The Sound of Silence: Do Silent Meetings Work?

April 19, 2019

The Sound of Silence: Do Silent Meetings Work?

Seems like every week you hear about another organization who uses so-called “silent meetings,” in which people are given time for a silent reading, in each meeting, of materials that frame the discussion. There’s the famous (or infamous, depending on your point of view) Jeff Bezos 6-page memo. Plus, the chief of staff community’s own Brian Rumao highlights the silent read-through among other pre-and-post-meeting tactics at LinkedIn. Lila McLellan wrote about The Rise of the Silent Meeting over at Quartz in October.

So, a while back I started asking chiefs of staff — in organizations who use a 6-page memo or similar silent meeting method – what do you love about it and what are the challenges with it? Some common themes emerged across these conversations about the advantages and disadvantages of the silent meeting:



Advantages Disadvantages
Solves the problem of people not having time to read the materials in advance of the meeting. They can’t say they didn’t read it or understand the context. Only people with high processing speeds can digest that much data quickly, the first time they see it, and be able to apply it in a context-appropriate manner. “Ruminators” who take time to process information get left behind.
Knowledge lives on in perpetuity in the document – the memo itself, wherever it is stored – and doesn’t disappear with the presenter. Takes 1/3 of your meeting time, and depending on the topic(s) you might not always see a return on that time.
Levels the playing field, to a degree. Most people are seeing the material for the first time, rather than one person or a coalition coming in as experts and others knowing little or nothing about the subject. Only the author of the memo knows more than anyone else. A succinct format like a 6-page memo doesn’t prevent people from attaching 20 pages of “appendix” material, which either means a lot of context has been lost in the summarizing of it or, even it is well summarized to keep salient points, the additional materials offer opportunities for sidebar/rabbit hole/off-focus discussion.



Additionally, I heard variations on the following tips:

  • If you’re rolling out silent meetings for the first time, take a phased approach, and craft some experiments around it. Introduce it in a few carefully-selected meetings, see how it goes, adjust, and adopt more broadly as it gains acceptance.
  • It’s a discipline and a forcing function, but it still requires a facilitator who keeps discussion focused, balances content with the meeting process, and knows how to read different group or team dynamics and uses different modalities to steer the conversation to the desired outcomes.

Whether you use a silent meeting format or not, it’s clear that a disciplined approach is more useful than ad-hoc approaches. And habits of discipline can shift you from a note-taker to a facilitator who wields notable influence on what the group works on, how they work together, and for how long.

If your meetings are a waste of the leadership team’s time, you need help finding your seat at the executive table, or just need help refining your role as an influencer, I can help.  Email or call today to learn more.

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