The silent reading technique

Why to NOT send that document ahead of the meeting

June 1, 2019 · 4 min read

When you have a document to review in a meeting, you should do a really counter-intuitive thing: Don’t send it out beforehand. Instead, share the doc at the beginning of the meeting and have everyone read it, silently, in the meeting.

I got used to this at Amazon (Jeff Bezos calls it “study hall”). It is the secret ingredient added to the famous narrative process.

I can hear all your objections now: “What a waste of time! You should read the doc before the meeting!” “How awkward! Sitting there in silence…” Et cetera. Some of these are real, some are just the discomfort of the new. But the pros outweigh all the cons:

Advantages

  1. Most importantly, it means that everyone definitely read the document. The biggest problem with the standard process is when people haven’t read the doc, or only skimmed it. Then you waste time summarizing it, or worse, they have the discussion without context.

  2. The doc is fresh on everyone’s mind. With the standard process, many people read the doc a day or two prior to the meeting.

  3. It’s obvious what the deadline is for having the doc ready: the start of the meeting. There’s no negotiation. With the standard process, it may be unclear how much time to give people to read the doc in advance (3 days for busy execs?), and you end up negotiating it.

  4. You minimize the time from prep to discussion/decision. If the doc can be done by Wednesday, then you can have the meeting on Wednesday. With the standard process, you have to have the meeting Thursday or Friday to give people time to read.

Objections

Pitfalls to watch out for

Caveats

Or, objections I am more sympathetic to:

A decent compromise to some of these issues is to send the doc ahead of time and also allow time in meeting to read. People who read ahead of time can use the time in meeting to refresh their memories. That gets you most of the benefits. You have to fight for silence, though.

Finally, this is not universal advice. I laid out the reasons and the context. If the assumptions, and the mechanism, don’t fit your situation, then don’t use it! It’s a tool, not a dogma.

A final word of advice

If you want to do this with your team, don’t spring it on them at the beginning of a meeting. It’s too weird, counter-intuitive and awkward. Get agreement beforehand so that everyone knows what to expect going in.

Happy silent reading!

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