“My 35-point memo has already been circulated, but let us go into more detail. Point 1 shows that…” Excuse me while I doze off. Or maybe doodle. Perhaps I’ll count the acoustical tiles in the ceiling. Do you attend a lot of meetings, either at work, in the neighborhood or political brainstorming? Can you toss out “power point,” “prioritize” and “input”? I consider most meetings either way too long or totally unneeded. Some people tolerate them while others absolutely love them. See if you can relate to this: At one time in my somewhat checkered career, I had to attend weekly executive meetings. Once a week the heads of the newspaper’s various departments would gather in the publisher’s really nice board room, which otherwise was off limits to us peons. The mind-numbing session would begin with the CEO delivering The Word on whatever was going on, then we would go around the table, as each person brought everyone up to speed on what was going on in that department. When it came my time – I could tell because the VP in the next chair would nudge me awake – I usually had very little to offer, knowing that nobody else in the room cared what I and my band of merry men were doing so long as it didn’t cost money or generate a libel suit. Besides, I had a whole lot going on back at my desk. There were angry readers to mollify, angry advertisers to placate. Even my mother could get testy. And Melvin, the office pot plant, needed water. (I got all the big jobs.) But for others, 3 p.m. on Tuesdays was the high point of their week. They must have made little notes between meetings so they could remember what boring trivia to impart. It was their 15 minutes, and sometimes longer, of fame, and they were not about to let their moment in the spotlight be lost. “It’s show time!” One exec, I swear, brought pictures of his European trip and passed them around. Another would go off on long tangents about subjects that to this day were obscure as to their relevance in putting out a daily newspaper. Once we had a meeting to plan a meeting. You may have attended meetings which begin: “The secretary will now read the minutes of our last meeting.” Once was bad enough, but now I have to endure the TiVo version, too. Whoever calls the meeting gets to set the pace. If it’s the CEO, president of the PTA or Mafia chieftain, then he or she is in charge. Sometimes a lesser member likes to take over and, as mentioned, go on and on. It is the leader’s job to cut off the blowhard with, “Thank you,” or “Moving on…” or even, “You know that’s an ejection seat.” Slow meetings are dreadful, but too-fast meetings can be a waste of time, too. Why bother even to call them. Once at Quantico Marine Base, the leader started the meeting, went from participant to participant with the speed of a 105 howitzer shell, and wrapped it up. He obviously had an early tee time. I almost said, “Sir, I did not come all the way from Texas to be railroaded through a meeting which accomplished nothing.” Fortunately I didn’t. I was a lance corporal (ret.), and he was a four-star assistant commandant of the Marine Corps. Although I hear Fallujah is relatively safe these days. It has been said that football encompasses America’s two worst characteristics: a committee meeting followed by violence. On rare occasions, the meeting itself is violent. I’ve witnessed a few shouting matches and no doubt you have, too. The worst can be the not-so-neighborly neighborhood association meetings. They can get downright ugly. And the next day their kids have to get on the same school bus. The only positive side of these gatherings is that they serve as excellent shields for those Friday afternoons before a holiday weekend. Executives, sales people, almost everyone who can, goes to lunch on that TGIF then gets out of town, leaving one poor secretary to answer the phone. “I’m sorry, but Mr. Frisbee is in a meeting.” Government offices have honed this talent to a fine edge. Just try to get the Texas Ag. Dept.’s expert on soybeans or the U.S. Undersecretary of Something on a Friday afternoon before the Labor Day weekend. Never have so many met for so long. In these euphemistically called “economic challenging times,” companies have found they can save air fare and hotel bills by keeping employees at their far-flung offices and holding tele-conferences. These meetings use closed-circuit TV hookups so that all the underlings can watch as the Big Boss informs them they are being laid off due to poor sales, bad quarterly dividends and, to some slight degrees, Big Boss’s bonus, expense account and criminal defense attorneys’ fees. Every now again, meetings really do produce results, but how to tell? Summit conferences are always followed by the smiling leaders standing in front of a battery of microphones talking about their “frank and fruitful discussions.” Those are code words for “nothing happened.” Following international diplomatic conferences, journalists have gone so far as to enter meeting rooms and go through wastebaskets looking for doodles, scratchpads, anything to break the attendees’ vow of silence. Columnist James (Scotty) Reston won a Pulitzer for his work in 1945 at Dumbarton Oaks, the closed conference which set up the United Nations. Reston gave a daily blow-by-blow account of what the world leaders were up to, causing the FBI to investigate who was leaking the secrets – the Russians, the Brits, the Americans? Turns out it was not the usual suspects but the Chinese, who were unhappy with the conference. That gave birth to Reston’s Rule of Secret Meetings: “You should always look around for the guys who are unhappy.” Even before the meeting begins, that would be me. Ashby meets you weekly at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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