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Silent vs loud meetings

startup, work, effectiveness, silent meetings5 min read

Do you ever find yourself thinking, "this meeting could have been an email," or "this meeting was fun but pointless, we might as well have gone to a bar for two hours"? With remote work becoming the norm, ineffective meetings have become an even bigger problem. But there is a solution: the silent meeting.

A silent meeting is a more effective and inclusive alternative to traditional meetings where participants communicate and collaborate via modern written tools like Google-docs or Notion.

Disclaimer: I obviously did not invent this, nor did I have anything to do with writing the Silent meeting manifesto, but I have become somewhat of an evangelist.

Now, the silent meeting isn't a silver bullet. It requires more work upfront, but a good silent meeting is shorter, more effective, more inclusive, and still leaves time for dedicated fun. Let's face it, meetings are a poor substitute for online gaming or just joking around.

So what's a loud meeting? It's a big block in your agenda, usually around 10 or 11 a.m., just when you're getting in the flow of coding or whatever you're doing. Sometimes there's an agenda, but often it's just a title in the meeting invite. Typically, a few extroverts do most of the talking, either waiting nicely for each other to finish or constantly trying to steal the mic. Meeting notes are sometimes written down, often by one of the introverts who's tired of the vague agreements that nobody remembers.

The point of a meeting is to share information, discuss a problem, or get answers to questions. Back when everyone worked in an office, sitting in a room together made sense, but now that we're all awkwardly looking at a screen or at the webcam (but not both), seeing each other is not giving us the same vibe as a face-to-face meeting, and it's just not as effective as it could be.

According to the internet, the average speech rate is 150 words per minute, while for typing, 40 seems to be an average. However, with "modern" technology, we can all type words in a Google doc at the same time, meaning six people can transfer up to 240 words per minute. So switching your meeting from talking one by one to a text version where people talk in real-time makes sense in terms of numbers.

But there are some extra important benefits to typing text over talking over voice. For one, you have free meeting notes. But something that I did not expect was that it is more inclusive. When I started evangelizing the silent meeting at Withlocals, I got a personal DM from a classic introvert who rarely speaks in meetings, telling me she loved the concept a lot. Looking at how much she contributed during the silent meeting, I realized that introverts are not afraid of discussing things in written form!

So how do you discuss topics in written text form? Enter the silent meeting. A silent meeting is still a block of time annoyingly planned at 10 a.m. (although if your team is experienced in the format, you might try converting it to async, although personally I have not been able to make that a success yet). The silent meeting still starts with a video call in which you see this awkward thing in the background of your coworker, or this other person still has microphone issues after all this time. You can still crack a joke before the meeting really starts; actually, I like to take 5 to 10 minutes before we really start for this. Socializing is important, and it deserves some dedicated time. However, after this part is done, the camera and the mic are turned off so we can do the actual meeting in silence.

During a silent meeting, participants collaborate and argue in chat or other collaborative tools, such as Google Docs or Trello. The meeting leader, who wrote the document and invited everyone, keeps an eye out for topics that require intervention. The goal is to collaboratively fill in alle the blanks in the document, so you can leave with a document filled with facts, decisions and answers that everybody agrees on. You achieve this by editing the silent meeting doc directly, using the suggest-changes feature, or by proposing changes in the review-mode. The meeting leader is in charge of processing proposals and review-notes. When all participants are happy they confirm, so the meeting leader can move on.

All this is done in parallel, so your whole document will be quickly filling up with review-notes and proposed changes. Which is great to see happening. Try doing that with a loud meeting!

The success of a silent meeting depends on the quality of the meeting document. The meeting leader must write a document that provides sufficient context and information about the topic at hand. This is particularly important if the audience is not all from the same team. Without context, participants may not have enough knowledge to provide meaningful input, leading to a failed meeting.

If you're trying to get a vote on a decision, for example, you'll need to know what sentiment there is in your team, what options are being considered, and how to objectively compare them in your document. If people feel they don't know enough to answer your questions properly, or if the text appears to lay blame somewhere, the silent meeting will fail as participants will not feel their input is valuable.

After the silent meeting concludes, it's important to take some time to talk again. This allows you to discuss any unresolved topics out loud or simply take the time to summarize and close the meeting. In some cases, you may find that there is still one hot topic that is not getting resolved, and often there may still be some emotion in the way. In such cases, it's better to switch back to a loud meeting and address the issue with everyone present.

It's worth noting that silent meetings are not always the best option for every situation. For example, when emotions are involved, it may be more effective to have a traditional loud meeting where everyone can see and hear each other. However, silent meetings can be a great way to encourage collaboration and problem-solving, especially when the topic is complex or requires careful consideration.

So to summarize: yes, most meetings could have been an email-thread, some meetings should have been in a bar with some beers, and some meetings should have been a (pre-recorded) TED talk.

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