How to attend a meeting

 To really succeed in a business or organization, it is sometimes helpful
 to know what your job is, and whether it involves any duties.  Ask among
 your coworkers.  "Hi," you should say.  "I'm a new employee.  What is
 the name of my job?"  If they answer "long-range planner" or "lieutenant
 governor," you are pretty much free to lounge around and do crossword
 puzzles until retirement.  Most jobs, however, will require some work.

 There are two major kinds of work in modern organizations:
 1.      Taking phone messages for people who are in meetings, and,
 2.      Going to meetings.

 Your ultimate career strategy will be to get a job involving primarily
 No. 2, going to meetings, as soon as possible, because that's where the
 real prestige is.  It is all very well and good to be able to take phone
 messages, but you are never going to get a position of power, a position
 where you can cost thousands of people their jobs with a single
 bonehead decision, unless you learn how to attend meetings.

 The first meeting ever was held back in the Mezzanine Era.  In those
 days, Man's job was to slay his prey and bring it home for Woman, who
 had to figure out how to cook it.  The problem was, Man was slow and
 basically naked, whereas the prey had warm fur and could run like an
 antelope.  (In fact it was an antelope, only nobody knew this).

 At last someone said, "Maybe if we just sat down and did some
 brainstorming, we could come up with a better way to hunt our prey!" It
 went extremely well, plus it was much warmer sitting in a circle, so
 they agreed to meet again the next day, and the next.

 But the women pointed out that, prey-wise, the men had not produced
 anything, and the human race was pretty much starving.  The men agreed
 that was serious and said they would put it right near the top of their
 "agenda".  At this point, the women, who were primitive but not stupid,
 started eating plants, and thus modern agriculture was born.  It never
 would have happened without meetings.

 The modern business meeting, however, might better be compared with a
 funeral, in the sense that you have a gathering of people who are
 wearing uncomfortable clothing and would rather be somewhere else.  The
 major difference is that most funerals have a definite purpose. Also,
 nothing is really ever buried in a meeting.

 An idea may look dead, but it will always reappear at another meeting
 later on.  If you have ever seen the movie, "Night of the Living Dead,"
 you have a rough idea of how modern meetings operate, with projects and
 proposals that everyone thought were killed rising up constantly from
 their graves to stagger back into meetings and eat the brains of the

 There are two major kinds of meetings:

 1.      Meetings that are held for basically the same reason that Arbor
 Day is observed - namely, tradition.  For example, a lot of managerial
 people like to meet on Monday, because it's Monday.  You'll get used to
 it.  You'd better, because this kind account for 83% of all meetings
 (based on a study in which I wrote down numbers until one of
 them looked about right). This type of meeting operates the way "Show
 and Tell" does in nursery school, with everyone getting to say
 something, the difference being that in nursery school, the kids
 actually have something to say.

         When it's your turn, you should say that you're still working on
 whatever it is you're supposed to be working on.  This may seem pretty
 dumb, since obviously you'd be working on whatever you're supposed to be
 working on, and even if you weren't, you'd claim you were, but that's
 the traditional thing for everyone to say.  It would be a lot faster if
 the person running the meeting would just say, "Everyone who is still
 working on what he or she is supposed to be working on, raise your
 hand."  You'd be out of there in five minutes, even allowing for jokes.
 But this is not how we do it in America.  My guess is, it's how they do
 it in Japan.

 2.      Meetings where there is some alleged purpose.   These are
 trickier, because what you do depends on what the purpose is.  Sometimes
 the purpose is harmless, like someone wants to show slides of pie charts
 and give everyone a big, fat report.  All you have to do in this kind of
 meeting is sit there and have elaborate fantasies, then take the report
 back to your office and throw it away, unless, of course, you're a vice
 president, in which case you write the name of a subordinate in the
 upper right hand corner, followed be a question mark, like this:
 "Norm?"  Then you send it to Norm and forget all about it (although it
 will plague Norm for the rest of his career).

 But sometimes you go to meetings where the purpose is to get your
 "input" on something.   This is very serious because what it means is,
 they want to make sure that in case whatever it is turns out to be
 stupid or fatal, you'll get some of the blame, so you have to escape
 from the meeting before they get around to asking you anything.  One way
 is to set fire to your tie.

 Another is to have an accomplice interrupt the meeting and announce that
 you have a phone call from someone very important, such as the president
 of the company or the Pope.  It should be one or the other.  It would a
 sound fishy if the accomplice said, "You have a call from the president
 of the company, or the Pope."

 You should know how to take notes at a meeting.  Use a yellow legal pad.
 At the top, write the date and underline it twice.  Now wait until an
 important person, such as your boss, starts talking; when he does, look
 at him with an expression of enraptured interest, as though he is
 revealing the secrets of life itself.  Then write interlocking
 rectangles like this:  

                (picture of doodled rectangles)

 If it is an especially lengthy meeting, you can try something like this:

        (Picture of more elaborate doodles and a caricature of the boss)

 If somebody falls asleep in a meeting, have everyone else leave the
 room.  Then collect a group of total strangers, right of the street, and
 have them sit around the sleeping person until he wakes up.  Then have
 one of them say to him, "Bob, your plan is very, very risky. However,
 you've given us no choice but to try it.  I only hope, for your sake,
 that you know what you're getting yourself into."  Then they should file
 quietly out of the room.

Back to the archive...

This message was sent on 3 Jun 1996