I noticed in a Washington Post article today that the new Secretary of Defense is about to convene an important summit in Kuwait. He has summoned military commanders from their respective posts in the Middle East, Africa, and Europe for a review of the ongoing war on terror. What caught my eye was his order that no Powerpoint presentations be made by any of the invited participants. Apparently military commanders enjoy their Powerpoint slideshows, and the Secretary isn’t interested in the dog and pony shows usually given to civilian leaders. He wants frank dialogue instead. I personally think that this is a refreshing change. There was nothing I hated more during my working years than having to sit through those endless slides and presentations at meetings, conferences, and seminars.
Meetings were something I came to loathe with a great intensity towards the end of my career. I would cringe when I got the first notification of one, dutifully noted it on my calendar, and then quickly put it out of my mind until the dreaded moment it arrived. It wasn’t always this way, though. When I first started working after college, I always watched with a bit of longing at higher-level staff who would walk in groups to the conference rooms, laughing and holding their coffee cups. I imagined a better world than the one I had lying on my desk with my boring, menial tasks. Their world seemed better than mine.
In relative short order I eventually rose to the ranks of those who attended meetings, and it really didn’t take long before I found them to be obstacles in my day. If it wasn’t having to defend whatever project I was currently working on, it was having to listen in detail about other work that was completely unrelated to me. It didn’t take long to realize that time spent in meetings was time that I was away from my own work, and this increasingly was the reason why I was having to stay later or arrive early each day to finish it. Meetings quickly began to be an anathema rather than the promised land.
As presentation software began to be introduced, meetings became even longer because we had to read along with the presenter as he/she literally read aloud from the very same slides that we were seeing in front of us. It was mind-numbing. Soon games would be developed such as Buzzword Bingo, which was my personal favorite because it poked fun at the new age, techno lexicon of office-speak. Along with the boring slides, we had a whole new vocabulary of truly awful words and phrases such as synergy, outside the box, best practices, and paradigm shift. At least two or three of us would keep score of the utterances, and whoever had the most creditable list at the end would win a free beer at the next cocktail hour. Of course, bravado being what it is, it didn’t take long before our escapades began to leak around the office. Soon one of the higher managers saw to it that she would sit next to one of us — usually me — at meetings. This was all before tablets were invented and they became an acceptable form of amusement, ‘er, note-taking at meetings.
Thankfully as we headed into the new millennium, the rote-recitation of Powerpoint presentations began to be lampooned. It was no longer fashionable for your audience to read your speech along with you, and the more creative presenters incorporated humor and visuals in their slides. A later boss of mine became so adept and clever with this that all staff affirmatively looked forward to his annual presentations (Hi, E.). And while the annoying lexicon is sadly still with us, enough Internet and television mocking of it has limited its usage a bit.
Another tedium for me was attending large national conferences. Initially they were something I enjoyed because going to one meant traveling to new cities, meeting with professional contacts I knew only through electronic means, and staying in nice hotels with at least a modicum of a decent per diem at my disposal (i.e. hotel bars and restaurants). But after awhile these too began to suffer from a sameness. Speaker after speaker would extol how wonderful their new-fangled invention was, and how it streamlined (bingo!) operations back at their workplace. Sessions ran long, and by 3:30pm the free coffee had long been emptied or was at room temperature, and all I could think about was that very cold martini waiting for me at the hotel.
The absolute worst kind of meeting for me, however, was the conference call. I disliked those more than actually sitting in a room with other people. This, despite the fact that I had my computer, cell phone, or even a magazine at my disposal for diversions. I just never knew if a co-worker or boss would suddenly decide to call my name out to engage on a topic. This made me nervous. Having David Letterman’s web page up on my monitor, and being engrossed in his Top Ten from the night before, created a dangerous situation if anyone decided to include me into the current discussion. I would sometimes try to fake my ignorance by asking if they could perhaps expand a bit on the meaning of what they had just said. A silence would ensue followed by someone saying, “Okay, what hour can you call me tomorrow to discuss the project?”
My most embarrassing conference call moment came when I still had an AOL e-mail address, and I logged into their internet portal during the meeting. Not realizing that they had incorporated the same functionality into the portal as their desktop software, I apparently had my speakers on loud enough to blast, “You’ve got mail!” Snickers could be heard from different corners of the western United States. I also remember sighing loudly once during a conference call in reaction to something a co-worker had said, not realizing that my phone’s mouthpiece had somehow been switched to active mode rather than mute. Later that day, my boss deduced it must have been me, and he called me on it in a gracious and funny way. It’s probably fair to say that the seeds of my retirement began around that time.
Of course in any occupation, no matter if it’s a medical office, a construction company, or an accounting firm, meetings have to be held. Practices have to be reviewed, current projects discussed, and future plans coordinated. Management and/or meeting facilitators need to come up with agendas, and they by and large have thankless tasks at keeping things moving and attempting to keep people like me from being disgruntled.
The Secretary of Defense sounds like he’s on the right track in barring presentation software. Then again, maybe our greatest weapon against terrorists could be some really boring Powerpoint lectures spammed into their web sites. Perhaps we should take this discussion offline (bingo!).