When I began my working life I was terrified to speak in meetings. Right after college, in my 20s, I worked in investment banking. Most of my meetings were with men (Wall Street was not too diverse back then) who were much older than me and much more experienced than me. In work meetings, I felt like the kid in class who didn't do his homework and feared the teacher calling on him. I didn't believe I had much to add that wasn't known by everyone. And so, I typically sat silent in meetings, usually sweating.
Over time, though, I came to realize—through my own observation and through colleagues telling me as much—that not speaking in meetings was not an option. I was invited to meetings because my input was desired. And so, I needed to speak up, however scary and painful that was.
At first, when I did speak up, I got even sweatier and my voice cracked. I mumbled. I spoke in circles. But over time, after meeting upon meeting, I grew used to speaking in meetings, and it even became enjoyable. Still, I sometimes got sweaty, my voice cracked, and I spoke in circles. But at least I was speaking up. This was a big change, a big win.
Since then, I've switched industries. I still attend meetings (now with a much more diverse group of people). And over the years, since college, I've been in hundreds and hundreds of work meetings. And here, below, are a few of the things I've learned about speaking in meetings—my current golden rules for speaking up in meetings.
1. Arrive with at least two things to speak about.
Most meetings these days are much more productive than the meetings of yesteryear. Nowadays, people know all too well that meetings can be time suckers, time wasters, and inefficient if the right preparations aren't made. So, today, agendas typically go out well ahead of meetings, giving you plenty of time to prepare things you'd like to speak about. And don't just bring one thing; bring two, three, even four. Write down everything you can think of that might add to the discussion, that might help solve whatever problem the meeting is hoping to solve.
2. Speak at least once in every meeting you attend.
If you don't speak up in a meeting, you weren't there. That's a mantra I’ve adopted over time. I remember sitting silently in many meetings and, afterward, feeling extremely small, like I didn't exist. This is a terrible feeling. As mentioned above, if you were invited to a meeting, your input is wanted. People want to hear from you. So make sure to get across your opinion and thoughts in every meeting, at least once. If you’ve prepared for the meeting, you have a few things to speak about. Also, in the meeting, listen closely to everything being said. As you listen, think creatively. Watch your thoughts arise. If an idea arises, pass it onto the group—aloud! If there's not time or space to do that when your thought arises, write it down and come back to it later. I’m betting most people have great ideas in meetings but are just afraid to say them aloud.
3. Speak as early in the meeting as possible.
In order to fulfill #2 above, try to speak early in the meeting. That way, you won't feel pressured later in the meeting to get something in. In other words, don’t procrastinate. More important, a big benefit of speaking early is that once you speak, it'll be easier to speak again—you'll feel more comfortable speaking a second and third time. When you speak, it can feel like a flood gate being opened. Once opened, the water (conversation and ideas) will likely flow without effort. Try it in your next meeting, and notice it happening to others. I guarantee you it’s a thing.
4. After you speak, let two other people speak before you speak again.
If the flood gates open, great. But be careful. It can cause you to keep speaking and take up too much of the airtime. If you don't typically speak in meetings, you might be thinking, 'No way I'll speak too much.' But believe me, it happens. There’s something about speaking in public, in meetings, that can be extremely pleasing and enjoyable. To have a group of people all listening to you and focusing on you can be scary, but it’s also exhilarating. So, beware. And count: ‘One, two, okay I can speak again.’
5. When you speak, try to reference others' ideas.
A great way to begin speaking is to reference a coworker's or client's good idea, and then build on it. "Sam's idea is great, and I really think we should pursue it. What if we also did X, Y, and Z?" This is an excellent way not only to ease your way into speaking but also to bring the meeting group closer together. Acknowledging others and their ideas is never a bad idea. It feels great when someone acknowledges your idea, so do the same for others, while also building on ideas (that is, don't just say, "Sam's idea is great."). Ideally, someone else will build on your idea, too. And so on. My belief is meetings are at their best when they’re like a jazz improvisation—where people bring their own unique experience, knowledge, background, and preparation, and then are unafraid to take risks, putting all their ideas out there for others to build on.
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