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Your meeting or workshop begins with a set of norms? Be afraid.

It’s become quite popular for meeting facilitators, presenters, professional development administrators, and the like to begin their meetings, workshops, and sessions with these two elements:

  1. Norms
  2. Goals

Neither one of these elements inspire me with confidence.

I’ll address the establishment of goals tomorrow, but today, allow me to deal with the insidious rise of norms, which are by far the worst of the two.

Norms (sometimes referred to as ground rules) are strange. To begin your presentation with behavioral guidelines might just be the stupidest way to engage your audience and get them excited about your content. In fact, I would argue that establishing norms at the onset of a meeting is an excellent way to undermine the norms of your meeting, for obvious reasons:

Launching your meeting with the assumption that grown-ass adults don’t know how to behave is an excellent way to make your audience hate you, and it’s the worst way to gain your audience’s respect, trust, and attention.

You’re almost begging your audience to despise you and ignore you.

As I see it, there are only two possible reasons for establishing norms at the onset of a meeting:

1. The meeting is filled with terrible human beings who don’t know how to behave in a professional setting, so the person who is leading this meeting thinks that providing these savages with rules of conduct will somehow improve their behavior.

This, of course, makes know sense.

If the audiences is filled with savages, they are savages for a reason. They don’t adhere to rules and expectations. Proffering a set of norms will not make them any less savage. I know this for certain because I am the kind of person who rejects nonsense rules all the time.

Some might even consider me a savage.

Lists of rules work really well for rule followers, but rule followers will not be the problem during a presentation. They already know the norms. They even like the norms. They feel safe in a space governed by decorum.

It’s the savages who can’t follow the rules, but your norms will not suddenly transform them into rule followers. Savages are not made civil by a PowerPoint slide explaining the expectations of the day.

PowerPoint has never made anyone do anything.

But here’s some good news. More than likely, the audience is not filled with terrible people. This almost never happens. Rather, the need for norms probably has less to do with the people in the room and more to do with the person offering the norms.

In this case, the implications are clear:

2. The person leading this meeting or workshop already knows that their presentation sucks. Or they know – probably through experience – that they are incapable of engaging an audience. Or perhaps they lack the confidence or skill to address issues that might arise during their presentation.

Probably some awful combination of all three.

In this case, the establishment of norms represents some desperate attempt by the presenter to impose a set of expectations on the audience in a ridiculous attempt to compensate for their inability to do the job.

“If everyone sits quietly, stays off their devices, and participates when appropriate, maybe no one will notice how much I suck at delivering content. Or how pointless and uninspiring this content is. Or how terrified I am to be standing here today.”

Again, probably some awful combination of all three.

But norms do not inspire people. The establishment of norms does not fill audiences with confidence. I have seen many great speakers in my time. I have attended some truly inspiring workshops. I’ve even attended some engaging, informative, and even entertaining meetings.

None of these great speakers, outstanding presenters, or engaging orators needed to establish norms at the onset of their presentation in order to be effective.

Not a single one.

Probably because these purveyors of content and inspiration know that telling grown-ass people how to behave is a prickish, asinine, and counter-productive.

It’s also possible that the use of norms have become an institutional expectation. A directive from some stupid person at the top. But even then, the establishment of norms is still stupid because the most effective and engaging speakers would forgo this dumbass directive, make light of it, use the requirement of norms as comic relief, or at least skirt by the stupidity as quickly as possible.

I know I I would. Most confident, effective, inspiring speakers would.

The message here is clear:

When you are faced with norms at the onset of a meeting or workshop of any kind, be afraid. Be very afraid. Something has gone terrible wrong. You are either sitting among heathens who can’t behave properly in a professional setting, or more likely, you are about to receive useless, uninspiring content from an ineffective, under-confident, uninspiring speaker.

If you’re like me, this is your signal to fine some way to be productive while the world around you grinds to a halt.

A terrible or pointless presentation is no excuse for not getting something done.