Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Things That Chap My Ass About Meetings

… Or Did He Ever Return?


Ever hear that song?

You know, Charlie on the MTA?

The song tells the tragic tale of Charlie, who handed in his dime at the Kendall Square Station and boarded Boston’s MTA bound for Jamaica Plain. What he didn’t know was that there had been a fare increase, and when the conductor told him it was one more nickel Charlie didn’t have the change - and so he could never get off the train. Thus the chorus:

Did he ever return,
No he never returned
And his fate is still unlearn'd
He may ride forever
'neath the streets of Boston
He's the man who never returned.

When I have to sit through meetings, this song often runs through my head.

Oh Did Jim ever return? No he never returned and his fate is still unlearned. He may sit forever in the glare of Power Point hell, he’s the man who never returned.

As most of you know, I took a job with the Air Force.  Decorum prevents me from talking about the specifics of it, other than to say that it’s interesting and complex and I’m enjoying the hell out of being back inside the military again, even as a civilian, I missed it terribly.  The job will last about a year and will pay for my long overdue kitchen remodel and a new roof on my house – and it has already paid for a new industrial lathe in my shop (whoot! More on that later).

The downside is that I have to sit through endless meetings.

Now, some of those meetings are quick and painless, right to the point and done. 

But a number of these meetings are large scale affairs that leave me feeling like poor old Charlie, doomed to forever ride the Power Point Express, never to return again. There is nothing worse than being literally trapped in one of these affairs, fifty Power Point slides in and seventy something left to go, with the speaker jabbering on and on and on about things that could have been summed up in a few succinct paragraphs of an email.  

Over the years I’ve sat through countless meetings and I’ve noticed that large meetings always have a representative sampling of the following:

The Rambler.  This guy could benefit from a double pressure drip of Ritalin directly into the jugular, he’s got ADHD and his presentation is a lot like a four year old telling a joke (No, wait, uh, wait, oh yeah there was a squirrel, no…).  Nine times out of ten, he’s the guy running the meeting. 

The Devil’s Advocate.  You know this guy, he’s in every single meeting I’ve ever been in.  Just about the time everybody is finally agreed and it looks like the meeting just might end on time, this dickhead leans into the table and says, “Hey, I don’t want to be a jerk, but just to play the Devil’s advocate here, what if we wired the dilithium crystals to the main phaser bank through the bridge view screen?  Somebody tell me why that wouldn’t work?”

The Repeater.  The guy that really has nothing to say, but just has to say something anyway because otherwise you might not think he was important or something, so he keeps interrupting to repeat everything that everybody else is saying. “So, just to clarify, what Tom is saying is that we wire the dilithium crystal difusticator directly to the phaser array, but we do it through the main view screen…”

The Mathematician.  The guy that just has to add one more thing to the end of every single power point slide.   It sounds innocuous, but this guy’s one thing can add an hour to every meeting.

The Endless Detail Guy.  He always starts out with the admonishment, “Listen fellas, we don’t want to get lost in the weeds, but…” and then proceeds to describe every nut, bolt, and washer in the project in endless excruciating detail until you start fantasizing about bludgeoning him to death with the Power Point remote. 

The Big Picture Guy.  He’s the Endless Detail Guy’s antichrist.  He talks in vague terms about “Keeping our eyes on the ball” and waves his arms around a lot.  Nobody has a fucking clue as to what he’s talking about.

And speaking of not having a clue, meet The Clueless Bastard. This guy is in every single meeting and he’s a idiot.  He interrupts with a constant string of irrelevant questions. He’s usually senior so nobody dares tell him to shut the fuck up. Every time he raises a hand the entire room groans under its collective breath.

The Authority.  He’s the guy they always refer to when the Clueless Bastard asks for clarification.  He sits in the back row, so everybody has to crank their heads around like Linda Blair in The Exorcist in order to see him. He sighs a lot – then he corrects the speaker. Why he’s not giving the brief, I have yet to figure out.

The Mumbler. This guy usually sits up front, he starts out loud and then fades pretty quickly, and he’s always got some long rambling question or dire prediction that only the folks in the front row can hear.  “Yeah, excuse, me but won’t the entire power plant explode if we don’t razzle frazzen baloney making hebertooken lamb chop lomtob kablooey rippinn frip tooey phaser array and supesupinator what’s you talkin bout, Willis? 

The Empty Platitude Guy.  This one is my personal favorite.  He’s the suck up.  He’s usually sitting right up front, the same place he’s been since grade school when he was the teacher’s pet monkey. His job is to inject helpful clarifying clichés into the briefing, such as “Remember, Fellas, there’s no ‘I’ in Team!”  Is that right, Monkey Boy? How many are there in “Kiss Ass?”


Charley's wife goes down
To the Scollay Square station
Every day at quarter past two
And through the open window
She hands Charley a sandwich
As the train comes rumblin' through.


See? That’s what I need, right there.  When I’m trapped in one of these meetings, my lovely wife could hand me a sandwich (or better yet a beer!) through the open briefing room window.


Did he ever return,
No he never returned
And his fate is still unlearn'd

(Poor Old Charlie!)
He may ride forever
'neath the streets of Boston
He's the man who never returned.


You?  Do you spend any time in meetings?


  1. You forgot the Old Man Rambling, which starts off somewhat on topic but then heads to a story about how when he was young all the kids used to drag race their cars down the mainstreet of town. And how kids these days just don't know what's good for them.

    A story you've heard 26 times before. That you have to listen to again over the rumbling of your stomach because it two hours after supper time and he's just building up a head of steam.

  2. I did my time in meeting hell at my last job.

    We had meetings every single week: Friday at 3:00PM.

    The absolutely nadir was the week that the boss said, "I don't really have anything for those week, but if we aren't here we might lose the meeting space," and then he spent an hour rambling about nothing.

  3. I used to chair a different kind of meeting, no less troublesome. It was the security exception review board for a major now-dead bank. I, a lowly technical security flunky, needed a quorum of Very Highly Placed Managers So Senior That They Talked To God Personally to review security exception requests and security standard documents for every single IT project in this now-dead Major Bank. If I didn't have the quorum, each project that needed a review would screech to a halt, causing no-end of trouble for all beings subordinate to these Big Players. The Big Players that showed up wanted the shortest possible meeting, with coffee and muffins (before 10 am) or the meeting had to occur at 1pm and include lunch (cold cuts, soda and coffee). I supplied whatever I could in order to get my quorum, but these guys (only 1 woman ever besides me) were moving so fast that sometimes I wished I could put a benzodiazepam in their coffees to get them to settle down and *listen*.

    On the other hand, no meeting ever reached the bladder limit.

  4. I did ANSI and ISO Standards for a living for over 10 years, mostly as The Authority.

    Standards work is entirely meetings and when I started all face to face. My favorite was either the 1 hour meeting in London, yes I went, or the afternoon meeting in San Francisco where I flew in in the AM and back on a red-eye.

  5. You? Do you spend any time in meetings?

    You've got to be fucking kidding me.


    9:00 - 10:00 meeting

    10:00 - 12:30 meeting

    1:00 - 4:00 meeting

    4:00 - 5:00 meeting


    10:00 -12:00 meeting

    1:00 - 1:30 meeting

    3:00 - 5:00 meeting

  6. At one job I was the IT dept person (lowest on the totem pole)assigned to babysit the presentation equipment for all the corporate Bored...I mean Board...meetings. We had two primary divisions and a fund-raising foundation, so multiple groups to deal with multiple times a year.

    These were always luncheon meetings, so I cut a deal with the exec secretary for each...I'll set up anything you want and come babysit it, but ya gotta feed me. Hey, we were easy, the IT dept always works for food.

    Prior to each and every meeting, there would be some kind of last minute massive disaster that required me to salvage something...powerpoint slide shows, handouts, whatever.
    Understand, this was in the early days of laptops hooking up to these new fangled lcd projectors for said presentaions, so everything either had to fit on a floppy or be down-loaded to the laptop advance of the meeting. I'd very carefully have every report loaded in the order listed on the agenda, so the presenters, many who could barely use a mouse, would be able to go right to their slide show.

    Which brings in my favorite player: Last Minute Louie. Louie is CEO of his own company, has made his money and knows just how important he is because he sits on the Boreds of half a dozen other organizations. We still wonder how Louie got where he is, simply because he is incapable of telling his secretary & staff what needs to be prepared and the deadlines for each meeting. So, the morning of the meeting, our VP's secretary would be calling Louie's office every five minutes to find out where the hell the presentation was. They'd finally send it, I'd get it from VPSec, load it, test it and something wouldn't work, so it would be up to us to fix it. tictoktictok. On more than one occassion Louie had made so many changes, we'd have to reprint the handouts and replace them in every one of the Bored Books before the meeting as well. Also, Louie has NO idea how to say thank you...didya get the new version...print the handouts...oh, I'm now #2 on the agenda, not #7...let's go.

    So, having spent the lunch half of the meeting re-ordering the presentations on the laptop just to accomodate Last Minute Louie, I'd usually eat my cold lunch during the reports.

    Only once in 6 years was I ever needed for a real technical issue, and that was for a blown projector bulb. I'd always bring the other projector, so it took me about 2 minutes to do the swap out (faster than chaning the bulb). Speaker was actually the CIO (my boss) who kept on talking while I worked my magic and to his credit had the assembled masses give me a round of applause when I handed him the new remote so quickly! Hey, he had no problem bragging on our skilz!

  7. Meetings???

    ::insert crazed laughter::

    Only about 5-6 hours a day. Every day. Mostly via audioconference, but a few in person.

    Some of them are my meetings, and I keep those short, focused and to the point - and some of them are others' meetings and have have no freaking control. Sigh.

    A couple years ago I posted my manifesto for effective meetings here.

    Enjoy. And remember, thou shalt not kill.

  8. At academic conferences, you get Grad Student Repeater -- the person, not always a foreign grad student, who stands up there with a regular copy of his/her paper, single- or double-spaced 10 or 12 point Times New Roman, and with a stumbling monotone, proceeds to read his paper, which is faithfully repeated on the PowerPoint slides. Also in 10 or 12 point TNR, single- or double-spaced.

    However, at least we get the Lost Entertainer -- the person who no one, including the presenter, has any idea why this talk is in this session, but goes on bravely and with great self-deprecating humor to give his talk, with extra explanations because those of us interested in THIS session, have no idea of this guy's field. And yet it ends up being the most interesting talk of the conference, and the one with the best take-away ideas. Go figure.

    Dr. Phil

  9. This was one of my dad's favorite songs for long car trips when I was growing up. I always wondered why Charlie's wife didn't just hand him the correct change instead of the stupid sandwich.

  10. After 7 years of attending meetings, I decided that when I ran them (CDR, MC, USN) it would be different.

    I published the rules (and, more importantly, enforced them):
    1. Make your point in 2 minutes or less.
    2. Advocate for your devil when you ACTUALLY FEEL LIKE THAT. Otherwise, S. T. F. U. because you're wasting everyone's ozygen.
    3. If it's not on the agenda, we're NOT TALKING ABOUT IT. (kids, grandkids, significant others, new cars, etc.). That's why god (i.e. the Skipper) made lunch hour.
    4. I reserved the right to call something a 'stupid question.'

    And now that I'm a civilian, I had to add in #5: Start on time, end on time.

    #5 has gotten me into a lot of trouble. If we're past the agenda point and the presenter or someone else wants to discuss that point, I tell them to wait for the minutes... they'll be posted in an hour. If we're not done by the time of the published end, I'll cut people off and say, "Next week's meeting. Be ready."

    No one complains about my meetings. They last 30 minutes. And now I have disciples.

  11. Sigh. My favorite is the boss who has already made up his or her mind, but still calls the meeting to ask for my opinions. Of course, any opinions not an exact match for his/hers are shot down immediately.

  12. Meetings? Oh yes, we've got meetings.

    If I'm on a studio picture, there is always a meeting to cover whatever the studio is most worried about getting sued for at the moment. (Nowadays, it's usually about creating a hostile work environment or sexual harassment or whatever).

    In the early 90's, we'd always have to have every department head spend 2 hour in a meeting with someone from the studio expounding on safety protocols (If anyone gets hurt on set, call the studio attorney first, call the studio risk management rep second and...oh, what's that other thing? Oh, yeah. Call an ambulance.)

    Anyway, on one movie, the studio safety schmuck let us know that he wouldn't be able to fly out from L.A. and he'd conduct the meeting by speaker phone. The producer promptly went out and hired one man and one woman who both did impersonations and had them sit in the room for 2 hours pretending to be 20 people for the benefit of the speaker phone.


  13. Meetings. (sigh) Jim, you know where I work...

  14. Anyway, on one movie, the studio safety schmuck let us know that he wouldn't be able to fly out from L.A. and he'd conduct the meeting by speaker phone. The producer promptly went out and hired one man and one woman who both did impersonations and had them sit in the room for 2 hours pretending to be 20 people for the benefit of the speaker phone.

    That is the best thing I've heard all week.

    Must try to meet impersonators.

  15. Apart from having to be my own impersonator, that's pretty much how I handle teleconferences too. Now I just need a life-size cardboard cut-out for the videoconferences and I'm set.

  16. MikeB- check with the Disney folks, they've had the animatronic thing down for some time now, I think the newer ones the lips even move!

  17. JarheadJouralist:

    ahhhh meetings as several of you know these death by power point executions are rampant through the military, i personaly know several hundred servicemembers whou would rather be pinned down in a festering pit of haji excrement with no chow 2 mags and the units don't ask don't tell participant as opposed to sitting through another damn power point meeting. i am currently attending the Defense Information School also know as Dinfos here today, among other things they teach people how to prople execute(pun intended) death by power point and every class that has to sit through power point death knows each of the individuals you have listed here Mr. Wright very very well however i think there is one excleusive to the military
    i call him: The Snapper - he is the one who treats every situation in these meetings as if it were a dire tactical situation behind enemy lines, "they want to remove POUND CAKE from MRE's, WHY WOULD THEY SO DAMAGE THE MORALE OF OUT TROOPS" and ect.

  18. I've been in really bad and really good meetings. I remember fondly meetings back at the IT division of Wakefern Food Corp. in New Jersey, where two or three senior execs had a pretty good grasp of what was going on and didn't tolerate a lot of wandering from the point. I've been at other places where it wasn't so nice.


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