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Ready For Anything

The Esquire Guy on the Proper Way to Energize a Meeting

Magazine Contributor
Articles Editor, GQ magazine
min read

This story appears in the February 2014 issue of . Subscribe »

The three most important virtues of meetings are as follows: punctuality (obviously), order (represented by the "agenda," as it's sometimes dispiritingly called) and energy. This is about energy.

But not ENERGY!

Energy has come to be synonymous with UP! and HELLO! and HOW 'BOUT SOME COFFEE, DAVE?! ... NO?! ... WELL, THEN HOW ABOUT A CRULLER?! ... NO?! ... WELL, THEN HOW ABOUT A HIGH-FIVE?!

Now let's get started. Projecting positive energy during a meeting is a tricky thing. Too much, and you come off as a SpongeBob-like freak. Not enough, and you come off as a Squidward-like bore. (Note: If you are over the age of 11, do not use SpongeBob references in your meeting communications.)

Positive energy often belies the seriousness of the task at hand. Seriousness can be energizing, too. But the point is to be neither keyed up nor grave. The point is to be authentic. To put it more authentically: "Anytime you're trying to do something because you read it in a management book--those are the times you look like an idiot," says Greg Tseng, co-founder and CEO of Tagged, a social-discovery network.

Maybe don't follow general guidelines too closely (this column notwithstanding). Plenty of management books address how to motivate your staff, but as with any instruction presented in a management book, you should deviate where necessary. Otherwise, even if you don't come off as an idiot, you'll probably come off as slightly out of step. If you're all smiles and high-fives, then you're not going to seem present in the meeting. You'll be in the room, but your attitude will seem to be somewhere else--perhaps in a happier, more fun room, but the wrong room nonetheless.

Super-positive energy ignores another principle of meetings, and that is that people don't like them. Alexandra Luong, associate professor and director of graduate studies in psychology at the University of Minnesota Duluth, focuses on emotions in the workplace. "The research suggests," Luong indicates, "that people don't like meetings." (Note: Your tendency to hate meetings is validated by science.)

This is a little more helpful: "Make sure the people who are giving you input know they're there with you in the meeting," Luong says. This is sometimes referred to as "presence." It involves giving cues that tell people you're listening. And there's nothing more energizing than having someone's eyes focused on you as you're speaking.

It might be a little intimidating, but meetings should always be a little intimidating. Because there's something at stake. If someone is speaking in a meeting, they should be simultaneously encouraged and challenged. And all you have to do is lock in to what they're saying. That creates a momentary friction. And that kind of friction--more than some lame attempt at cheerleading--creates energy.

It involves eye contact. And the acknowledgment that someone is speaking. If someone can't get a word in (an assistant, say), the others in the room should be tamped down so that the person can be heard. When you're helping someone out like that, you're building trust and establishing parity. You're being authoritative and generous at the same time.

But these are small things. What happens in a meeting is a micro thing; the success of the meeting and the "energy" of it are a macro thing. The context of the meeting is at least as important as how it's led. As we were talking about meetings to Mark Johnson, CEO of personalized news-aggregation app Zite, he said: "Monday meetings go much better if they're done after lunch rather than in the morning, when everyone is getting through the fact that they're at work on a Monday morning instead of having a lovely weekend." This is a rather obvious point, but it's an important one. Because Johnson is addressing the context of the meeting, which is a more important determiner of the kind of energy a meeting will have than any sort of approach you'll employ or pastries you'll serve.

A few other contextual approaches that contribute to good energy:

  • Have a tendency to start and end your meetings on time.
  • Have a tendency to be generally positive. And occasionally extremely positive. And occasionally not positive at all.
  • Have a tendency to be extremely clear about what you want people to think about before the meeting.
  • Have a tendency to not hold your weekly meeting at 8 on Monday morning or at 5 on Friday afternoon. (Why do startups always schedule their staff meetings this way?)

Speaking of Friday meetings, which often are characterized by the drinking of beer and other spirits--the problem with drinking during an important meeting is twofold. Alcohol has a tendency to create a sense of optimism, even when the situation doesn't warrant it--a false positive, in other words. Also, drunk people don't make good decisions. Which subverts the point of the meeting in the first place. Meetings involving drinking are for camaraderie only. A worthy goal, but not a productive approach.

Sure, that sounds lame ... BUT THERE'S WORK TO BE DONE, PEOPLE!


Key Technical Matters

The first rule of energy when it comes to meetings is: not too much.

Also: not too little.

There's energy, and then there's ENERGY!!!

Energy involves eye contact, nodding, smiling, emoting, reacting and moving on when things get bogged down.

ENERGY!!! involves fist pumping and the clapping of hands. Occasionally it involves jumping up and down on the conference-room table.

What you want to go with is the first kind. Lowercase. One exclamation point, max.

If you find a helpful energy tip in a management book, let that tip merely inform your behavior. Don't let it dictate your behavior.

If you find a helpful energy tip in a YouTube video, let that tip merely inform your behavior as well.

If you find a helpful energy tip in a YouTube clip of Glengarry Glen Ross, do not let that tip inform your behavior in any way. Especially if the clip involves Alec Baldwin.

The leader of a meeting is not a motivational speaker or a moderator. The leader of a meeting is a facilitator of discussion ... solutions ... pastries.

Tip to meeting facilitators: The cake doughnut is deeply underrated.


Talking Points

Not enough Just enough Too much
Hey. Hi! HOWDY!
What are we gonna talk about ... Here's what we have to figure out ... Our main topics today are listed vertically in bold! Subtopics are indented beneath each topic! Yay!
Brilliant. Brilliant! Brrrrrrrrrrilliant!
Let me start by reviewing why we're here. Here's why we're here. Can you feel it?
No. Can we feel what? Tell me: Can you feel it?!
What are you talking about? I have no idea what's going on. Are you ready for this meeting?!
I was, but now I'm not. I can get ready. Let's do this!

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