Dealing with low Signal-to-Noise in Meetings

At some point today, and perhaps at several, you will go to a meeting.  When you do, I’d like you to perform a little exercise for me.

Briefly scan the room.  See who is there.  Are there three people present or 50?  In-the-trenches employees or executive management?  Some mixture of the two?  What’s the mix of internal people to external?

Regardless of the answers to any of the above questions, there is not one person in the room who understands 100% of what is said in that meeting.  Not one.

While most smart people in the room will acknowledge to themselves that they’re not absorbing everything being communicated in the room, acknowledging that fact to others is another thing entirely.  Human beings are quirky like that.  Even if they understand only half of what’s going on, they would like everyone else in the room to think they’re getting all or most of it.  The mismatched expectations and diminished value begin to really kick in once a roomful of people nod their heads in agreement while the low signal-to-noise ratio goes unacknowledged.

This dynamic reached famously absurd proportions during the first dot com boom in the late ‘90s.  The overuse of obscure or highly technical-sounding acronyms was rampant, to the point where industry pundits were making fun of the proliferation of meaningless tech jargon.  A columnist at Wired even started writing a regular column called Jargon Watch – later a book – that identified new terms and made attempts to define them as they started to spread throughout conference rooms in Silicon Valley and Silicon Alley.  It’s almost absurd to think something like this would even be necessary.

But we all speak using different terminology, depending on our backgrounds and our particular frames of reference.  We might use different acronyms to refer to the same thing – last week I heard two different people refer to the same document as a “WIP report” and an “account status.”  We also might use the same words to refer to two different things, as when a digital media planner and a traditional media planner refer to “share of voice.”  The former might be talking about how much of a website’s total impressions are allocated to a client’s sponsorship message while the latter is talking about a well-known metric comparing a client’s total ad weight to that of the rest of the category.  In such situations, it becomes very easy for people to talk past one another without really understanding their point of view.

So now you know what the problem is, and you know the extent to which people will let it go unacknowledged, there’s no excuse for kicking the can further down the street.  When meetings stop making sense, it starts to defeat the purpose of having a meeting in the first place.  The people who are interjecting with “just so I can make sure we’re talking about the same thing…” or “let me make sure we’re all on the same page…” are the ones who are promoting true communication.  When you’re getting less signal and more noise, stop the meeting and ask people to explain themselves.  Then, read the room.  If you’re getting exhausted sighs, it’s you.  If you’re getting sighs of relief, it’s the speaker.  Whatever the case, anything you can do in a meeting to promote understanding should be welcome.

Tom Hespos is a contributor at The Makegood and Founder and Chief Media Officer at Underscore Marketing, a boutique firm that creates and manages digital marketing programs. Look for Tom’s column the 1st and 3rd Friday of every month.