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  • Writer's pictureMichael Cundall Jr.

How Humor can Help with Meetings

In a recent article, author Alison Green bemoans meetings and the negative effects they can and often have. They're too long. They wander aimlessly. They bog down in irrelevant minutiae. They're wastes of time. And that's not all! The short term results create frustration, disengagement, and boredom. A side benefit is that some people catch up on their social media feeds. The long term, and often more harmful effects of chronically bad meetings, is that the very idea of meetings becomes stressful and annoying. I have a colleague, who shall remain nameless, and whom I deeply respect, who can take a 30 minute meeting and turn it into a 90 minute one. While what my colleague has to say is generally relevant, and important, man, please wrap it up already!

Meetings don't have to be awful and sometimes they're necessary. Even long meetings are good, because if we don't sometimes get down in the weeds and slog through the issues, we will end up paying for that avoidance later. So how can humor help with meetings? Can humor help us enjoy and get more from meetings? The unsurprising answer is yes.

Let's look at some of the sins of bad meetings that Ms. Green elucidates. Meetings are disorganized, become proxies for social activities, meetings are univocal and unilateral. If one person is providing all the content, why not use email? Why set up a lecture session? We left college a long time ago. Other complaints about meetings include them being too long, people are late, or the meetings never add up to anything. That is, there is never a deliverable from the meeting, and hence one wonders what the goal of the meeting is.

As someone who has run meetings in the past, and who's been complimented on the way I run meetings, I can say that humor is effective. But before that, as many of the articles you can read will say, organization is key. Why are we here? (and not in the existential sense) What's to be accomplished? What can we expect happens as a result of this meeting? My meetings were typically ones to bring the office staff together, talk a little bit, let people know what the other was doing and the challenges and successes had, what was on the horizon, and to communicate what some short and medium term projects were. I rarely had an agenda, but that became the default agenda for our regular meetings. It was set via repetition. I had a sense of what I wanted to do from the first meeting I did as the director, and set on about accomplishing it.

One thing that I always asked when I began my meeting was if anyone had any interesting or funny stories to share. I do this in my classes as well. They could be funny-gripe stories, an "I heard that..." sort of thing, whatever. The point was to get everyone to feel as if they could speak about something not work-related. But also that they could speak up. I tried to always have a funny story from class at the ready. Not everyone chimed in, but the openness and warmth was appreciated. Make no mistake here, humor of the right sort makes people relax, engage, and feel good. Too much and the humor is contrived, but absent, it makes the folks disengaged.

The sort of humor, in general, you should use in your meetings should be what's typically called inviting. That is, try not to be making fun of anyone directly, or ridicule anyone. That's not going to work in the long run. You can of course make fun of meetings. But if you do, be sure that your meeting violates what you're making fun of. It's a sort of call back, and it will help you be more organized in your meetings. So not only can humor help people warm up and feel engaged, it can act as a way to help you create a good meeting routine. Two birds, one joke!

One of humor's under-appreciated aspects is that Ha-Ha and Ah-Ha rely on the same parts of the brain. Getting a joke is like solving a puzzle or making a discovery--and those are inherently rewarding. From experience, I can say that when I can find funny ways to exemplify a point in my college classes, the students generally remember the point better. Apply that to meetings where points or new information has to be made readily apparent and memorable. Wrap that point in a joke and people will remember it better. It will also cause you to think more about how to present that material more effectively. Again, two birds, one joke.

If a meeting is going to run long, if there are a lot of details and chock full of information, everyone, even the most practiced of lecture-attending students loses focus and their attention fades. It's just how we are wired. I am not saying to put a joke or witticism in every 10-20 minutes (about the average time people can stay focused), but inserting something that will make them refocus will help overall. Try and say something in an unusual or witty way. I often refer to myself as the melanin challenged member of the class. I teach at an HBCU (historically black college or university). This will get a chuckle. I can't always use it, but the idea is there. Thinking hard about what you say and how you want to say it is important.

There are yet more ways humor can help, but I might wait till next week to go into more depth. Have a good week and remember to smile a bit more.

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