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Let's have a meeting

It was Gene Siskel who introduced me to the concept of Lip Flap. By this he meant the practice of speaking without saying anything of use. Its primary purpose, he explained, was to allow people to sneak up on the moment when they would sooner or later have to actually engage their minds. Siskel was an impatient man. In that and other ways we were allies.

One of the things he hated most was a phone call from a stranger who acted under the impression he had been requested for his autobiography.

"Hello, Mr. Siskel? You don't know me, although I've been reading you for years..."

Gene would interrupt: "And your purpose of your call is...?"

"...and I attended your speech a few years ago at the College of DuPage..."

"How can I help you?"

"I've always been a big fan of the movies, and I never miss your reviews. The reason I am calling is, that my wife and I are..."

Gene would make a flapping motion with his hand, his signal for Lip Flap in action.

Another thing that drove him crazy was a phone message saying, "Call me."

"Leave the message!" Gene would say, sternly regarding the telephone. If he would call back, he would often learn something like, "Today's screening has been moved back to 4 p.m." He would recite, "Nobody should have to return a call to find out something that could have been included in the message."

Especially after the introduction of personal cell phones, it drove Gene nuts that every conversation would open with the fact of the call itself.

"Hi, Gene? I'm calling on my cell phone. We may be cut off, because I'm in a taxi on Lower Wacker..."

If the call was indeed interrupted, the next one would open, "We must have been cut off. I was using my cell phone from a taxi on Lower Wacker..."

The equivalent of this in person would take place at social gatherings.

"How did you get here?"

The reply was expected to be, "We took the Outer Drive and got off at Michigan."

Then: "How was the traffic?"

I'd love to listen to Gene in action. Asked how he got there, he would reply: "How did you get here?" His own answer would then become, "We took an alternate route." This would be the same even if he had just been told "We took the red-eye from Honolulu."

Gene majored in philosophy at Yale. His theory was that much Lip Flap was generated by the desire to express a sublingual message such as, "We are both here and I will join you in performing social niceties." I returned from the Conference on World Affairs in Boulder one year and told Gene I had met Buckminster Fuller. "When I said 'hello' to him," I said, "he replied, 'I see you.' "

"A great man," said Gene.

I have recently attended several business meetings. Handicapped by the inability to speak, I've become acutely aware of what other people are saying. A surprising percentage of it is Lip Flap. After we've established how everyone got there and what the traffic was like, we may learn such things as "I ran into someone the other day who said they knew you." Or "They say this heat will last until the end of the month."

What I've learned to fear above all at business meetings is the average Power Point presentation. Some of these can be brilliant, for example as used in a TED talk. More often, they look like a sentence-by-sentence slide show of a Speech Outline as prepared for Freshman Rhetoric class. The person who has prepared the Power Point will invariably read it aloud to us, as if we are illiterate. We can follow along on the print-outs they will have passed out, often presented in some kind of plastic binding from Office Depot. I offend people by declining my copy. I suspect that any set of ideas that can be reduced to a Power Point can be expressed by a competent speaker in two or three pithy sentences.

Gene majored in philosophy, but I believe his insights into Lip Flap came from his years in journalism. Any skilled journalist divides incoming information into "Quotable and Relevant" and "Lip Flap." One reason for the void separating politicians and journalists is that politicians use Lip Flap in the nature of their work, and journalists dismiss it as "sound bites."

During the presidential primary debates, there was a candidate whose ideas I mostly disagreed with, but whenever he spoke, I immediately perked up. This was Ron Paul, a direct, clear speaker who expressed his ideas bluntly and with force. "Good gravy!" I'd think. "Ron Paul is actually saying things!"

But back to business meetings. I've recently watched the entire first season of "Mad Men," and one of the things I admired was the brevity of its business meetings. Don Draper had an admirable ability to cut to the chase. He would sometimes order clients out of his office on the grounds that he was right, they were wrong, and they were idiots. This may not be an ideal way to treat clients, but the wise client doesn't waste time with anyone who isn't prepared to behave like that. It's one of the reasons Conrad Hilton liked Draper.

Some months ago Chaz and I found ourselves in contact with a media mogul. He wrote his own emails, usually limited to a sentence or two. He would not deal with agents or lawyers. He knew what he needed, and what he was prepared to do to get it. This man has been very successful, and I suspect his tactics have been a great help. If "your people" and "our people" get together, their priority can become achieving a harmony of Lip Flap.

Gene often told me he was accepted to the Yale Law School, and came close to becoming a lawyer. Instead, after graduating he told his father he thought he might like to try journalism. He would apply for a job.

"My dad drove me to the Loop and dropped me in front of Tribune Tower," he'd recall. "Our family always read the Daily News and the Sun-Times, but we took the Outer Drive and got off at Michigan."

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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