You’ve probably heard the same advice as I have about participating in meetings — speak up at least once during every meeting. Otherwise, people will wonder why you’re even there — are you engaged in the discussion? Do you even understand what’s going on? Are you nursing a hangover again? What’s the deal?
Now, some of you have absolutely no problem speaking up at meetings. In fact, maybe you’re a little too “good” at it. This post isn’t for you. For those of you who don’t realize you babble on too much in meetings, there will be a different post dedicated to the likes of you, entitled: “When Everyone in the Room Has Ceased Making Eye Contact with You, It’s Time to Shut Up.”
Others of you are shy about speaking up in larger groups, especially in front of a lot of senior people. You feel pressured to come up with something brilliant, and often end up not saying anything at all because you don’t think your ideas are worthy of public utterance. Or sometimes, you really can’t seem to think of anything to contribute….
In-house attorneys have a lot of meetings. When I worked at a law firm, I had maybe a couple of meetings a day. I now average about three to four hours of scheduled meetings per day, many of which run long or are double-booked. Add in prep time and post-meeting wrap-ups, and you start to wonder when you’ll have time for the stuff you’re really dying to do, like revise contractual boilerplate.
One thing that can help is to prep well for the meeting (assuming you have time to prep, which is often a big assumption). During this big assumed prep time, review any materials or emails you may have, and try to come up with specific questions to ask during the meeting. If you’re concerned that they may be dumb questions, run them by someone on the team to get their thoughts. They may offer ideas to modify the questions, or even better, come up with additional questions or suggestions. You may find yourself in the ideal situation of exploiting others’ ideas to come across as smart when you’re really just mediocre! It works for your kid’s science project; why not in the workplace?
Also, focus less on trying to impress people during the meeting, and more on trying to understand what’s being discussed. Try to tie in the information to the bigger picture. Don’t worry so much about whether your ideas or questions are dumb. Here’s a secret — generally, people won’t remember your dumb questions! Other people care a lot less about you than you think; instead, they’re obsessing over themselves and how they may sound dumb (or how they seem to have lost eye contact with everyone in the room). Ultimately, people leave the meeting thinking less about the stupid statements made by others and more about how annoyed they are that they were unable to unload their action items onto someone else.
Schedule times to speak up. Try asking the meeting organizer beforehand to give you a few minutes during the meeting to discuss something specific. Of course, it should be relevant to the meeting. For example, the “manifold purposes of whereas clauses” isn’t an appropriate discussion topic for a meeting about complying with the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act. Actually, it’s not an appropriate topic for any meeting.
Finally, when you do speak up, be sure to do so loudly and clearly. A lot of people have a “meeting” voice — you know, the one where they’re actually using their diaphragm and their voice kind of booms a bit like they’re a game show host announcing the next fabulous prize? That’s right — use the Bob Barker voice to share your ideas. Yes, you have ideas. Maybe not good ones, but they’re ideas, darnit! And there’s a chance that they’re the best ones in the room. Especially if no one else has shown up yet.
By the way, you don’t really need to speak up at every single meeting. Sometimes you’re asked to attend mainly for FYI purposes. But it never hurts to practice getting more comfortable with making yourself heard (remember, use The Voice). Do you have any tips for what has helped you speak up in meetings? Email me at [email protected] or comment below.
Susan Moon is an in-house attorney at a travel and hospitality company. Her opinions are her own and not those of her company. Also, the experiences Susan shares may include others’ experiences (many in-house friends insist on offering ideas for the blog). You can reach her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @SusanMoon.