start in silence
December 9, 2021

How to make your meetings more productive? Start in Silence.

By Paul Laughlin

I know, to start your meetings in silence sounds a million miles away from your current experience. Too many leaders face diaries chocked full of back to back meeting that can sound like talking shops. So, after so many years of suffering this can there really be such a radically different way. Yes, I believe so.

It is not an easy transition to make but in a world that needs more deep work & critical thinking surely it’s worth the effort. At least to try and change. When mentoring data & analytics leaders very often we identify unproductive meetings as a drain on their time & energy. Now the solution can sometimes be to prioritise & only attend those where you are really needed. But it’s also worth facing into the challenge of how meetings can become more than a necessary evil.

This week I’ve been reminded of three resources that point to a better way. The first was a recent nudge from one of the podcasts I regularly follow. The second two are tips I learnt from books I have previously reviewed on this blog. Together I believe they do point to a better way. So, as my gift to you, I thought I’d bring them all together in this post. I hope it at least provokes your thinking and at best empowers you to transform your meetings.

Prompted to face the malaise of unthinking noisy meetings

That nudge, or prick of my conscience, came from listening to an episode of the “Just Saying” podcast hosted by Joe McCormack. Author of the excellent books “Brief” and “Noise“, Joe focusses on helping leaders become clear and concise communicators. He also has a more recent broader focus on productivity & better quality thinking.

In episode 215, he laments the current problem of unproductive meetings. Ones that leaders attend on autopilot and fail to produce the better quality thinking or breakthrough decisions needed. Following his latest manifesto (an essay entitled “The Quiet Workplace“), Joe identifies part of the problem as the immediate rush to talking and interrupting presenters with questions before fully understanding the issue.

He recommends a silent start to meetings. Time for senior leaders to pause in their hectic days and have time to read the agenda properly and actually think about the issues in focus. It is well worth a listen as Joes shares a few different ways to kick of a meeting in silence. The benefit is that at least one may better suit your organisation. So, if you self identify with a leader who sleepwalks through a whole day of boring meetings, take a listen:

‎Just Saying – The BRIEF Lab: Ep. 215 – Silent meeting starts on Apple Podcasts

‎Setting the right tone at the beginning of a meeting may require you to say nothing at all. In this episode, I share a different way to kick off meetings by giving participants quiet time to prepare.

Learning from the way that Amazon use Tufte’s Study Hall approach

After listening to Joe’s podcast, I was reminded of reading Edward Tufte’s latest book “Seeing with Fresh Eyes“. In my review of that book I mentioned that I was struck by his prescription for more productive meetings. Edward Tufte (as well as being such a prophet for the cause of better data visualisation) has long railed against Death by Powerpoint. On that topic his essay “The Cognitive Style of Powerpoint” is well worth a read as well as very funny.

Anyway, in his latest book, Tufte returns to the argument for what he in American calls Study Hall. The simple idea is for presenters to dispense with slides altogether. Instead they produce a short document (2-6 pages) with text, data, visualisations, graphs all used together as needed. Rather than sending this out in advance, the meeting starts with silent reading. This can take anything from 20-50% of a meeting. But it usually still reduces meeting length, because the author then simply asks for any questions before moving to a decision. Unlike most meetings, everyone has had time to properly consider the better presented content & think before speaking.

If that sounds old-fashioned or like a slower world to which we can’t now return, you might be surprised by one leading proponent. Jeff Bezos is a big fan of this approach and shares this about his use of it in Amazon:

“We have study hall at the beginning of our meetings. Staff meetings at Amazon begin with 30 minutes of silent reading. the traditional corporate meeting starts with a presentation. Somebody gets up in the front of the room and presents a PowerPoint presentation, some sort of slideshow. In our view you get very little information, you get bullet points. This is easy for the presenter but difficult for the audience. And so instead, all our meetings are structure around a 6 page narrative memo.”

Jeff Bezos, during TV interview with Charlie Rose (16/11/2012)

Edward Tufte: Books – Essay: The Cognitive Style of Powerpoint

In corporate and government bureaucracies, the standard method for making a presentation is to talk about a list of points organized onto slides projected up on the wall. For many years, overhead projectors lit up transparencies, and slide projectors showed high-resolution 35mm slides. Now “slideware” computer programs for presentations are nearly everywhere.

The power of listening in silence during meetings

Even if you don’t feel empowered to implement the Study Hall approach (and I encourage you to give it a try), there are other options. As Joe role-modelled on his podcast, there are a number of ways more silence can help. As well as better information presentation, better quality listening in meetings can transform them. Not only can leaders improve how they are perceived by listening better, it can improve their own thinking.

I can’t touch on this topic without being reminded of the one author who has done most to open my eyes to the power of silent listening. Nancy Kline. Regular readers of this blog will not be surprised that I mention Nancy as I’ve previously reviewed 3 of her books. “Time to think“, “More time to think” and “The promise that changes everything” are all well worth reading. Perhaps not surprisingly, Nancy touches on the challenge of meetings in every book.

Perhaps the most relevant advice for this post comes in her most recent book. Chapter 45 of “The promise that changes everything” focussed on leadership & meetings. In it, Charles ( a CEO) shares how he transformed meetings in his business after being inspired by Nancy. The are many good ideas in his method. More time taken to craft an agenda of the most pertinent questions. ‘Rounds’ of everyone being given a chance to speak uninterrupted. Starting meetings with a positive ‘success round’. Then rounds for each discussion question & break into thinking pairs if needed. It is well worth reading that chapter to find out more about ‘Leadership for a Thinking Environment‘.

The Promise That Changes Everything

I was absolutely aligned with the message of the book before reading it. It strengthened my conviction that listening well (without judgment) and encouraging freethinking, exploratory and undirected speech can lead to transcendental moments of connection and shared personal breakthroughs.

How could you Start in Silence?

I hope that post has prompted you to pause for thought. Are you are silently thinking right now? Great!

Now what do you want to do differently as a result? I recommend identifying one behavioural change you want to make as a result of reading this post (and perhaps the linked resources). Identify something that you can start doing this week & book in some time to reflect on what happened as a result. Your meetings could be transformed.

I’d also love to hear your thoughts and ideas on this topic. Have you found a way to improve the thinking in your meetings? Have they got quieter as a result? Please use the comments box below or reply to my social media posts.