New policy: Transform a meeting into an actual meeting.

As a teacher, I often find myself in meetings with teachers and staff from other schools in various buildings throughout the district. Up until this year, my habit has been to sit amongst my friends and colleagues in these meetings whenever possible, as most people tend to do.

It makes sense. Sit amongst your friends. Surround yourself with your people.  

This year I've adopted a new policy:

Whenever possible, I sit beside someone I don't know. Typically it's a teacher or staff member from another school, but anyone will do. Principal. Administrator. Custodian. At the risk of denying my friends and colleagues my scintillating company and acerbic wit, I choose to forgo the comfort and ease of friends for the opportunity to meet someone new. 

It's a good policy, I think. Even though it would be easier and perhaps more entertaining to sit amongst my friends, I have learned (in large part thanks to my wife) the value of broadening one's network. Making new friends and professional contacts. Getting to know people.

People often ask me how Elysha and I managed to make Speak Up - our storytelling organization - so successful so quickly. By our second show, we had an audience of more than 200 people, and we have been selling out venues ever since. I tell people that we're successful because we produce a high quality, entertaining, and diverse show each and every time, and I believe that. People know that a Speak Up show is a great way to spend a night out.  

But those initial audiences? The hundreds of people who came before we has established our reputation and our brand?

We also know a lot of people. We have many friends and acquaintances. And those early audiences consisted primarily of friends, colleagues, neighbors, and acquaintances who came out to support our endeavor.

Today I don't recognize most of the audience members at a Speak Up show. Though there are friends mixed in here and there, every Speak Up show brings new people to the fold, and we've met dozens, if not hundreds, of new people thanks to Speak Up. Many have become dear friends. But that early success was in part thanks to the many people I know and the extraordinary number of people who Elysha knows.

It's good to get to know people. It's beneficial to broaden your horizons. It's important to meet folks who are unlike yourself. I've watched Elysha establish deep and meaningful friendships with people after meeting them in doctor's offices, coffee shops, playgrounds, museums, and the Nordstrom's restroom. She seeks to say hello. Introduce herself. Ask questions. Get to know new people.

Our lives are richer because of it.

So I sit beside new people in meetings now. I introduce myself. Ask lots of questions. Try to get to know new people amidst the agonizing PowerPoint presentations and slowly moving second hand of the clock.

It's a good policy, I think. Transforming a meeting into an actual meeting.

Not always easy, but the difficult thing and the right thing are so often the same thing.     

If your schedule your meeting for one hour, and then your meeting lasts exactly one hour, you have failed.

If you schedule an hour for a meeting, and your meeting lasts for an hour, you have failed, for three reasons:

  1. The efficient person attempts to complete tasks in less than the allotted time. If you've given yourself 60 minutes to complete a task and require all 60 minutes to do so, you have not been efficient.  
  2. Meetings that end early are always perceived more positively than those that end on time or later. Ending your meeting on time eliminates this simple means of improving the perception of every meeting that you conduct.  
  3. What are the odds that you have precisely 60 minutes of content to cover in your meeting?Not likely.

This means that you are either filling time because you are a rule-following completist who oddly believes that an hour scheduled must equal an hour filled, or you have scheduled too much content for your meeting and have either failed to complete your agenda (which is always frustrating to attendees) or are rushing through items that deserve greater attention. 

Not good either way. 

Here is the correct mindset for every meeting that you plan:

I have scheduled 60 minutes for this meeting. I will be thorough but efficient. Every minute under the 60 minutes that I have allotted brings me closer to superhero status. 

I want to be a superhero. 

Now...  which of the items on my agenda could be sent as an email to save everyone some time?

I hate meetings this much.

Want to know how much I hate meetings?

In August of 1999, I began my teaching career. Each school year starts off with a series of meetings a couple days before the kids arrive that may be absolutely necessary but are still excruciating because I hate meetings.

As I prepared to attend this first of what has been thousands upon thousands of meetings over the course of my teaching career, I was introduced to Jennifer, a new teacher also beginning her career. But because she was hired just a couple days before the start of school, she was permitted to skip this first meeting in order to prepare her classroom.

I still work with Jennifer. Today we teach fifth grade together.

It's been eighteen years since we began our teaching careers, and I'm still mad about the meeting that she got to skip and I did not.

Nearly two decades later, I still remember it, and I'm still angry about it.

I'm not kidding.

This is how I survive meetings.

When I am forced to suffer through an agonizing meeting or a pedantic training session (of which almost all are), I stare at photographs like this to prevent my soul from being thoroughly crushed.

Photos like this are like a tiny light in a universe of infinite black. They serve as a reminder that the person speaking will eventually stop, the PowerPoint will thankfully run out of slides, and the hands of the clock will signal my freedom.

I don’t know how I survived meetings before I had children.


Presentation consultant for hire

Over the past four years, I have written quite a bit about my hatred of  meetings. Regardless of the context, the majority of the meetings that I have been required to attend over the course of my lifetime have been ineffectively designed and poorly run.

I’ve admonished presenters to not be ordinary. 

I’ve begged the people who plan and conduct meetings to adopt the Khan Academy’s meeting policy.

I have advised meeting attendees on strategies to express your disapproval of a presenter without risking blatant insubordination or disrespect.

I have offered the all-important but never adhered to The Spiderman Principle of Meetings and Presentations.

In addition to the writing that I have done, I have also become an expert on communication.

I’m a professional storyteller with a long list of accomplishments.

I’m a professional speaker who is paid to deliver keynotes, commencement speeches, and inspirational addresses. I conduct workshops on a variety of subjects ranging from teaching to writing to storytelling and more. I’ve delivered TED Talks. I’ve emceed events like the Mayor’s Charity Ball, fundraising galas, and story slams for colleges and literary festivals. 

I’m a teacher who must maintain the attention and engagement of two dozen 10 year old children every day while delivering content critical to their future success.

I’m a wedding DJ who has been emceeing receptions for more than 19 years.

I’m a minister who has officiated wedding ceremonies, baby naming ceremonies and more.

I offer these credentials as a means of demonstrating my expertise when it comes to the effective design and delivery of content, because I am proposing a new line of work for myself:

The presentation consultant.


Yes, another job. But one for which I would excel mightily.

And while it may seem crazy to simply declare yourself to be something you were not yesterday (and in the process invent a newish line of work), this is not without precedent. Three years ago, I declared myself a professional best man, and since then, five grooms have attempted to hire me, with only geographic distance standing in our way from doing business together. I’ve also had two reality show producers reach out to me about possibly doing a television show in which I would be a professional best man, so these things can happen.

I’ve put myself out there many times before and found surprising success. Sometimes it’s simply a matter of being bold enough to take the first step.

So today I declare myself a presentation consultant. It’s a new job of sorts. There are many meeting consultants out there, but these are people who handle the logistics of meetings and conferences. They arrange for locations and transportation, hire vendors, and may hire speakers and even assist in the planning of content, but in the most traditional sense, they do not assist in the training of these presenters.

They hire professionals. 

In contrast, my services would look something like this:

You are a leader of some sort who is responsible for conducting meetings and training sessions in your organization. Let's start with the assumption that you have a lot of room to grow, because you probably do. I know this will be hard to hear, because if you are a leader of some sort, your ego is probably large (especially if you are a man).

That’s okay. Large egos are assets and exceptionally helpful in leadership as long as they are not also fragile.

There is nothing more dangerous and detrimental in business than the large, fragile ego. It’s like working for an overfilled balloon. At any moment, it may pop.

But I digress.

Regardless of the skill that you think you possess, your subordinates are probably not fans of your meetings and training sessions. You’re probably not planning and executing them well,  or at least as well as you could. 

Trust me. 


So I arrive at your place of business with an expertise in communication and years of experience delivering engaging content to a wide variety of audiences. 

I start by observing you over the course of one to three meetings or training sessions. I conduct pre and post meeting interviews with you in order to better understand your planning and reflection process. I interview the attendees of your presentations in order to determine how they honestly feel about your presentation skills. After I have gathered data on your strengths and weaknesses as a presenter, we go to work.

I critique. I teach. I model. I assist in planning. We establish guidelines specific to your organization and the kinds of meetings that you conduct. I assist in the development of realistic, targeted reflection. I continue to observe you as you conduct additional meetings and training sessions. I continue to critique. I reteach. I tweak. 

In the end, you are a better presenter. Your meetings are more productive and appreciated by your subordinates.

That’s my pitch. That’s my guarantee.

Hire me now and you’ll get me on the cheap.

Wait too long and you’ll pay more.

Either way, I’m worth it.

And on a side not, yes, I apparently have a large ego as well. But it’s not fragile in the least. It is battered and bruised on a daily basis. I feel good about myself and my abilities, but I accept criticism openly and without vindictiveness.

Remember: I’m the guy who publishes an annual list of flaws and shortcomings and invite friends, family and strangers to contribute to it.

If that’s not a sign of a lack of fragility, I don’t know what is.