Most days, I’d rather be shot at than sit through another meeting.

It’s not that unique a feeling. I can tell by the faces around me that most people share a similar sentiment in some form. It’s nothing to be ashamed of, quite honestly. More often than not, meetings are monumental wastes of time orchestrated by people who lack the organizational skills, energy, or intellect to gather information on their own. If Dante had envisioned a tenth circle of Hell, it would be your average meeting.

We gather around crowded tables in poorly-ventilated conference rooms, where the temperature gradually rises as the time passes. The best time to meet would be early in the morning before the true slogging of the day begins, when we might be able to walk away and do something with what we’ve discussed. Instead, we’ll meet after lunch, typically just after the noon meal is settling in for serious digestion. As the assembled masses begin to drift, heads bob like Muppet characters in a musical number. An hour (if we’re lucky) or two later, the meeting will be adjourned. Not because we’ve accomplished anything, but because we’ve reached what we euphemistically refer to as the culminating point. We haven’t won. We haven’t lost. We’ve just reached a point of mental exhaustion and want it all to stop.

I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve walked away from a meeting saying, “That’s an hour of my life I’ll never get back.” The same holds true for meetings that could have been replaced by an email.

Over the course of the years, I’ve lost more of my life in meetings than I care to think about. Training meetings, maintenance meetings, staff meetings, more staff meetings. Learning to pass the time creatively without giving the appearance of being disengaged is important. In high school, a friend taught me how to sleep with my eyes open, but that just comes across weird if you do it too much (drooling or making snoring noises isn’t viewed positively).

8 Key Meeting Survival Skills

So, how do you do it? What are the key survival skills required to endure marathon meetings? Let me help.

1. Take notes.

It doesn’t matter if you’re putting together a to-do list, writing out ideas for a blog post, or drafting dialog for cartoon. If you’re busy writing in a notebook, people will assume you’re busy thinking and actively engaged in what’s being discussed. For added emphasis, glance up occasionally with a serious look and nod your head pensively. Whatever you do, fill at least one page in a notebook before the meeting is over. Big Brother is watching.

2. Repeat the last thing that was said.

This tends to ensure you won’t get asked a question while daydreaming. Just interrupt the dialog and say, “Let me get this right, you said… ” while slowly repeating back whatever was just said. Feel free to nod again, or even tap your pen on the conference table. I like to finish off with “You know, that makes a lot of sense.” Works every time.

3. Draw something on the whiteboard.

Venn diagrams are always best, but timelines and graphs work well, too. Dinosaurs, not so much. Before you draw anything, stand up and say, “That’s interesting. Let me show you how I see this unfolding.” Then saunter over to the whiteboard and draw. When you’re finished, say something like “This is a very complex issue, and let’s make sure we’ve addressed all the relevant factors involved.”

4. Speak in quantitative terms.

Nothing breaks the monotony of a meeting better than throwing numbers into the discussion. If you’re in a maintenance meeting, you might say “I was looking at the readiness rates for the past three fiscal years and saw a negative trend of 17% during winter months, which may indicate that we have an underlying challenge with repair parts throughput.” If you’re in a training meeting, substitute “readiness” for “qualification” and “repair parts throughput” with “cold weather training.” You get the idea.

5. Repeat the last slide.

This one is really simple. Just say, “Can we go back to the last slide?” After the previous slide is displayed, nod sagely and say “Okay, thanks. I think this is really important.” Keep in mind that you don’t want to do this more than once in a meeting unless you’re in charge. And if you’re in charge, you could have cancelled the meeting before it happened.

6. Talk about stakeholders.

Everyone listens when you talk about stakeholders, even if you don’t know who — or what—they are. Wait for a lull in the conversation and interject with something along the lines of, “Are our stakeholders on board with this approach?” or “Have we consulted with our stakeholders on this issue?” The “stakeholder method” is especially useful when used in combination with the “whiteboard technique.” Mention stakeholders, then draw a two-circle Venn diagram on the whiteboard that says nothing more than “stakeholders” and “us” with the overlapping portion labeled “critical interests.” Then, while everyone is wondering what your point might be, ask to repeat the last slide.

7. Self-deprecating humor.

For those moments when you realize that you really should have been paying attention, self-deprecating humor is essential if you want to avoid looking like a dumbass. Simply say “I’m sorry, a bee stung me on my ass this morning and I went into anaphylactic shock. Can we go back to slide one?” Rub your backside and ask someone if they’d be willing to look at it for you. When everyone is finished laughing at you, the discussion will go back to the point when you stopped paying attention and no one will be the wiser.

8. The phone call.

When you realize that you’re in over your head, or you reach the point where you just can’t take it anymore, reach for your cell phone, mumble into it with a concerned look on your face, then announce quietly, “I’m sorry. I have to take this call. It’s an emergency.” Get up and leave, and don’t take your notebook. This gives the impression you will return. Instead, ask an accomplice to go in after the meeting to retrieve it while you find something more productive to do. If anyone ever asks about your ‘emergency’, just mention that it’s very personal in nature and you don’t feel comfortable discussing it. Only people with the social skills of a yeti will press the issue.

 

You’re late for a meeting. You can thank me later.

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Steve Leonard is a former senior military strategist and the creative force behind the defense microblog, Doctrine Man!!. A career writer and speaker with a passion for developing and mentoring the next generation of thought leaders, he is a senior fellow at the Modern War Institute; the co-founder of the national security blog, Divergent Options, and the podcast, The Smell of Victory; co-founder and board member of the Military Writers Guild; and a member of the editorial review board of the Arthur D. Simons Center’s Interagency Journal. He is the author of five books, numerous professional articles, countless blog posts, and is a prolific military cartoonist.