We’ve all found ourselves in meetings where things rapidly drift off track. Conversations drift off track. Ideas are conflated, strange concepts breed in the conversational undergrowth, and an enraged leader eventually tears off his shoe and pounds on the table. Eventually a dead horse comes wandering in so everyone can engage in some ritual flagellation.

If you take away from the above that I don’t much like meetings, you’d be right. That said, I do know a thing or two about how to pull them back on track. I’m also occasionally known to be abrasive, frustrating, and pushy, so take what I have to say on this matter with a grain of salt.

Step One – Ruthlessly discard the irrelevant

It’s amazing how easy it is for people to drift off course when presented with irrelevant details. We create the most confounding connections between two completely unrelated pieces of data, then defend that connection to the death. The arguments about these things can last for days, weeks, even years. Even bringing them up in meetings wastes time, and wasted time is wasted life.

My personal mistake here is not so much in the ruthless winnowing out of the irrelevant as it is in my forgetfulness about the emotions involved. People attach great personal importance to the things they pursue. Otherwise, why would they bother? Just because I don’t agree with them, or want to stay focused on dealing with the meeting’s “mission” doesn’t mean that my goal is the goal of all the other meeting participants.

Step Two – Cut people off after the third iteration

Iterations are good in projects, better in writing, and absolutely horrible in meetings. Unfortunately we seem to have learned, somewhere, repetition is the key to success in all communications. If we repeat the same words often enough others will come to believe them simply because they hear them often enough.

My personal inclination is to cut people off after they have repeated themselves for the third time. Especially when the repetitions involve something wholly irrelevant, or even worse just discovered to be irrelevant, to the meeting’s purpose. As a rule, though, people tend to like their iterations. It makes them feel like they have accomplished something when they say the same things over and over again. Taking away that feeling of accomplishment will not make you popular.

Step Three – Point at the elephant in the room

The truth, any truth, is rarely welcomed in a meeting. If someone in a meeting asks you if you can “speak truth to power”, what they really want to know is if you are dumb enough to point at the white elephant in the room and tell everyone about it. They already know about it; they just won’t do anything about it for their own emotional, political, or practical reasons.

Me, I point at the elephant. There’s a part of my personality which simply cannot, and will not, allow people to prattle on and on about something minor when we need to address the big issues. I’m working on keeping my big mouth shut, but it’s kind of a struggle most days.

So there you have it – three lightning fast ways to tick people off in meetings. Use them with care.