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How Silent Meetings Can Fix Meetings as We Know Them

This post lists the key insights from this article, from a Product Manager at Twitter, David Gasca.

1. What is a silent meeting?

“Silent Meetings” are meetings where most of the time is spent thinking and discussing the topics at hand. Functionally, they are based around a “Table Read” that everyone at the meeting reads silently, comments in and then discusses. An assigned facilitator leads the comment synthesis and discussion to ensure the meeting is valuable.

Is it 100% silent? Not really. Sometimes it can be 95% silent. Sometimes less. A good rule of thumb is that a meeting is “silent” when more than 50% of the time is spent silently and the time that is not silent is spent on topics that can’t be resolved through comments in a doc (e.g. coordination problems, difficult conversations).

The main reason that Silent Meetings are valuable is they focus the attendees around a piece of shared context (the Table Read). This document centers the discussion and cuts off most of the channels that lead typical loud meetings astray.

Silent Meetings also enable entirely new ways of working. For example, in a typical meeting setting you don’t really have many-to-many interactions: there is the presenter and then the audience. The relationship is mostly static: one speaks, others listen. In Silent Meetings there is the creator of the original Table Read and the audience that then become creators themselves through their comments. This dynamic enables in-meeting creation instead of just information dissemination. Meetings can become a forum through which work happens instead of corporate, coordination overhead.

2. The problems with meetings today

Typical “Loud meetings” are bad for a multitude of reasons:

  1. No agenda
  2. No shared reading material for the whole group
  3. Unequal time-sharing
  4. Bad presentations — too slow, too fast, and meandering
  5. Most meeting attendees don’t comment
  6. Reading is faster than listening
  7. Favors native speakers
  8. Bad for remote attendees
  9. Rambling questions
  10. Comments from the meeting often get lost and aren’t captured in any doc

Silent meetings fix all of these issues. There are a few short interventions that constitute a “Silent Meeting” and that end up making all the difference:

  1. Prepare an agenda and choose a Facilitator: This step of meeting preparation acts as a conscious decision to ensure the meeting is worth having.
  2. Create a “Table Read”: This is the key to Silent Meetings. This doc, otherwise known by the misnomer “pre-read”, creates a shared artifact for the meeting that becomes the main source of discussion, commenting and reflection.
  3. Read and comment in the Table Read: attendees can add comments in the Table Read as needed. This ensures all attendees have a chance to add their thoughts.
  4. Facilitator helps synthesize comments and leads discussion

3. The Silent Meeting basics

Silent Meetings have four basic steps:

4. When and when not to use Silent Meetings

Silent Meetings are powerful. When they’re well done they can transform a company culture and turn meetings into productive encounters to actually produce value. That said, there are some times where they’re not appropriate.

When should you not use Silent Meetings?

There are a few good reasons not to use Silent Meetings.

  • if the purpose of the meeting is to develop group rapport or to discuss difficult, emotional topics.
  • when the meeting is meant to inspire. Making people dream requires storytelling — storytelling is done best by talking out loud with pauses, non-verbal gestures, proper intonation and more.
  • brainstorming sessions. The best form of brainstorming is when people think independently and then get back together to refine jointly. Rhey look a lot like Silent Meetings. The main difference is that the overall percent of time spent in silence during a brainstorming session can skew much more heavily to talking vs. reading and often involves a lot more creation. 

5. How to make a good “Table Read”

The Table Read is the main entree of the Silent Meeting. This is the document that everyone will read and comment in. It has the main discussion points and the context meeting attendees need to participate. So, what makes a good Table Read?

Vertical docs not horizontal with a well-defined structure

A common Strategic Narrative Table Read often involves mixing and matching the pieces below:

  1. Meeting Agenda: What is the purpose of this document and this meeting? What is the meeting process?
  2. Background: What are we here today to discuss? What is the problem we’re trying to solve and what is the background information we need to know?
  3. Principles: What are the parameters for solving the problem? Do we have core company, team or product principles we need to ensure we keep in mind?
  4. Options identified that can solve problem: What are the potential ways we can solve the problem and what are their pros and cons?
  5. Recommendation: What is the team’s recommendation for solving the problem and why? What does this imply as next steps?
  6. Discussion questions: Where do we want to focus the discussion? Are there clear decisions that we want to make or areas that we want input on specifically?
  7. FAQs: This is where Frequently Asked Questions get documented. I’ll elaborate more on this below but this section is where you can put details that are relevant to a subset of the audience.
  8. Appendix: Put anything here that you want to keep track of for later but don’t really need the audience to read for the meeting. Some typical examples includes, research details, data tables, glossaries, etc.

The Art of Comments & FAQs

As you prepare your Table Read you will very likely get feedback from someone either directly in the doc or indirectly through other conversations. Every question you get is a gift: they are the clues that will guide you to the the hot-button issues of the doc, they tell you what parts are not clear and they show the way to greatness.

The main strategy for handling questions and comments is to either incorporate them into the main document or add them to the FAQs.

What are the parameters to a good Table Read?

Table Reads often have the following rules of thumb:

  • They are not too long: Table Reads should be read in ⅓–½ of the allotted meeting time.
  • 6-pages is enough for a complex topic: The Amazon rule of thumb for a Table Read is that it should be less than 6 pages of written text. 6-pages is appropriate for a 1-hour meeting with about 15 minutes of reading, 10–15 minutes of commenting and 30 minutes of discussion.
  • Include any information needed for the attendees in the Table Read itself: Avoid using the Appendix, or clicking out to other docs as much as possible to avoid attendee attention leakage.
  • If a meeting is very long consider breaking the Table Read into sections
5 min​ read

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