Have a production meeting for one

In The Blank Screen book, I argue that there are two types of meeting. I think I was wrong: I think there is or at least there could be a third type and that it is useful. To be clear, the two types were:

  • Pitch meetings where it’s all about you and your work
  • Day job meetings where it’s all about the day job

The first type is the one you want as a writer or any creative person. They are important you work to get as many of those as you can and to make each of them count. The second type is ditchwater-dull sort you are forced to have in your day job and I spend a lot of time in the book covering how you can get out of them and, since you usually can’t, what exactly you can do to make them faster and make them work and keep yourself awake.

You have to meet. But you don’t always have to meet and when you have ten people in a room doing bugger-all and getting nowhere slow, that is a gigantic waste of ten people’s time. I reckon the poster-boy worst example of this kind of thing is what I would often see at the BBC: everybody would gather for a meeting whose sole and entire purpose was for whoever ran it to tell his or her bosses that they had run this meeting.

All of this stands, all of this is true, but I forgot another type of BBC gathering: the production meeting. Sometimes called an editorial meeting. Believe it or not, I still think of them as the budget meeting – there is not one single element of them that is to do with money but that’s what these were called in Lou Grant, the show that made me a writer. (Budget Meeting was the US newspaper term for an editorial meeting and I imagine it comes from how you have a certain amount of space in a newspaper and you are budgeting this much room for that story, that much for this. Certainly these Lou Grant meetings regularly included background detail such as questions about giving this much space on the front page and continuing a story inside.)

These meetings are not about your writing work but they can be. And they are so useful that I’m embarrassed I didn’t mention them. Especially as I think you can use them yourself, you can conjure up a kind of production meeting for yourself.

Production meetings have certain things that are always the same. They are regular, for one thing. Newsrooms and news programmes tend to have them at least daily, almost invariably first thing. They are always focused on the same thing: BBC’s The One Show doubtlessly has a production meeting focused on that day’s edition. Anything that doesn’t belong or can’t go in today’s edition, doesn’t get discussed. Or probably not, anyway.

Then you have specific resources: this many people who can do this much in that time. Anything they can’t do, you don’t do – or you look for outside help, you schedule it all in some way that it becomes manageable over time.

Next, every person in the meeting brings ideas. That sounds so wishy-washy but production meeting ideas are not one-line blue-sky wouldn’t-it-be-nice-to-feature-daffodils-somehow things. They are one-line ideas that have every detail behind them that it would take to get that idea on the screen or on the page. You throw in your idea, if it isn’t liked or you can’t adapt it to one that is, it’s out. If it is or you can, you contribute exactly how it can be done. Or more likely, you just go off and do it.

Take a look at the BBC’s own requirements for ideas that get pitched at news production meetings. When ideas die, it’s a lot of wasted work. But when they fly, you’re ready to go. And the process works not just because the better ideas rise to the top in these meetings but because working at them this way gets you thinking of better ideas to pitch.

Last, production meetings almost always include some kind of diary discussion. Very broadly, there are two types of ideas discussed at a production meeting: diary items and non-diary items. There is always someone whose job it is to maintain the diary: not of where you and your colleagues are but of what is happening. I’ve worked in entertainment news so a diary I’d know would have things like press previews for this film today, that celebrity is in town Friday, this book is coming out next Thursday.

The BBC maintains the most exhaustive diary of everything that any news programme could want to know but your team knows what to take from that and your team also runs their own. Then non-diary items are everything else. If Coronation Street got cancelled, that would be news and it would never be a diary item: there’s no circumstance in which ITV would let journalists know that it will be cancelling Corrie in three weeks’ time. They could try, but you suspect the story would be written about instantaneously, don’t you?

It happens that this week I have a meeting about one event, I actually have an event, and there are some discussions about at least one other confirmed and one other possible gig for later in the year. My mind’s been going through what I need to bring to the meeting, what I need other people to agree to. And I’ve realised that my mind has been going through exactly what it used to with production meetings.

I miss them. I’ll be honest with you, I miss the rigour of having to come up with ideas, pitch them to a group and then either get them or be assigned some other idea to do my best with.

And it occurs to me that I could, perhaps I should, and probably I shall run some little production meetings of my own. Just for me. God, that sounds lonely and pathetic. But I think it might be useful.

I have diary and non-diary items to get done, for instance. This week should be devoted to the events but actually it can’t be, I have to do other things too so I have issues of resources and time.

I also have the shape of the week. When you work in radio or television you are conscious of time in a slightly different way: you think about the top of the hour, you think about your third-hour guest. You know you have to have a news bulletin at this point, you know you should start the show with a bang and that it would be good to finish with one too. I have the week where I know when my events are so I know what has to come before those, I know what I will have to postpone until afterwards.

And I know all this because my noggin’ just worked it all out while I was talking to you. So thank you for that – and I hope you find production meetings useful for your work too.

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