The theatre of meetings
Imagine for a moment you are at a play. You’re sitting comfortably. You’ve admired the set on stage. There’s an air of expectation, then the lights dim. The action starts. You marvel at the performers and their ability to connect with you, as if you are the only person in the audience – and they can’t even see you. How do they do that? Intermission arrives. Then Act 2. At the end you applaud politely or enthusiastically, depending on your experience, and make your way back to the ‘real world’ outside the theatre.
A lot has gone on behind the scenes to provide you with this experience: investors and sponsors were found, a playwright penned the original play, directors, actors, lighting technicians, set designers, costumers, dialogue coaches, caterers, ushers – many, many people played a role in providing you with the opportunity for an evening’s entertainment. All that was left for you to do was schedule the play in your diary, pay your money, and show up.
Contrast that experience with ones you may have had at work when attending a meeting. What are the similarities and differences? At first glance they seem worlds apart – after all, one is leisure, the other work.
Scripted Play Work Meeting
Theatre Meeting room
Optional to attend Often mandatory
Usually enjoyable Not another *%^$# meeting!
With friends With work colleagues
Lot of attention to staging Staging? What’s that?
Clear beginning and end Have we started yet? Why are we still here?
The audience is integral I might as well be invisible
Everybody works towards success Who’s responsible here?
Follows a script Follows an agenda
The biggest difference might be that the play is scripted, and the director and performers are simply interpreting the carefully-crafted words and bringing the story to life. Albeit they have to learn a lot of lines.
Meetings are not scripted. Of course not – well, not usually anyway. Some meetings are scripted. They turn out to be a presentation. The closest most meetings come to having a script is an agenda, and even that is a tenuous link. An agenda is an order of proceedings – hardly a well-crafted script. Often we don’t know what is going to happen, and what people are going to say, in a meeting. Some people might turn up with their own agenda too, hidden or otherwise.
There would be a lot more in common between a meeting and a play if there was no script. That’s closer. There’s usually no script for a meeting. So let’s revisit the theatre. Same theatre, but this time there’s no set – the stage is pretty bare. The performers come on stage. There’s the same feeling of expectation, but this time it has an element of danger. Maybe danger is too strong, at least uncertainty. There is no script for this performance. No script. The performers have no lines to learn because they have no idea what they will be saying, or doing. These are improvisors. They will spontaneously make up the story, the dialogue and the action – often based on audience suggestions – in the moment. It’s not rehearsed. Maybe the performers are exceptional people, with talents the rest of us can only dream about. Not so. The skills that improvisors bring to the stage, we can all develop – and bring to our workplaces.
I wrote the above in a notebook in mid 2007, even before I started this blog, and found it today while searching for something else. Fair to say I’m still exploring these links. And there’s still a long way to go. And I think it’s worth it. Funny that I had to wait this long to find a group of people willing to explore these edges of work with me. Funnier still that I’ve yet to meet two of them. That’s being on the edge!