A pair of MIT researchers think they’ve cracked the code behind office meetings, where a good idea can succeed or fail based not on the merits of the idea itself, but how you present it.

In their new paper, “Learning About Meetings,” Been Kim and Cynthia Rudin note that U.S. managers often spend up to three-quarters of their time in meetings, and that roughly 11 million meetings happen across a typical workday.

However, there’s been very little data-driven research into what makes a meeting efficient or successful, they argue—until now.

After studying nearly 100 meetings for clues on the role of language and timing, here’s what the two researchers found.

Three of the most persuasive words: ‘Yeah,’ ‘Give,’ and ‘Start’

Kim and Rudin discovered that several words corresponded to whether an attendee’s proposed idea was ultimately accepted.

  • Yeah: The researchers said they were initially surprised that saying “yeah” was so persuasive, but they hypothesized that “framing a suggestion as an agreement with a previous suggestion increases its chances of being accepted.”So whether attendees used “yeah” to agree with a colleague, or just convey the appearance of agreement while introducing their own ideas, it tended to move the meeting forward and raise the possibility of the newer idea being successfully received, too.

(And perhaps in a subtle example of their own lesson in action, Kim and Rudin acknowledge that the power of being agreeable isn’t a new concept; Dale Carnegie made a similar, if anecdotal argument in his 1936 book, “How to Win Friends and Influence People.”)

  • Give: The researchers found that “give” came up in several contexts, such as “giving” something to a product or to customers. But it also served as recognition of what attendees already knew heading into the meeting; for example, beginning a sentence with a phrase like “given these parameters…”could provide common ground when framing an idea.
  • Start: This word allowed for basic, quick agreements, Kim and Rudin hypothesized. For example, kicking off a meeting with a question like “Shouldn’t we start with the most important parts?” can allow attendees to signal their willingness to be productive and help rapidly build alliances.

Time to reach decisions can predict whether a meeting will drag on

“Meetings sometimes last longer than expected,” the researchers dryly note. “We would like to know whether it is possible to predict when the meeting is going to be over if we know when the decisions are made.”

Based on their study, Kim and Rudin generally found that efficient meetings (defined as meetings where decisions were made within 14 minutes) also were more efficient at wrapping up. In addition, they determined that relatively long-lasting meetings—where it took attendees more than 30 minutes to make their decisions—were similarly quick to conclude.

 

But many meetings appear to be filled out with lots of additional wrap-up time. In a typical scenario tracked by the researchers, attendees needed 20 minutes to make all their decisions, but the meeting still didn’t end for another 15 minutes.

Punting a topic to the next meeting almost always works

The word “meeting” is actually a persuasive word, too—but when offering a recommendation “about what not to discuss,” according to Rudin.

Rather, “suggesting that a topic belong to a later meeting may be a way to gently change the topic or move the current meeting along,” the researchers conclude, and attendees nearly always went along with it.

 

This article was written by Dan Diamond from Forbes and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.