This Meeting Should Have Been an Email

Posted on Wed 27 October 2021 in blog • 6 min read

Fellow managers, there is an ongoing trope in just about any software technology or knowledge based organization (and probably others, too) that goes like this:

This meeting should have been an email.

It’s such a well-established meme at this point that you can buy mugs saying so. Or cross-stitched “award certificates”, or ribbons. And yet, many of you appear to dismiss it as a nerdy joke, and refuse to take the sentiment behind it seriously.

And this even though you may agree that your organization has too many meetings. Even that you are in too many meetings. But you’re convinced that sadly, sadly you can’t cancel that meeting. Or that one. Or the quarterly financials update. Or the update about the shakeup in the CTO office. Or the meeting explaining at your level what the CEO just communicated to everyone via a video message or an email of their own.

You can do it. I’m here to help.

“Email” means any structured, written communication that allows for feedback

Let’s set one thing straight to begin with.

The standing phrase is “this meeting should have been an email” because that’s catchy. But that’s not to say that you actually need to write an email message. What it really means is that to communicate whatever it is that you’re trying to get across, you use a medium that

  1. uses written expression,
  2. allows you to formulate complex thoughts and reasoning in writing,
  3. allows people to comment and share feedback, in writing,
  4. ideally allows for that feedback to subsequently be worked back into the original writing.

You’ll see that particularly considering item #4, email isn’t even the best option available at your disposal. Instead, you can look at the following, additional options, all of which will probably be available to you in some form:

So all of these are good.1 All of them are better than a meeting. With near certainty at least one of them is available at your disposal.

Meetings burn people’s time

Meetings are gigantic time consumers. And the productivity gains from switching to well-structured written communications are enormous.

To illustrate, allow me to offer some first-hand experience. When I’m being called to attend a meeting, my colleagues will attest to the fact that I am a meticulous note-taker. I write meetings up in our corporate wiki, and I record notes, rather than producing a verbatim transcript. But I can guarantee you that I will write down every point that the attendees make that’s worth remembering or referring back to. This includes some key points that I do record word-for-word. I’ve been in meetings with 20 attendees of 1 hour in length. My meeting notes never go over 2,000 words for such a meeting, and usually they’re more like 1,000 words. So that means that for a meeting that burns 20 person-hours just to attend (that is, not including meeting prep), what actually gets said can be summarized in 2,000 words, tops.

Now, consider that the average silent reading rate for English speakers is approximately 240 words per minute. So people can read a 2,000-word summary in under 9 minutes, a 1,000 word one in about 4. In other words, by conveying the information in writing rather than orally, you can eliminate five-sixths to fourteen-fifteenths of that useless overhead. Or put differently, replacing an hourlong meeting with a well-written briefing gives each and every person 6 to 15 times more productivity. And that’s not even counting the benefits of eliminating the meeting as a forced synchronization point.

But writing things up means more work for me!

You may argue that although you understand that putting together a well-written briefing (instead of calling a meeting) saves everyone else time, it takes up more of your time.

Let me observe this: If you’ve been convening and chairing meetings of an hour, and you haven’t been spending about as much time preparing for that meeting yourself, then I’m sorry to break it you but you may not have been a very conscientious meeting chair all along. In fact, you may have be been rather disrespectful of other people’s time, and now is a very good time for you to change.

If however you have been a conscientious meeting chair and every one-hour meeting did, in aggregate, consume about one hour of meeting prep (including scheduling, collecting information, and preparing it so you have it all ready to go), then rejoice: the onerous scheduling-and-roping-everyone-in bit is gone, so that saves up a sizable chunk of your time, and you can punch out 1,000 to 2,000 words in 30-45 minutes. So, less work for you. Admittedly, not as dramatically so for you (the writer) as for your erstwhile attendees (now readers), but still pretty substantial.

(Not to mention the fact that team productivity gains in the order-of-magnitude range, see above, should make your heart jump with joy.)

OK but how? I don’t know where to start!

I’ve written about this before, but I’d like to come back to this again: if you’re looking for guidelines on structuring your writing for what you would otherwise communicate in your meetings, look at the 5-paragraph briefing format, adapted from the NATO 5-paragraph field order. If you make it your habit to at least think about this format, chances are that your briefing will be pretty damn comprehensive:

  1. Situation
  2. Objective
  3. Plan
  4. Logistics
  5. Communications

Let’s break these down in a little detail:

  1. Situation is about what position we’re in, and why we set out to do what we want to do. You can break this down into three sub-points, like the customer’s situation, the situation of your own company, any extra help that is available, and the current market.
  2. Objective is what we want to achieve.
  3. Plan is how we want to achieve it.
  4. Logistics is about what budget and resources are available, and how we can use them.
  5. Communications is about how we’ll be coordinating among ourselves and with others in order to achieve our goal.

Sometimes you want to give not a full briefing, but a simple update, such as because circumstances have changed. In that case, you may only include the first three items, and the changes that apply to it.

It’s good practice to always include these three (that is, situation, objective, and plan): to you it may be clear and obvious that since the situation has changed, a slight modification of the plan (or the objective!) is necessary. To others, it might not. So just always include the current situation, the current objectives, and the current plan.

You can also apply this to a problem statement, where it’s just as useful:

  1. This is what we’re currently dealing with, and how I see it (that’s the situation)
  2. Here’s why it’s a problem, and why it needs to be fixed (that’s an objective)
  3. This is my suggestion for how it could be fixed (that’s a plan)

And finally, some poetry

And as my final writing tip for improving communications and eliminating needless meetings, I want to leave you with some poetry. These lines that just so happen to serve as a perfect mnemonic for professional briefings.

I keep six honest serving-men:
(They taught me all I knew)
Their names are What and Where and When
And How and Why and Who.

— Rudyard Kipling, The Elephant’s Child, 1902

Strive for all your professional writing to answer most or all of what, where, when, how, why, and who, and watch your need for meetings evaporate like morning dew in glistening sunlight.

  1. Please note that interactive chat (like Slack) is not in this list. It fails the “formulate complex thoughts and reasoning” test.