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The science of meetings

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The science of meetings

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Meetings are one of those facets of corporate life that are almost universally loathed.  It’s estimated that 40-50% of an executives time is spent in meetings of one kind or another, which would be ok if they actually achieved anything whilst sat in them.

As renowned economist John Kenneth Galbraith once said, “meetings are indispensable when you don’t want to do anything.”  Various surveys have revealed that around 30-40% of time spent in meetings is wasted however.

So research into meetings by MIT might well be of interest to managers, and indeed employees, the length and breadth of the land.  The researchers analysed nearly 100 meetings to try and understand these strange beasts.

They especially looked at the language used throughout the meeting, and whether this language could give us verbal clues as to how the meeting is going, and indeed when decisions are due to be made (I know, I know – like that ever happens!).

Apparently though, if a decision is about to be made, people start getting serious and ask their fellow attendees for specific information.

“As it turns out, the important parts of the meeting are characterized mostly by information and information request dialogue acts, and very few offers, rejections, or acceptances. We hypothesize that at the important parts of the meeting, when the decisions have been narrowed down and few choices remain, the meeting participants would like to ensure that they have all the relevant information necessary to make the decision, and that the outcome will fit within all of their constraints.”

All of which begs the question, that if this is the point you want to get to, yet so few meetings manage it, how can it be done?  According to the research it’s as simple as using the word yeah.  Apparently, when people begin their sentence with the word yeah it’s a good sign that a decision is about to be made.

The Wrap Up

Another interesting nugget was the importance of the wrap-up.  Whilst many attendees may be begging to leave and get back to work, the wrap up needs to be conducted before they’re set free.  The length of the wrap-up depends primarily on the length of time taken to make the decision earlier on in the meeting.  The longer the decision making time, the shorter the wrap-up.  For instance, if the meeting itself was just 14 minutes long, it would take 18 minutes to wrap it up.  If it was 35 minutes long however, the wrap-up would take just 10 minutes.

With this insight to hand, maybe you can conduct your own experiments to see if the findings correlate with your own meetings.  Do online meetings follow the same trends as their offline brethren?  Let me know in the comments.

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