Multi-tasking is not a crime. For knowledge workers today, it is a survival skill. If you can’t manage and filter streams of data coming at you from multiple synchronous and asynchronous channels, you are doomed to drift aimlessly at sea. The ability to keep swimming in a somewhat forward direction requires tremendous effort, and the ability to ignore as well as pay attention.
Time has always been talked about as the most important commodity, with hundreds of books written on “time management.” With knowledge workers struggling to deal with today’s digital avalanche, I propose that “focus” is the new most important commodity.
If you want focus from colleagues or subordinates on what you have to say, you cannot just demand it anymore. You have to earn it. And you have to compete with omnipresent digital devices that make your audience smarter, blur the lines between business and personal communication, and quite frankly, may be more interesting than what you have to say at that moment.
So what can you do about it? Let’s talk about focus in meetings. I define a meeting as a gathering of people with a need to collaborate to achieve some common business purpose. In the old days (choose your own pre-90s decade) mono-tasking people would sit together in a conference room and talk, maybe with a few whiteboard drawings to punctuate important points. Common courtesy required that you looked at who was talking, listened, waited your turn and then volunteered your opinion.
Let’s be honest. This courtesy is not common anymore. People (myself included) not only talk all at once, they bring their world with them to meetings in the form of iphones, blackberries and laptops. Even though it is valuable to have knowledge at their fingertips, they also have the temptation to sneak quick looks at unrelated items in their inboxes.
Extending your reach to remote participants via WebEx is a wonderful thing, but presents the challenge of not even being able to see when your audience begins to multi-task. They are sitting in front of computers with other business, entertainment and social media distractions waiting in the wings.
You could yearn for the nostalgia of the old days and label everyone “rude,” OR you could use this as a barometer of your own performance and run your meeting in a new way. In Dead Air Dynamics, I talked about a few ways to earn focus at the beginning of a meeting. Now let’s talk about how to maintain focus throughout your meeting. Of course the size, length and purpose of meetings varies widely, but these general principles apply to most of the meetings I run or attend:
1) Make a commitment. Sincerely thank everyone for the time they are investing and ask them for their “focus investment” as well. Explain the purpose and then commit that you will help navigate to that goal as quickly and efficiently as possible.
2) Prepare and organize your content. How many meetings have you attended when the host was winging it? It’s hard to stay focused on a target when it is not clearly visible.
3) Establish rules of engagement. “I have prepared a 10 minute overview that will bring everyone up to speed. At the end I am going to ask you a few questions.” Every teacher knows the threat of a pop quiz will snap students to attention.
4) Use stories to bring it to life. Even a finance presentation can be made more interesting with an occasional metaphor or personal anecdote. You can also ask your audience to provide color, “Does anyone have a story that supports or refutes this point?” This temporarily shifts the burden of engagement from you and lets people know they could be called on next.
5) Take a breath. People enjoy monologues on the Tonight Show, but not in meetings. If you don’t want or need dialogue, why did you call a meeting? You should be asking a question (and listening) at least once every 5-7 minutes. If you want to give a speech, record and send it to them so they can listen at their convenience. Better yet, send it in advance of the meeting so the group is ready to discuss.
6) Loosen up. I used to be extremely uptight about people not looking at me or responding to me when I presented. Once I was giving a marketing overview to a group of sales reps in a conference room. As soon as I sensed the eyes starting to drift down into digital world, I stopped cold and announced a crackberry break. “You have 5 minutes to check your inbox and make one quick call. Then I ask you to come back and give me your full focus and feedback… Go!!” You should have seen the look of relief in the addicts’ eyes as I let them have their fix.
7) Give online participants a voice. The most common question I hear is… “If I can’t see someone’s eyes or body language, how do I know if they are paying attention?” There is one simple way to know – ask them. WebEx provides you with a list of participants by name. It’s not just a nebulous conference call where you have to guess who’s lurking in the background. Go down the list and include every person in the conversation, especially the silent one who is probably sitting on the best idea waiting to be asked.
My final bit of advice is something that has helped me tremendously in my career. Work on your presentation and listening skills, and practice outside the business environment. I became active in Toastmasters five years ago to raise my game and this kind of coaching could pay off for you too. When presenting face-to-face, your body language needs to be consistent with your message. When presenting online, your voice takes the lead role and needs to be delivered with the power and passion of a great radio talk show.
People are judging your content and communication style every second that your mouth is open. If they sense even for a millisecond that you are boring or disconnected from them, they will tune you out… and they SHOULD. The truth about multitasking? It’s a symptom of a greater illness. Take it as valuable feedback from your meeting audience and tighten up your show.
What tips can you share about making meetings more dynamic?
(Please submit in Comments below.)
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