Friday 3 May 2019 10:46 am

An honest guide to meeting props: here's what your clicky pen, leather notebook and water bottle are really trying to say

In the theatre of the commedia dell’arte, the character of Arlecchino can be recognised by two props – his mask and his slapstick. The commedia was built on archetypes, quickly establishing who a character was and how they would behave – and with that recognised, everyone could get on with the story. If someone had a stick, you knew who he was.

Much the same is true of the modern business setting – except wearing masks is usually frowned upon, at least outside of some really niche circles. But the power of props has never been stronger.

A few months ago, I was taking notes at a summit of Very Important People. So notable were they that there were three of us just to transcribe. Looking around the room, I realised that all the VIPs had their own pens. Or rather a pen. Exactly the same ballpoint pen.

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Enormous lozenge-shaped things, like cartoon cigars, with a click of world-ending finality and a distinctive white star on the end.

No stylophile myself, I googled them afterwards, and discovered each was worth north of two hundred quid.

Now, that says something. Spending that much on a fancy biro (no, don’t write in) is clearly a statement. It says: “I am successful enough that I can”. It says: “I work hard enough that I want to spend money on making the smallest bits of that work pleasurable”. It says: “what I write down with this is damn well worth writing down – and probably worth you reading”.

These statements may not all be true, but they’re definitely being made.

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Meeting props are a way of laying down a marker about who you are, and how this meeting is going to go. Watch out for them and you can sometimes tell who you’re dealing with, which can give you a bit of an edge. Here are some to look out for.

Leather-bound document case

I am old-school. I write things down. I have important things in here. No, you can’t read them. They are very secret. No, they are definitely not some bits of paper I grabbed on the way here. That napkin is very important.

Tablet on a special stand

I’m modern. Connectivity. Digital native. Taking notes in real time and uploading them to the cloud so that they’re available to all my synced devices. I stopped taking notes five minutes in. I am on Ebay.

The calculator

Do you know how much this will cost? Geoff does. Geoff knows how much you are worth. Geoff can calculate, to the second, how much we’re spending on this meeting. Geoff can do our revenue projections for the next century. Geoff only buys black socks so that he never has to search for a pair. Geoff is scared of fish.

The clicky pen

This is the stationers’ equivalent of cracking your knuckles. Used strategically, it can be devastating. Use indiscriminately, and everyone in the room is wondering where they can put that pen so you can’t click it again.

Water bottle

I hydrate. My body is my temple. I am healthier than you. Ask me about kale.

Mini hamper, gingham napkin, stuffed partridge, half bottle of chilled Montrachet

The meeting invite said “feel free to bring your lunch”. Also, I’m leaving this job in a week so I no longer care.

Of course, the most powerful prop of all is to turn up with nothing. Which says: “I am the ultimate boss, someone else takes my notes and my calls. I am only here to make the final decision.”

But be careful with this one. It can also say: “I’m on work experience. Was I meant to bring a pen?”

City A.M.'s opinion pages are a place for thought-provoking views and debate. These views are not necessarily shared by City A.M.