Image by Chemical Heritage Foundation via Flickr
In 2012, I will celebrate my 30th year in white collar employment (yes, I will do so quietly, at my desk, without disturbing others). Over that time, I have been to and sat through a lot of meetings. My time as a young executive at IBM and for the last ten years as a Venture Capitalist have been especially meeting heavy. In all those meetings, I tried to be attentive, to listen well but particularly to observe people for greater meaning beyond their words. As a VC, this is unusually important as one needs to assess an individual or team as much or more than an idea within an hour meeting. So over the years, I have developed a short list of "tells". Tells are signs, signals or indications of something other than what the speaker is saying in any moment. The term, tells, is frequently used within the context of card playing. That someone might characteristically rub their forehead when holding a good hand or scratch their chin when holding a bad hand.
So, here are some of my favorite meeting "tells"
1. Raising of voice
When someone is making a weak argument one of the few ways to make it seem "powerful" is to make it louder. And just like speaking English louder to someone who doesn't understand the English language, the impact of volume doesn't impact effectiveness. It is a lousy argument and I can hear all of it clearly, thank you. I am always impressed with how effective it can be in a large group. People use it because it works well.
When people "assure" of how reasonable or competent or intelligent they are, they do so for good reason. They have a lifetime of experience from people who have told them they're not those things. What's the difference between me and those people, those people have gotten to know the speaker much better than I. Since I am possibly going to travel the same road, the speaker is ready to assure me of their reasonableness, competence or intelligence.
3. Silent Sams
A lot of people who are quiet in meetings have nothing of value to add to the discussion. Really, they're quiet because they have nothing to add. Still waters may run deep by Silent Sams usually don't run (they sit in meetings passing the time) and they aren't deep (see first point). It is not that there aren't meetings for which they can add value, because there are, but they're not at one currently.
4. First in line
A throw down gambit that "anyone who would disagree with this argument is dumb" which prompts anyone in disagreement to pipe up and be, at least momentarily, first in line of dummies. This is another that works very well, anyone present that is at least mildly under confident of their counter reasoning will be quieted.
5. The 3Q'er: Question Question Quality
The speaker who assails rather than answers questions. From "that's a dumb question" to "that's not a relevant question", the one sure thing is that question isn't going to be answered. Given that it is neither dumb nor irrelevant to the questioner, this is a surprising approach. It is often disastrous be for the speaker's credibility in the room.
6. Stranger in a Strange Land
When someone asserts that they really "don't need" to be here in this meeting, I take it to mean that they suspect that need to be there quite a bit. In Venture Capital, it is quite common for someone to assert that "We're not really raising money". Which is to say, you've come to an odd place in this meeting with me, if you're not raising money. Why then, don't we end the meeting. Because, I am looking to invest in start ups. Yes, I know, they may be following good advice to create foundational relationships by visiting prior to a raise but many do so with the distinct impression that they will never raise money. All of which is to day, they are pretty convinced that they going to have raise money whether they want to or not.
I am sure there are more but these spring to mind.