The suits and power skirts sitting around the conference table may just as well have been on lunch break. One guy kept stepping away to answer an inconsolable cell phone. A couple of others were frozen in prayerlike formation, heads bowed toward hands clasped around their PDAs. One guy was more interested in his newspaper than the details of the multibillion-dollar heavy-industries merger they were supposed to be hammering out inside a marquee Wall Street investment bank this winter. "You know the meeting's going very badly when the people you're presenting to are looking at their BlackBerrys," says one participant. "It's fundamentally rude, but that's the world we live in."
The business meeting has seen better days. Whether at regular board gatherings or pitches to clients or staff get-togethers, the suit-and-tie set is about as focused as a roomful of toddlers. The quality and number of business meetings appear on the wane, say both participants and consult-ants. The suspects are usual and unusual: new technology--attention-sucking wireless gadgets that keep everybody connected to something other than what's happening in front of them--and that old feeling that precious time is evaporating. "At meetings and lunches, people are returning e-mails the whole time?" muses Matt Jacobson, vice president of marketing at Quicksilver Entertainment. "People have this false sense of urgency and it's getting in the way." Tolerance of in-person sessions is waning, in the face of digital alternatives. People are burning out on PowerPoint presentations that could have been just as easily e-mailed. Even gatherings of a lot of people in different locations are accommodated now by "Web seminars," so all can stay at their desks and avoid airport hassles.
By far the biggest enabler of bad behavior is the BlackBerry and its handheld cousins. The furious thumb-tapping is coming from more than the peripheral niche players at the table. "If somebody's boring me," says Colin Smith, public-relations manager with the Antenna Group of San Francisco, "I'm going to pull out my BlackBerry and use my time wisely." PDAs also provide a defense, says William Bottom, professor of organizational behavior at Washington University in St. Louis. "People are using BlackBerrys as a crutch to avoid conflicts that they should be having face to face." And there's the sheer sport of digital gossip. In real time, participants e-mail and text-message commentary about a colleague's remarks. Beware the boss next to you who professes to "just be checking in with my e-mail."
Corporate America seems to be heeding calls for etiquette reform. "We're on the verge of losing the most important element of the business meeting--the personal relationship," says Gail Calhoun, a communications consultant for Wells Fargo and General Mills. She says more companies are starting meetings with the movie-theater command: turn off all gadgets. Would-be violators are told to stand up and leave the room if they really need to send an e-mail. McGough Construction, a Midwestern contractor, pushes the leave-the-room rule a step further. Offenders get charged a dollar per ring and two dollars for "BUOB" (blatant use of BlackBerry). The money is used to buy refreshments.
As innovation has created the distractibility problem, so, too, has innovation tried to respond. For a while, PowerPoint presentations, with its clipped advertising language, appeared to be the cure for attention-deficit disorder. No longer. "People are so sick and tired of PowerPoint," says Richard Greene, a communications consultant whose clients include Goldman Sachs. "It's the fastest way to lose your audience." Now Web seminars--also called Webinars and Web meetings--are proliferating in offices across the country. From the Department of Defense to Johnson & Johnson, Webinar participants access one Web page, dial in on a conference call and watch a demonstration of a product or a rollout of a strategy. WebEx, the industry innovator, is doing 30,000 Web meetings a day, rocketing its revenues 179 percent in five years.
The pressure to give good meeting is pushing the imagination. Peter Shankman, head of Geek Factory public relations in Manhattan, coaxes clients like audible.com to go for a jog (and abandon their PDAs); or during meetings he plies them with ridiculous quantities of Twizzlers, Red Bull and pizza. "Forcing sugar into their otherwise diet-conscious systems guarantees a massive attack of hyperactivity," he says, "and great ideas." Caffeine helps, too. The Minneapolis-based Caribou Coffee chain has begun adding corporate meeting rooms to its shops' mountain-cabin environs. "People are excited to have a meeting at our place," says Caribou CEO Michael Coles. "It's a break, it's different." Whatever it takes to bring people back to the table.