How to survive committee meetings

Flickr image by gsdi10In a previous life I sat on many committees, but now I live in committeeless bliss. I remember them though — vividly. Which is not difficult because, in many ways, all committees are the same committee.

At the head of the table sits the chairperson who, despite the non-sexist title, is almost always a bloke. At his right hand sits the executive secretary who, despite the non-gender specific nomenclature, is almost always a woman. The chair will kick off with, 'Perhaps we should make a start', knowing that there are still five members to come — the same five members who are always to come. Nevertheless, he has a go.

'Any apologies?' The executive secretary reports that the representative from Global Financial Crisis Watch has disappeared along with all of GFCW's operating funds and that Victoria Dark, secretary to the Minister for Daylight Saving, will miss several meetings because she has gone into labour.

'Gone over to Labor?' This shocked ejaculation comes from what looks like a dehydrated boxthorn hedge wrapped in swathes of faded green corduroy, but is in fact Professor Evan Garble, Head of the Department of Fine Arts and Emissions Gambling at the Canberra Institute for the Arts and Emissions Gambling (CIAEG).

He is fighting a doomed battle to revive the old-style professoriate, which means invariably bringing the wrong agenda, being in any case always two items behind, glimpsing the world intermittently through an astonishing eruption of anarchic hair, moving five points of order but mislaying the last three, and dressing like a city tramp up on his luck.

'Minutes of the last meeting,' says the chairman, soldiering on. 'May I sign these?' But the latecomers arrive as he speaks with just enough interval between each to make any further business impossible till they settle.

One puffs and heaves, muttering something that sounds like 'F*****g stairs' but may have been 'Not enough chairs'. Another trips as he enters and distributes his papers, folders, glasses and pens along the length of the room, as if laying a trail to ensure a safe escape.

When it comes to dress and style, all committees are not quite the same committee. Here for example is the Committee on Institutional and Educational Guidelines (CIAEG), bringing to its current discussion a mix of sexy short skirts, terrible beards, a variety of suits and ties, several of them mute testimony to what blokes were getting married in around 1963, tight jeans and aging chic.

Conversely, a meeting of the members of the Centre for Investment, Amortizing and Economic Gradualism (CIAEG) will look like the display window at Henry Buck's and will, if it comes to that, be about as animated.

All committees are the same committee again, however, if you simply listen and don't look. At just about any committee meeting there are certain forms and combinations of words which will be accepted as the English language by everyone around the table.

For example, it's good to say things like, 'We'll have to real-time this one to impact on the offshore numbers', or 'Thinking outside the box will enforce some tough bottom-lining in the short term', or 'Prior to offshoring infrastructural considerations, could we give some thought to mainstreaming alternative audit phases', or for chairpeople, 'If members wouldn't mind diarising this one and we'll do the prioritising subsequently'.

Some committee rules of thumb: always say 'prior to' instead of 'before', 'in excess of' instead of 'more than' and 'in the approximate vicinity of' instead of 'about'.

Acronyms and initials are crucial in committee talk and always worth a run. A sentence like 'Provided the CIAEG go along with our ESPs, I can't see ASOP taking anything but a favourable attitude which will mean a GRW rating for sure' will have everybody nodding with totally uncomprehending enthusiasm.

As a general rule, committees approvingly spawn a certain modest level of illiteracy, especially to do with singular and plural. It is useful to say things like: 'This one is the most important criteria' and 'a very significant phenomena' and 'There's probably five major points here' — though never ever say 'There is five points', people would laugh at your ignorance.

Committees, for reasons as yet unrevealed by research, refuse to acknowledge the ramifications of the plural. Statements in newspapers that read, 'There's many reasons for the economic downturn' and signs in shops that announce, 'There's only three months till Christmas' have all been devised by plural-hating committees.

But, at the end of the day, even a chairman is human, as he turns to his wife in bed and says in a husky voice, 'I'm a bit tired tonight, darling, but I'd be happy to prioritise a libidinous agenda for a night not in excess of three days from now.' How could she resist!

Brian MatthewsBrian Matthews is the award winning author of A Fine and Private Place and The Temple down the road: the life and times of the MCG.


Topic tags: brian matthews, committees, acronyms, chairperson, secretary, minutes, impact on



submit a comment

Existing comments

Were you spying on our Owners' Corporation AGM last night? Of course, as the only woman on the Executive Committee, I was elected Secretary. At least the minutes will be appropriately inclusive of plurals.
Sandie Cornish | 11 March 2009

Sandie, You can refuse to accept the nomination. I have a friend who always does but unfortunately I often am not so strong. Having elected me Secretary by slight of hand, I was then nominated for Chair but lost to a less experienced man.
Margaet McDonald | 11 March 2009


Subscribe for more stories like this.

Free sign-up