100 Tricks to Appear Smart in Meetings: How to Get By Without Trying, by Sarah Cooper

My late wife and I both worked as state bureaucrats at about the same time. Both of us intimately understood the hell of the meeting.

The smaller agencies I worked for both had a tradition of having a general manager meeting at 8:30 every Monday morning, whether there was anything to talk about or not. There was really no point to the meeting except that a meeting was held and attended. They ultimate function of a bureaucracy is to avoid trouble, mostly for the head of the agency. When something goes FUBAR the agency head can calmly tell his boss (usually the governor, sometimes a legislative committee): “Well, we had regular meetings and that never came up. I was really blindsided by my staff.”

My wife worked for the largest agency in the state. It had dozens of sub-agencies each holding its own meetings. Probably at 8:30 Monday. (Never call for help on Monday morning.) And because there were so many meetings they had to develop a “meta meeting” in which representatives from all the other meetings would get together and report on the meetings they had attended.

It’s not their fault. They know you hate them. They know that if they screw up you’ll be emailing your representative in the legislature while the anger is still hot. And that legislator will write a letter to the agency head and threaten funding for the agency. I believe this to be true on the federal level, only with better pay and the involvement of more paper.

So this little satire on the meeting by Sarah Cooper seemed very familiar. The majority of people I worked with as fellow bureaucrats were in their 30s or higher, many escapees from private enterprise. Sarah Cooper’s introduction to meetings was in the youthful and even more bizarre atmosphere of Silicon Valley. Specifically Yahoo! which must have been a daily existential ache just walking in the door.

In these hundred tips she lampoons the behaviors, blame shifting, sexism, power positioning, and other hellish meeting-related events. These are meetings where managers will work for a happy atmosphere with bean bag chairs. She details one CEO who would have meetings in his home where he would have a meal prepared and served from his chef. Not for anyone else, just for him. “Watch me eat while you try to please me.”

She expands from the office meeting and one-on=one meetings to the unique challenges of the dinner meeting, meetings in foreign countries, and meetings via phone or internet.

There are probably some real life lessons to be learned from counter examples if nothing else.

It’s a brief, fun read and something anyone working in a meeting-manic culture could identify with.

My own meeting legacy at the last agency I worked for was to take the meeting notes on steno pads. By the end of my tenure there were scores of steno pads in my file drawers, original reference for the typed notes that were later distributed. It is my great joy that one of my coworkers, if she researches past meetings, will always find herself listed in the attendee list as “Satan”. We do what we can.