Kathy came in late (again) to the weekly staff meeting. She slumped in her chair, periodically thumbing through her phone as the group worked through the usual updates. She almost didn’t notice when her boss asked her a question. She hadn’t reviewed the agenda ahead of time and didn’t realize that they would be discussing one of her projects. She wasn’t prepared to answer the question, but rather than admit her mistake, she gave a long rambling overview of the whole project and all of the work she had done so far. When the meeting finally wrapped up (behind schedule), Kathy hurried back to her desk, eager to start in on her “real work” for the day. Kathy likes her job, and she is good at it too, but promotions have come slowly, and she’s noticed that she rarely gets picked for the big impact projects or client presentation teams. Kathy is confused about her situation, but I’m not. Kathy’s approach (or non-approach) to internal meetings is crippling her ability to move forward in her career.
I’ve known many “Kathys” in my day: workers who are otherwise talented, but who consistently underperform in meetings, usually because the meetings don’t feel important or relevant to them. The Kathy’s of the world don’t realize they are wasting a prime opportunity to shape their professional image. Or more accurately, they are shaping it, just not in a positive way.
Every meeting (even that boring, internal, “useless-feeling” one) is an opportunity to present yourself in your best light. Very often, in fact, those mundane internal meetings serve as testing grounds for bigger and better things. Don’t waste a chance to make a great impression.
Here are some of the most common mistakes I see in meetings, and how to avoid them.
1. Talking too much. People generally talk too much in meetings, that’s a big part of why meetings notoriously eat up time. They talk too much because holding the floor makes them feel powerful, or because it feels productive, or—worst of all—to try to cover up the fact that they don’t have anything to say.
Talking too much prevents you from listening effectively. It’s disrespectful of other people’s time and efforts. And it undermines the impact of whatever you’re trying to say. If you take time to listen thoughtfully and you speak only when you have something of real value to add, people will be more receptive to your input.
The person who really drew my attention to the importance of listening and not talking until you have an important comment to make is my mentor, Frances Hesselbein. She actually loves to sum up her approach by quoting Peter Drucker on the matter, “Think first, speak last.” This is perfect, succinct advice for handling yourself in meetings. Make sure you are doing more thinking and listening than you are talking.
2. Coming unprepared. It’s incredibly impressive, as a manager, when an employee has read the agenda, thought through the topics presented, and completed analysis to help evaluate options. And it’s just as incredibly disappointing, not to mention disrespectful, when a member of your team shows up uninformed and unprepared. That one person brings the whole meeting down. People don’t forget that kind of behavior, especially if it’s habitual.
Preparation doesn’t necessarily require a huge investment of time or effort to make a difference. You need to have read thoughtfully through the agenda, flagging any areas that pertain directly to your work or where you have questions or ideas. Perform any relevant research or analysis related to those areas, and be ready to present your points concisely. Depending on the meeting, proper preparation may take as little as ten minutes, but the impact of those minutes is huge.
When preparing to give a presentation (internal or external), invest some time to make sure you understand your audience. What are their “big picture” motivations and needs as they relate to the meeting? What can you do to serve those specific needs or interests? This is especially crucial information when you’re going to be asking someone for something. I’ve learned a lot about this over the past few years as I’ve been working to raise interest, support, and funding for 4word. I have learned that successful meetings in this arena are really all about understanding the other person’s passions and interests. I’ve also learned that even if someone passes on your proposal today, there are probably ways you can help them that will build trust and make them more approachable later.
3. Bringing your bad day. We’ve all been in meetings with someone who clearly doesn’t want to be there. Maybe this person is having a bad day, or maybe he or she just has a bad attitude, but either way, the displeasure is telecast to everyone in the room. The truth is, we all have bad days from time to time, often due to things beyond our control. We don’t always get to make choices about what happens in our day, but we do get to choose what attitude we bring. Not everyone in the meeting needs to know what you’ve gone through today, because they have their own days to contend with. Instead, choose to set aside whatever else is going on, and be there for the rest of your team.
4. Failing to sit “at the table.” If you are taking time out of your day to be in a meeting, come as a confident participant. Many women tend to struggle with feeling confident in meetings, but a show of confidence is necessary if you want to be taken seriously. In Sheryl Sandberg’s book, Lean In, she recommends a “fake it until you make it” approach, encouraging women to act confident, even if they don’t necessarily feel that way.
Understanding the impact of your nonverbal cues can help you to send the right messages. Research studies at UCLA suggest that in some situations, up to 93% of what you communicate to others comes from physical and vocal cues like your posture, energy, and tone, rather than from the actual words you use. Be aware of the physical messages you may be sending. Do you choose a seat at the perimeter or the back of the room (rather than at the table or in front)? Are you slumping down in your chair or just not paying attention? These kinds of choices broadcast to the rest of the room either that you don’t consider yourself important enough to participate meaningfully in the meeting, or that you don’t consider the meeting important enough to warrant your effort. Neither message is one you want to be sending.
Instead, pull yourself up to the table (physically and mentally), lean forward in your chair, make eye contact, and engage with what is being said in order to send the message “I am a participant here.”
Every meeting is an opportunity to build relationships and show your boss and coworkers that you care about your career, company, and about the rest of the team. It’s a chance to demonstrate key analytical skills and also softer “people skills” too—like diplomacy and collaboration. In short, meetings are a chance to shine. Don’t miss out!