I’ve never know what to say when people ask me what I do for a living, at dinner parties for example.  Often I buy time by inviting them to guess and they normally plump for a lawyer, accountant or doctor – not very imaginative.  I suppose it’s obvious that I’m some sort of professional person: well-heeled, well-spoken, wife and kids, nice car, a Knightsbridge address (I’m modest too!).

I usually laugh at their guesses and say ‘I wish’, flirting with the idea of stringing them along by telling them I own a laundry or a quarry or a night club.  Or, better still, that I earn my living by doing something really mysterious, perhaps as a soothsayer or a water diviner.  But, alas, I know I wouldn’t be able to sustain these untruths for long so I come clean and tell them the truth: I’m an ME, a Meetings Expert — a revelation that, quite understandably,  is invariably met with complete incomprehension. 

Recently, for instance, at a private view in a Bloomsbury art gallery, I struck up a conversation with a woman who told me she was an actress who happened to be ‘resting’ at the moment.  She was in her early sixties (though I would never have guessed) and explained how it was increasingly difficult for older woman to get television and film work.  Naturally, I commiserated and then, after a short silence, the inevitable happened: she asked me what I did.  The ensuing conversation went like this:

‘I’m a meetings expert.  I help people improve the effectiveness of their meetings.’

‘A meetings expert?  I’ve never heard of that.  What sort of meetings?’

‘Business meetings, management meetings, that sort of thing.’

‘Goodness.  And you can earn a living doing that?’

‘Yes, I charge fees for my services.’

At this point most people shake their heads in disbelief and change the subject, asking, for example, if I ride or play golf or have dogs or have a place in the country.  But this woman persevered. 

‘Really?  That’s incredible.’

‘Yes,  I sometimes have to pinch myself to believe it’s true, but it’s lucrative work and for the most part it’s interesting and often entertaining.’

‘Management meetings entertaining?  Pull the other one.  In the acting world meetings are invariably shambolic and time consuming.’

‘Exactly, that’s why I get hired.  I never fail to recommend ways to reduce the number of meetings and, for those that survive my scrutiny, to halve the time they take and double what they accomplish.’

‘I see, so really you’re a sort of management consultant.’

‘Yes, but since I specialise in meetings people don’t think of me as a typical management consultant.  It’s fun and unexpected things often happen.’

‘Fun?  I’m still finding that hard to imagine.  Meetings are so boring.’

‘Not always.  I’ll give you a recent example.  I was hired by the boss of a large organisation, it had better remain nameless, to help his directors improve the way they chaired meetings.  As usual, I asked if I could observe some meetings to discover first-hand what sort of issues I might need to work on.’

‘Oh, I see, you take a look first.  But don’t people find it odd having a stranger sitting in on their meetings?’

‘Well, a one-way mirror would obviously be ideal but I make myself as unintrusive as possible.  I just tuck myself in a corner and once the meeting gets underway people usually ignore me.  Anyway, on this occasion one of the meetings I observed was chaired by a senior director.  He briefed me beforehand and explained the meeting was a one-off to discuss how best to deal with an awkward situation they had with a trade union.  He said it was all a bit fraught and asked for assurances that I’d keep everything I heard confidential.’

‘Gosh, a bit hush hush.  I like a bit of intrigue.’

‘Yes, I was relieved to hear that the meeting wasn’t going to be the usual routine thing with a set agenda.  The director opened the meeting by explaining why I was there and urged the participants to take no notice of me.  I sat in a corner by a large rubber plant.  The leaves glistened under the lights and I couldn’t help but wonder whose job it was to polish them.’

‘A bit upmarket, eh?’ 

‘Yes, the meeting was in the director’s office, a large room with a round table.  The discussion that ensued was rather circuitous with lots of conflicting ideas on how best to deal with the troublesome union reps.  The director had some odd mannerisms that I duly noted in my log.  For example, he often scowled and shook his head as if in disbelief and a couple of times he suddenly leapt up and strode around the table.’

‘Goodness, sounds rather theatrical.’

‘I told you meetings could be entertaining.  The oddest thing was when he picked up a pencil – I’d noticed he had lots of them in a cut-glass tumbler on the table in front of him — and thrust it into the jaws of an electric pencil sharpener.  He held it there while the sharpener made a whirring noise and the pencil was reduced to a stub.  None of the participants seemed to think this in the least unusual.’

‘That sounds really weird.  And you get paid to watch this stuff?’

‘Yep.  I hope I’m not boring you?’

‘Far from it.  I have to know what happened next.’

‘Well, soon after sharpening the pencil, the director completely lost it.  He leapt up, ranting and raving, while everyone sat there with their heads down waiting for him to calm down.  It was obvious that they were used to this bizarre behaviour and, sure enough, after a short while the director recovered his decorum and the meeting resumed as if nothing untoward had happened.’

‘How extraordinary.  I’m beginning to see what you mean about meetings being entertaining.’

‘The same pattern — seize a pencil, grind it down in the pencil sharpener and, a short time after, go berserk — happened a number of times before the meeting adjourned for lunch.  Two of the participants accompanied me to the company dining room and spent the whole time grumbling about the director.  According to them he was impossible to work for, moody, short tempered and unpredictable.  Normally, as an outsider with no axe to grind, I’m careful to keep quiet and remain impartial, but on this occasion I allowed myself to be drawn.  I told them I’d detected a recurring pattern: pencil sharpening was always followed, after an interval of approximately three minutes, by the director blowing his top.  They, of course, had become accustomed to both these things but were surprised to hear that the two behaviours might be linked.’

‘Something I suppose it was relatively easy for you to spot as an uninvolved observer.’

‘Precisely.’

‘So, go on, what happened next?’

‘After the lunch break the meeting resumed.  The discussion was rather tortuous and it wasn’t long before the director seized a pencil and ground it down in the sharpener.  Unfortunately, the two managers I’d lunched with turned towards me and one winked and the other gave me a knowing smile.  The director spotted this and demanded an explanation.  Heads went down and no one said anything.  After an awkward silence, I decided to come clean.  I apologised and told the director that I thought sharpening a pencil was a sign of his mounting frustration with the lack of progress.’

‘Goodness, that was brave.  What happened next?   He threw you out I suppose.’

‘On the contrary, after a pause he asked me if I’d stay behind after the meeting.  Naturally I assumed I had incurred his wrath but after everyone had left he invited me to sit down and comment on the way he’d run the meeting.  For the next hour I went through my notes giving him candid feedback.  He lapped it all up, admitting that I was right about his regrettable displays of impatience.  He thanked me profusely and promised to mend his ways.’

‘That’s a surprise.  I thought you were going to say he punched you.’

‘That’s not all.  A few weeks later I happened to pass the director in a corridor and, cheekily, I enquired if he’d stopped sharpening pencils.’

‘Go on.  What was his reply?’

‘He said, ‘Yes, thanks to your insightful advice, I’m a reformed character.’’ 

‘So, he’d stopped behaving like an absolute bastard?’

‘No, he’d stopped sharpening pencils.’

‘But what about all the ranting and raving?   That hadn’t changed.’

‘Well, you can’t win them all.  Come on, let’s find another glass of champagne.’

On reflection, it might have been better to have told her I owned a laundry or a quarry or a nightclub.  Better still, that I was a soothsayer or a water diviner.’

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