Disrespecting Your Audience: Meetings Without Purpose
In my never-ending quest for erudition and enlightment, I attended a seminar on “The Past, Present, and Future of Greenwich Village” at the Museum of the City of New York, in sweltering (@95 degrees) heat.
I love the Village — have since I first began hitch-hiking there with my friends from Philly in my teens. I saw Thelonious Monk, Miles Davis, Bob Dylan there, among others.
The seminar was, to put it mildly, loosely organized. First, an emcee appeared — to disappear for the rest of the evening. He announced the participants.
The first was an author who spoke about his love of the Village, how he first arrived there to wander the crooked streets in amazement amid the smells of bread and marijuana. He spoke of how each visible Village tableau was actually underlaid by several centuries of prior history, some of which he explicated with slides.
Then, the four-man panel appeared.
Dare I say there was no moderator? No agenda? No time allotment?
All of the men were knowledgeable and concerned denizens of the Village. I’m sure they met beforehand and said, “Let’s play it by ear.”
That always works well!
And so, topics were covered haphazardly — the Washington Square renovation, NYU’s overwhelming expansionism, the construction of the new branch of the Whitney Museum, the impact of the the High Line and the intense revitalization — at the fastest-growing end of the Village — of the Meatpacking District as a tourist area overwhelmed by bar and restaurant patrons — none was mentioned other than in passing by panel members.
This is because no set of topics was laid out for consideration by anyone at any time. I mean, this was only an informal seminar (although admission was charged) — so why buzzkill with anything like an agenda?
Time was limited, of course, so everything couldn’t be dealt with in detail. Which means — they meandered onto topics and left them as each panel member was seized at the moment, some areas and topics were over-detailed because that was what was on the dominant panel members’ minds, and then there was a repetitive back-and-forth (friendly enough) between two of the vocal men about whether and how much new development should be allowed/encouraged.
This desultory, purposeless journey occurred because, without a moderator, some people talk a lot while some are recessive and there is no one to call on the quiet ones; repetitive discussion occurs since no one moves the discussion along; obvious topics are omitted because there is no one to say, “I think the audience would like to hear your views on . . . ”
And, then, the audience began jumping out of their seats because they had been sitting there a while, and many had their own views. But the panel took no cognizance of it. OBVIOUSLY, no one had asked, “How shall we involve the audience, and at what point?”
So I shouted out from the back row, “Take questions from the audience.”
Which the panel instantly did. Because, you see, THEY want direction too.
It can be perilous to throw things to the audience — although just letting the audience run wild was not what I meant by taking their questions. This is New York — there are all kinds of kooks and people with agendas — knowledge-based and otherwise — lurking out there (unlike other regions of the country, I’m sure).
One woman who represented some kind of community group began a comment that went on endlessly. I finally went over to the sheepish young man standing next to her waiting to take the microphone to the next questioner and told him, “You’re allowed to ask for the mike back.” The panel sat transfixed as the woman talked on and on. OBVIOUSLY, no one had said, “Let’s limit questions and comments to two minutes each so that everyone can participate comfortably.”
Let’s go back to the meeting “planning” — which, as I said, had to consist of “Let’s play it by ear.” These are a group of knowledgeable professionals. Everyone thinks that no one needs to tell them what they should say, how to say it, in what order, or under what time constraints. It wasn’t that they couldn’t be bothered to plan any kind of agenda, time schedule, or process. It’s more accurate to say that they don’t know how and don’t have permission to do so.
And the result is one of those typical endless workshops, seminars, and meetings that you, my dear reader, love to spend your days and nights at work, school, and extracurricularly attending.
Do they have meetings in Purgatory? Or is that just one long meeting?