September 2009

Etiquette almost sounds like some seventy-year-old advice columnist is substituting for the Great Unknown Editor this month, but that's not the case, there's just no better word to substitute for it unless you want to expand the title to something like "avoiding bad behavior at meetings" which is awkward... but as JC noted, this topic should be taught to engineers early in their career, much the same as the Tacoma bridge disaster.

Don't be so Provincial, Toots!

I first must confirm the theory that 90% of work meetings are a waste of time and donuts, and etiquette doesn't matter. If meetings were so important, how come Michelangelo never was commissioned to create a painting called The Meeting? Or any lesser artist? Why not a rock band named The Meetings? Or a racehorse? Riddle me that, BatManager! Still, if you really want to make "Meetings" your career, consider a subscription to Successful Meetings Magazine, and start planning your next meeting by first investigating where the best golfing deals are, there are plenty of venues starving for your business. Have a meeting while you plan your next meeting, so you can achieve perpetual meetings. Enjoy yourself until one of your lean and mean competitors buys out your company...

What matters most are meetings with important customers, not internal meetings. Bad behavior at an internal review never cost your company money. A customer review is a Rumplestiltskin moment, if you have the privilege of an invitation, you'll witness turning straw into gold, or if not precious metal, hopefully into the long green.

Disclaimer: no one affiliated with this web site is completely "couth", but we are not uncouth when it matters. I've been to enough customer meetings to see a pile of bad behavior, I'll try to point out some things that can go wrong as a checklist for your team to review so your customer doesn't have to suffer, and happily keeps writing fat checks.

You can't judge a book by looking at the cover, except...

This is something that many of us struggle with every day, especially if we have daughters who prefer to pay $80 for a "real" Ed Hardy tee shirt or $500 for a Coach bag, or cringe at the crime of being seen without an iPhone in public. Being young in the age of Hippies and brought up by Depression Era parents, you'd be quite lucky to find me without paint stains on my $12 Dickies work pants on the weekend, and it it just kills me to wear a suit, knowing that dry cleaning fluid is poisoning the planet so that Washington and Wall Street noblemen can play dress up each day. I pretty much shave twice a week, but I am flexible on the day, so long as it is neither Saturday nor Sunday. No need to hate me, just because I'm beautiful! Surely you can find a better reason.

But sometimes your book will be judged by its cover (not in the literal sense, which says something about engineers if you have to explain an analogy), and this is during customer reviews. Your program is the book, and you are the cover. The customer doesn't have time to read the book, or even the Cliff Notes. Feel the pressure?

Bo Diddley and Lady Bo

"I look like a farmer, but I'm a lover!
You can't judge a book by looking at the cover.

Group behavior

This is as opposed to speaker behavior which we will cover below.

Dress code

Have the adult authority on your team establish a dress code for the meeting. It is OK to be over dressed compared to customers, but not the other way around.

This suggestion was submitted:

One point on dress code if you are the presenter: a short sleeve shirt with a tie is the ultimate "I am an Engineer" statement. Long sleeves make you look less goofy. Also, it is best to cover up tattoos, and leave the hardware out of any body piercings (except maybe female ear lobes) for the day. And of course, turn off the ringer on your stupid cell phone, or just turn it off.

Shut your pie hole

Unless you are are the presenter, zip it. If a question is asked and the presenter is not capable of answering it but you are, she/he should know enough to call on you. If you don't like his answer, refrain from saying "what he meant to say was"... if you really need to clarify something to avoid a train wreck, say "excuse me, I have something to add when you are finished".

This leads to the Cardinal Rule of customer meetings... when your customer talks, listen. Never, ever, ever talk over him or her.

A corollary to the Cardinal Rule is: there should never, ever, ever be two conversations going on in the room, even if your customer tries to start a second one.


Try to remember all of your customer's names, and use them (and ask them about pronunciation if you have to). When they send that signature sheet around, use it to draw a map of the people you don't know. What the heck did you think the sign in sheet was for?

Body language

No loud sighing when someone else is talking. Don't scratch yourself. Don't whisper to the guy next to you (see Pie Hole rule above). Turn off your cell phone, and your crackberry. Pretend you are interested in what your coworkers are saying, or leave the room.

In general it has been my observation that the highest paid people in the room have the worst behavior (especially if two comparable VIPs are sitting next to each other), perhaps because no one wants to call out their boss when he is being disruptive. Just forward a link to this page to the entire team before your next meeting, so that he gets the message.


Sure, the other topics are boring compared to yours! But you have to resist the urge to yawn, or make loud sighing noises. This just in thanks to Beverly, don't sit there clicking a ball point pen. Better yet, don't bring a ball point pan with you and you won't have the temptation. And don't stick your pen into your ear and then examine your ear wax!

And no knuckle-cracking, Big Guy...

Any action related to personal hygiene is not a good way to pass meeting time. This came from an engineer in the space business...

In a Monday morning customer design review I watch a guy using his pocketknife to clean under his fingernails. Guess he was working on his car over the weekend. Later on he decides to help himself to a pastry. They are pretty large, so what does he do? He cuts one in half with the same pocketknife.

Not a good move. But again, if your meeting is internal, standards are much lower. Although it's nasty to see someone pulling out ear hairs or picking off a scab and examining any of these items, just don't do this in front of the people who pay the bills and maybe we'll keep you around a while longer if business starts to improve soon.

Beyond boredom, there is sleepdom. Guess what? It really isn't all that obnoxious if you quietly catch a few winks at a meeting, provided you aren't sitting at the "adult table", and you don't snore. It might even generate some sympathy, you must have been up all night preparing for the meeting!

Throat clearing, nose blowing, snot sucking, coughing, burping

Throat-clearing seems to be a regional problem, in the Northeast even in the winter flu season, you won't hear the disgusting noises that pervade a meeting in the southwest where the air was once though to be "healthier". Do you really have to clear your throat loudly every minute? If so, you should see a doctor, maybe you are dying and should consider retirement with the time you have left, please accept our condolences. If not, maybe think about what a random 100 decibel noise does to the rest of the conversation, and cut it out.

If you need to blow your noise, get out of the room, we don't want to hear it. And we really don't want to see your snot-soaked tissue laying on your lunch plate or on the conference table.

Maybe you have some kind of "post nasal drip" thing going on. We don't want to think about it. Please don't make us listen to your excess mucus enter your digestive system.

One loud cough might be OK. More than two, leave the room while you get your act together. If you can't stop coughing, you shouldn't be at work.

Sometimes you need to burp. So you do it quietly, then exhale a sample of your stomach contents for the rest of us to enjoy. Not cool. This tip probably belongs under "Lunch Time", but we'll leave it here: don't order sodas for lunch. Especially Pepsi, not because this company has an especially dark place in my heart, but because it is usually over-carbonated and thus causes more burping than other sodas. Order iced tea (unsweetened with sugar on the side unless your customers are all from Georgia in which case you might want to order food that is easy to chew), lemonade, and water, and you're covered. Since when did soda become an adult beverage anyway? Right around the time obesity started to became an epidemic. Did you ever see Humphrey Bogart or James Bond enter a restaurant and order a 64 ounce Dr. Pepper with free refills? Don't get me started on this topic...

Rest room etiquette

Like many of the points on this page, you'd think that this goes without saying. You will be in a rest room with your customer: wash your hands. I once knew a guy that we often saw coming out of the bathroom stall without washing his hands. All it would take was for him to reach for one donut, and no one would eat another. From then on I never thought it was weird when people opened the mens room door with a paper towel...

Lunch time

You can tell when it's lunch time, when your customers will start looking at the wall clock. Have some mercy, break the carefully planned agenda if you are behind schedule, and serve lunch before 12 noon. You can always make up some time by having someone speak during lunch. Which brings us to the next rule:

Never order bags of chips to accompany lunch. Ten people fiddling with bags of chips generates enough noise to effectively drown out the speaker. A side salad is better, it doesn't make noise, and we could all use a few less calories.

Lunch time is the time to pretend you have manners, and I don't mean fork and spoon placement. Don't be first in line for the food. Don't touch anything unless you are going to eat it. If you are eating, don't talk. Don't lick your fingers, most people think this is disgusting. Use the tongs to get some grapes, don't pick then off one at a time with your greasy fingers.

Here's something I recently witnessed. A big bowl of ice was brought in for everyone to use to chill thier bottled drinks. One "gentleman" was using his fingers to pick up pieces of ice to use as a snack during the presentations, prior to lunch. Everyone that watched him opted for no ice.

Find out if any of your customers are vegetarians before you order Kobe beef in order to impress them. Provide them with a salad if that's their preference, and don't make a big deal out of it.

Time for small talk. Some subjects to avoid talking about: anything to do with yourself. Ask your customer questions, get him/her to talk and you will learn plenty. Don't start any conversation with an opinion, like "aren't global warming scientists stupid?" In addition to religion and politics, here's a few other forbidden topics with customers... combovers versus hairpieces, obesity, marital status. Stick with the weather, boring but you can't go wrong.

Speaker behavior

Dry run is the key to success

Dry run solves many problems. If you are a nervous speaker, it's great practice. If you have some issues with the material, you need to get it aired before the meeting, not during it....

Humble is lovable

Hey, the rest of us all know that sunshine comes out of you when your pants are down, but this gets old quickly with customers. If you are so good at your job and it is so simple, why are they paying us?

Never, ever say that "you have the A-team working on this project" (or similar boasts). Bragging isn't engineering, it's horse crap. What does the customer think about the previous people (or current people on other jobs from your organization), that they are getting the losers? What will they think about the "A-team" when you are asking for spec relief in six months?

Try to speak gud

We can't expect you to lose your silly regional accent just for the meeting, but try not to murder the American language. Don't use non-words like heighth, irregardless, acrosst, componentry, etc. Don't say I'mona do this or I'mma do that. Don't use verbal crutches to fill blank air, like, in fact, you know. Here's a new one to avoid in 2009... All's I'm sayin.

Although jokes don't always create laughter at a meeting, don't be 100% humorless. It is a fine line of course. Here's a bad humor example, and a good example.

Bad example:

We must have been doing bong hits when we signed up for this spec...

Good example:

We have the conference room for the rest of the afternoon, perhaps a game of beer pong is in order...

When your customer asks you a question that requires only a yes or no answer, try not to expound on your answer, a simple "yes, sir" or no, ma'am" will do. "Nyeah" is never a good answer.

If your voice is normally soft, make an effort to speak loud and clearly.


Don't read them! Yes we understand that each bullet you created contains a valid, pithy point, but it kills the meeting to have someone read their own charts. Try not to even look at them (you should be looking at your customers), just speak to the topic and use the charts if you forget where you were going.

Speaking of charts, quality always trumps quantity. If you have 100 charts for one hour, your customer is going to be pissed. Spend the time to condense the data. How about this... stay late if you have to, to get it done!

In the 1970s and 1980s, viewgraphs were almost universally all capital letters, because engineers were too lazy to use the shift key on a typewriter. In the 1990s, with PowerPoint, viewgraphs got more sophisticated, and people started using Title Case. It Get's Really Annoying To Read A Bullet Point When Every Word Is Capitalized. So consider using sentence case, even in the titles and picture captions.

Try to avoid using font colors other than black, your presentation really isn't some grade schooler's art project. Some people are colorblind, isn't this good enough reason?

On the subject of bullet points, how about if you use a verb in each one? Then if someone picked up your presentation later he might be able to get something out of it.

If a chart prompts you to say, "I know this is an eye chart, but..." please just delete it.

If you have any videos you want to launch, get to the meeting early and see how they work on the computer that your presentation will be hosted on. Call me an optimist, but there's less than a 50% chance that the video will run flawlessly from one Microsoft computer to another... the MicroShaft glass hasn't been half full in over a decade.

Don't throw blame

Risks and challenges need to be shared. Don't put caveats on your plans, like, "all bets are off if Ng's circuit doesn't work". Don't throw anyone under the bus, paybacks are a bitch. You're not indispensable.

Don't try to tell a customer that his entire program was derailed because some lunch-bucket lab worker who ordinarily works miracles did something unusual that caused a massive failure, for example, used a screw that was too long that did some damage on the opposite side of a double-sided assembly. Take some credit for this type of accomplishment or your customer might think you are an ass; maybe his cousin wears a lab coat and he doesn't exactly relate to your position on the problem. Perhaps you didn't have an ISO9000-compliant procedure in place for your workers to follow step by step?

Laser pointers

Maybe it does say "eye safe", but some people get nervous when a speaker randomly aims a laser around the room. Be careful with the pointer.

Bring two pointers to a meeting, they have a habit of crapping out when you need them.

Other weird behaviors to avoid

I once saw a program manager that used a long pointer, back in the day before lasers. When he wasn't making a point, he would hold it between his legs, and lift it up and down. It looked like a cross between a witch riding a broomstick, and something you don't want to think about. Just stand there, don't play with any of the props.

Don't jingle coins in your pocket. Playing with $2 worth of coins might make you feel like a man of wealth and taste, but anything that creates noise is distracting, and distractions create tension, and tension is bad. Perhaps a better rule might be, keep your hands out of your pockets (see paragraph above).

This came in from Liam:

Never unpack your overnight bag at the meeting table to retrieve some important piece of information. Nobody wants to see your used underwear. Shouldn't really need saying but it's happened.

Got any other samples of bad behavior? Send them in and we'll append them to this page!

Check out the Unknown Editor's amazing archives when you are looking for a way to screw off for a couple of hours or more!