As the annual United Nations General Assembly starts, the marquee meeting will look quite different. Gone will be the resplendent assembly hall and simultaneous-translation headsets so familiar to UN watchers. Instead, it will be a series of speeches from the executive offices and sitting rooms of presidents and potentates.
If one previously watched the General Assembly broadcast from a 1900-seat auditorium in New York City, the reality is that one is still watching the same world leaders, but from another place. In lieu of Xi Jinping and Emmanuel Macron both speaking from within the iconic UN complex, you will see them giving speeches remote from Beijing or Paris. It’s the UN on Zoom, so to speak. Of course, for viewers at home, it’s still mostly the same experience.
But, importantly, for would-be attendees, it’s very different. There is, after all, the meeting and then there is the meeting around the meeting. As anyone who has been to a board meeting or conference—or even a Monday morning staff meeting—can attest, what actually transpires during the scheduled time in the room is only part of what happens when people convene. Sometimes this is by design, such as including an informal team lunch or a networking reception; other times, such meetups may be ascribed to happy accidents in the corridors or at the coffee stations.
There are rarely notes taken for any of these moments and they usually don’t even hit people’s radar as a meeting. It’s just an interaction that happened while walking into a session; it’s the whispered conversation between two seatmates during a presentation; or it’s a casual chat over drinks after the advertised meeting concludes. But these moments really matter. And without them, there’s a good chance that the larger meeting—and the organization as a whole—isn’t as effective.
Invisible Meeting Element
These more personal meetings are like the invisible oil that keeps the machinery running. They may be places where backchannel contacts are made. They may be where one learns the real rationale behind what’s being said in the main room. And they are inevitably a place where attendees can connect and build trust in a way that’s hard to do when it’s simply one person speaking to a room of a dozen or a thousand—or a television audience of millions. Whether it’s the UN or your national sales meeting, business gets done when people feel like they know and trust those with whom they’re working. In the end, these unseen and often unscheduled meetups are where much of the real business of meetings, big or small, gets done.
As someone running a meeting or conference, it can be easy to fall into the trap of thinking that what’s happening on stage or at the table is the only thing that matters. Like the UN, one could make a similar argument for the online incarnations of the Democratic National Convention and Republican National Convention. Yes, these events are seemingly about what’s said at the podium; that’s what makes the evening news. However, part of the real power and reason for having them is the hallway moments and the personal connections that drive an organization. Whether Florida or Pennsylvania are won or lost in the election may very well depend on casual conversations that never happened between delegates this year.
The value of these invisible meetings still applies if you’re organizing a gathering that’s less consequential than the General Assembly or a national political party. Even in more mundane settings, it’s important to think of meetings as events—if not always in physical spaces—where people can actually meet and engage rather than only being presentations where participants are simply passive observers.