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How slow meetings could help quell the sound and fury

If Shakespeare was right when he described life as ‘a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing’, then what, one wonders, would he have made of social media?

While Twitter might be useful for some things – I confess, I know not what – it is also an asylum of half-baked ravings, knee-jerk responses, paranoia, and weapons-grade bullshit.

As judge and jury, it delivers its judgments at break-neck speed. The mildest transgressions can see unwitting victims hanged, drawn and quartered before breakfast. Or sacked, anyway.

So meeting planners, what if, rather than pander to all things digital, we define a ‘good’ conference as one that allows delegates to hit pause and use the time at their disposal to think, and collaborate with their peers, without the superficial distractions of social media, mobile apps, and other not entirely necessary technology.

The slow movement, which advocates a cultural shift towards a slower pace of life, is taking root in different aspects of our lives. What started as a protest against McDonald’s in the 1980s with the Slow Food Organisation now covers everything from aging to art, food to fashion, parenting to photography. Slow Reading Clubs and even Slow Journalism are other variations on the theme. Those with a vested interest tell us technology is our friend. But it can be a toxic relationship.

As Christmas approaches and life, for many, adopts a more leisurely gait, I would like to reiterate my appeal for Slow Meetings. The general trend has been towards shorter, snappier gatherings, where delegates are given a brisk overview and a list of bullet points or ‘takeaways’ to digest back in the office. Besides the occasional ‘deep dive’, it’s about packing the programme with as many tracks as possible and making each session last no longer than 90 minutes. I suspect the proliferation of mobile devices has something to do with this. We have become digital fidgets.

A Slow Meeting would involve leaving your tablets and smartphones at the door. Not turning them off or putting them on vibrate – but physically handing them over. The room would be bright and airy, with as much natural light as possible. I see a variety of comfortable seating options, a decent coffee machine, bowls of fruit, fresh water, art on the wall. In short, a place you’d be happy to spend a whole day. The meeting will be framed around one point for discussion and one objective. Going off on a tangent will not be frowned upon. Thinking laterally will be encouraged. Time will be set aside for thinking. This will mean a room full of people sitting in silence. This will not feel awkward. And at the end, there will be no spoon-fed takeaways. Instead everyone will be given the opportunity to write a short essay or blog about their experience, and post it on a website where further discussion can take place. Perhaps the slow meeting doesn’t ever have to end…