How to Shine At Your Next Work Meeting

What’s your meeting strategy?

Don’t have one? You should!

You REALLY should!

In the working world, every meeting—big or small—offers a chance to put your best foot forward. Knowing how to handle yourself well in a meeting can distinguish you among your peers and it’s a great way to impress your boss! Whether you naturally thrive in groups or not—and recent research suggests many women do not—handling meetings well is a skill, and like any skill, it’s one you can (and should) learn.

Here are a few tips that can help:

Be prepared, maybe over-prepared.  Read the materials ahead of time and have your questions ready. If you are presenting, practice, practice, practice! Presentation skills are one of the most important management skills, and thus crucial if you want to be viewed as having “management potential.” Strive to be clear, concise, persuasive, and memorable. Sometimes being entertaining or fun is appropriate and even helpful, but only if it helps you convey your information; don’t let “entertainment value” become a distraction.

Be respectful of others’ time. Only speak in meetings when you have something of value to add. It’s okay to listen a lot, especially if you show that you are engaged by taking notes or giving other physical cues (eye contact, nodding occasionally, etc.). You don’t want to be known as the person that can’t quit talking in meetings. Don’t tell personal stories unless they are invited or directly pertain to the topic at hand.

Understand your audience.  I think about this one on two levels.  You know the classic actor’s question, “what’s my motivation?” It’s helpful to consider similar questions about the people you are meeting with: what are their “big picture” motivations and needs from this meeting?  What can you do to make their job easier? For example, if you are trying to convince a client to make a strategic change for their business, and you know that their Board has just announced dramatic cost-cutting measures, then you should couch your information in terms of direct cost savings.  Maybe the change will also revolutionize the business’ energy sustainability practices, or open up a new field of potential growth, but what your client needs to see (and likely take back to her superiors!) are costs savings. Don’t ignore the other benefits, but don’t bury the lynch pin either.

The other key part of understanding your audience is to consider things like personality and even gender. My friend Shaunti Feldhahn has done extensive research into how men and women relate in the work place. In her book, The Male Factor (I highly recommend it for all working women!) she explores the “unwritten rules, misperceptions, and secret beliefs of men in the work place.” Shaunti explains that men greatly value respect, and are turned off by arguments they perceive as “emotional.” So, when directing questions to a male presenter, it may be more effective to take a “help me understand” kind of approach.  You might say: “Phil, help me understand what’s behind this pricing model,” rather than, “Phil, why did you use this pricing model?”  Shaunti’s research shows that in group settings, men are more likely than women to perceive “why” questions like that one as attacks, not just on their method, but on their overall competency.

Women, on the other hand, may be more sensitive to relational issues and more likely to respond well when reassured that you approve of her work, generally. Try to compliment what she has done well, before questioning aspects of her work.  So, “Gloria, I like what you’ve done here, but will you explain this pricing model further?”

Presentation matters. Use each meeting as an opportunity to present yourself in your best light. Be on time or a little early. Dress one step nicer than your usual level to show that you aspire to be seen at a higher level. So, if your dress code at work is “business casual,” but you’ll be attending a meeting with a higher executive, be sure to wear a suit.

And ladies, a note about style choices: take care not to let your outfit become a distraction. That body-skimming skirt or low-cut blouse might be beautiful, stylish, and confidence-building, but it can undercut your career if it proves too distracting to the men around you. Shaunti addresses the “visual trap” in The Male Factor, and her research makes it pretty clear that regardless of whether it should be an issue (and most men agree that they wish it weren’t), even the best-intentioned men are hard-wired to notice and be distracted by even remotely-sexual visual cues. It’s tempting for women to dismiss this issue, thinking, “that’s their problem! They need to get their minds out of the gutter!”

But here’s the reality: the time men will spend thinking about needing to focus on what you are saying rather than what you are wearing is time when they essentially cannot hear you. And who wants to be talking to a bunch of people who are too busy trying to keep their minds “out of the gutter” to actually pay attention to what you’re saying? To the extent that you can control this, you should.  I’m not suggesting that you should limit yourself to boxy suits and turtle-necks! Just take care with your clothing choices, knowing that unbuttoning that one more button could make all the difference in the world.