover the most important or complicated points in person, and provide the rest of the content digitally. If they can follow, understand, and remember what you cover in person, they will be more likely to read your follow-up email or link to further detail.

You talk when you should listen:

Some of us may have been to this meeting before. The speaker has booked 20 minutes. And when they rehearsed the talk in their bedroom it was more than enough time to cover everything they wanted to cover, start with a joke, and even take a few questions. Then, meeting day comes, they’ve gotten through 2 slides and a dialogue starts up. The speaker is happy to have some engagement. But after 3, 4, 5 minutes of discussion, you see them looking frantically at their watch and mentally calculating how many slides they have left to cover, and they start to break out in a sweat. At this point, they have a choice to continue to facilitate this dialogue, or snuff it out like a candle at bedtime and turbo through the rest of their slides. You should use your best judgment, but I would encourage you to let the dialogue run its course if you can. After all, you’ve sparked interest and it’s likely everyone will learn something from this dialogue. Could you let your meeting run late or schedule a follow-up meeting to cover the rest of your information? If you’ve invited these people to your meeting, they’re likely colleagues or stakeholders, and either one of them likely has relevant information to contribute to your work. Everyone will probably benefit more from this active dialogue than you blasting though the rest of your slides like an auctioneer and actively evading any questions or input on the rest of your content. Pro tip #2: no one likes to dedicate their time to come to a meeting only to feel like their voice is not important enough to be heard.

You haven’t thought enough about what I want:

Nice Ride meeting

Nice Ride meeting

I recently attended a meeting with a municipality that had been promoting one of their projects by touting all the great things it was going to provide for their community. After failing to get it off the ground, they regrouped and came to the realization that their approach was like a salesman talking about all the great things they are going to buy with their customer’s money once the sale is completed.  They decided that they instead need to talk about their project in terms of benefits to the funders.  There is a valuable lesson to be learned here.  Most people spend a good amount of time thinking about why they want you to attend their meeting but not enough time considering why you would want to.  My time and my attention are valuable to me.  If you want either of them, you had better offer something in return that is at least as valuable to me.  If you have trouble getting attendance at your meetings, this is probably the culprit.  You haven’t given people a compelling (enough) reason to show up.  Spend time thinking about who you want at your meeting, what they want, and how you can both benefit from your meeting.  And then package it to them that way!

Those are the five most common and impactful mistakes I’ve seen my colleagues make when designing their meetings and some ways to avoid them. Just remember, it’s not (entirely) our fault, the few common mistakes many of our peers make are easily avoidable, and by making some of the small tweaks suggested above, we can do better.

8 thoughts on “Our Meetings Suck

  1. Nate Hood

    What are you thoughts on the small group “Ford Site” meetings being hosted in homes around Highland Park & Mac-Groveland? Are you familiar with them?

  2. Jason BrissonJason

    Good morning Nate,

    Unfortunately, I can’t comment on any of these meetings as I have not had the opportunity to attend any of them yet. I live in Western MN about 2.5 hours outside of the Twin Cities, so a number of meetings are currently inaccessible to me (many are on weeknights). I would love to hear your thoughts on them, though, as I am always looking for great ideas to engage people (so I can shamelessly steal them and use them myself).

    For the record, I do attend a number of meetings in the Twin Cities and find many fellow planners in urban settings guilty of the same pitfalls I see in some of my work in rural MN.

    By the way- I would just like to say I am a huge fan of Strong Towns and have been for a while. It is a great resource and I have learned tons by listening to the podcast and reading articles from the site. I think you and I also shared some Twitter traffic at the MN Transportation Conference this year but I don’t think we had the opportunity to meet in person.


  3. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke

    There are certainly better and worse ways to hold a public meeting. I am seeing much more of the less group-oriented type, more of a posterboard / one-on-one conversations dynamic emerge lately, which seems like a good move. Anything to get past the mob mentality that can be so destructive to conversation (see also: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ng_-HgRfGBY)

  4. Jason BrissonJason Brisson Post author

    Thank you for your comment Bill- agreed. Planners wear so many hats that putting energy into brainstorming how to make meetings more engaging is just another task they may or may not have time for, but it’s a critical piece for good public engagement.

    Hopefully this will help make that task less time-consuming. I am also glad to hear you are seeing a trend in the right direction! I also wanted to mention I am a big fan of streets.mn- I think it is a great resource. Kudos to you and your organization.

  5. Dana DeMasterDanaD

    I have lots of swirling thoughts so I will try to distill them a little. Warning – I might fail.

    1) Compare the Ford Site living room meetings with Friends Streets Initiative block parties. I think they have the same intention of creating a safe, comfortable space for conversation about changes to the area, but one is for the same people public meetings are always for – white, upper middle class homeowners – and the other is for everyone.

    2) Look around your meeting. If attendees don’t reflect the people affected, start over. Renters, POC, families, people of different incomes. Improved content is great, better presentation, better ways if interacting, but if you aren’t reaching the people impacted, none of that matters.

    3) If you want to keep your meetings white, middle to upper income, mostly homeowners, only give a few days notice, don’t hold them in transit lines, make them at only one time, particularly early evening, don’t provide child care or food, only put out info in one language and make it difficult to find out if translation services are available, hold them in spaces that might be culturally traumatic or at the very least intimidating.

    4) Friendly Streets is the ideal we should all be aiming for – safe, welcoming, entertaining, informative.

    1. Serafina ScheelSerafina

      Great suggestions, Dana. Particularly about the importance of attendees reflecting the people affected. And then providing the supports necessary to get them there.

      I’d add, that whenever possible, include those key stakeholders in the planning of the meeting. Your meeting isn’t the only chance to communicate with them. Asking your intended audience ahead of time about its needs and expectations can go a long way toward fostering a productive relationship rather than an adversarial one.

      Translators. Food. Children’s activities. If someone is spending millions on a project, why not invest a few hundred dollars on engaging local experts in these meeting aspects that let attendees focus on what’s important?

  6. Jason BrissonJason Brisson Post author


    Thank you very much for your comment- I was hoping to get some input/ideas on the topic through this process and you have some great points listed above. My piece focused mostly on the meetings themselves, but you have brought up a great point- the location, time, place, and a number of other factors are just as important when trying to engage your community. I feel as if your comment above should be attached as an index to the article.

    I have not yet seen the work that Friendly Streets has been doing- I am eager to review their work and see what else can be learned from their efforts (read: shamelessly steal their ideas).


  7. Edie Meissner

    I have attended many of the meetings for the Riverview Corridor discussing options for routes and type of community preferred vehicles. Planners and consultant team are the presenters. This process has been in play for a very long time and has been extended now to study in depth another option…more money, more time, more questions.

    The standard presentation is the consultants and staff doing a PowerPoint for the first part of the meeting using slides that are difficult to read. Then the meeting is adjourned…frequently without a public period of question and answer..and people are directed to boards around the room to have one on one with consultants/staff. Sometimes public efforts for a public question and answer period have been accommodated at the last minute, but not for the most recent meeting at the Highland Library because the no question period was requested by the sponsoring city council member.

    While the time at the boards with staff and consultants is valuable, the lack of facilitated time for public questions can result in growing distrust of the process, especially when the newspaper report the next day talks about the public acceptance of ideas presented.

    I have suggested to my council member that the facilitated public q and a should be standard practice for city sponsored public meetings. They say they want public input but measure it in very limited ways.

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