Ugh, meetings. They’re the bane of your existence. People drone on and on and you don’t know whether you should put your head on your desk and go to sleep or refresh Facebook for the millionth time.
They don’t have to be like that.
Done right, meetings can actually be the most productive part of your day. It’s where you build face-to-face connections that can make or break your projects. It’s where you brainstorm the next great idea for the company or work through the issues keeping you from greatness.
Most of all, it’s where you make your pitch to peers, bosses, and maybe even executives that your idea is the best idea. If your meetings are going less than great, it means there’s a lot you can do to turn them around. Read on to learn our top seven tips for standing out at your next meeting.
Related: 6 Ways To Get What You Want At Work
1. Be prepared
Know your stuff. Chances are you’re bored because you can’t connect the discussion to something relevant to your day-to-day.
Just like you would have done the reading before class, you need to do your homework in the real world. If you’re running the meeting, you should absolutely send out an agenda ahead of time to make sure everyone is on the same page. Know what key points you want to make before you head into the meeting, or, if you’re not talking, know what the meeting is about. If you’re surprised at the content, you won’t be able to make the best contributions. This is when the small things add up to be really important.
Sometimes big meetings, like pitching to executives, require more than your basic agenda check. “Meet with stakeholders and experts [ahead of time] so that you are knowledgeable and confident about what you are discussing,” says Cayla Yang, a 20-something Northeastern graduate. “It’s helpful to meet with individuals that executives respect… it helps with building rapport and reputation.”
That way, when you enter through those big double doors ready to pitch, the powers-that-be already know you’re committed. You’ve made an effort to speak with others, vet your ideas, and be prepared.
2. Stay present
We can’t stress this enough. Put. Your. Phone. Down. Even if you’re checking work emails, the vibe you give off is disinterested, lazy and stereotypically millennial. Just as you would never use your phone while driving (you definitely shouldn't!), you also should never take your phone out at a meeting, as tempting as it may be. Lean in to the conversation and listen to what’s going on around you.
Body language makes a big difference, and being on your phone signals to everyone in the room that you couldn’t care less about the conversation. Whether or not that’s true, it will most certainly hurt your career to make that a habit. One way to beat it? Take notes and action items and draw out the connections that make it relevant to you or your department. Your executives and bosses are like your professors; you have a lot to learn from them.
If you’re remote, it’s even more tempting to check Facebook or scroll Instagram because no one can see you. But once you mentally leave that conversation, it’s difficult to re-enter. Newsflash: everyone can tell you’re multitasking when someone says your name and you say, “Can you repeat the question?”
3. Ask questions
Part of staying present is engaging in the conversation. As new members of the workforce, it may seem like asking questions makes us look stupid, but in fact, the opposite is true. Brianna Susnak, a sophomore at Indiana University, says, “Asking questions and offering help to others when they need it makes a positive impression at work.”
If you’re not paying attention, you can’t jump in and get going on a new project, or know how the conversation affects what you’re doing. You want your colleagues to see your best self, the curious, passionate individual ready to take on the world. Meetings are your opportunity to do just that.
Adds Cayla, “Find ways to channel your enthusiasm for your idea or find something about [the topic] you can speak emphatically about.” Probing at an idea, picking apart its nuances, and making sure you (and the room) truly understands the decisions being made is a huge contribution you can make right away, even if you’re just starting.
Practicing asking questions and listening takes time. Start with more low-key conversations with friends and asking follow ups, such as, "Can you tell me more about [aspect of topic]?" You don't have to be an expert. Frame a higher-pressure conversation as if you were inquiring about a new movie, makeup trend, or anything else you're passionate about. Let your curiosity fly.
4. Take risks
You’re constantly worried about failure, especially when talking to the big-wigs at work. We get it. But if you don’t put yourself out there, you’re not doing yourself (or your career) any favors. “Staying in your comfort zone is almost as bad as doing nothing at all,” says Cayla. “Just do it. The worst thing that could happen is that they say no.”
A “no” isn’t the end of the world. It’s just the beginning. When we can’t embrace failure, we can’t contribute at the highest level. When you have an idea, you have to believe in it. Part of making your company great is sharing ideas that might scare you and embracing the idea that someone could say “no.” But what if they say "yes?"
If you’re caught off guard or don’t know the answer, that’s not the end of the world either. “When asked for more details or further information, if you don't have the facts or knowledge needed, don't be afraid to reply with something like, 'I'm so glad you're interested in diving deeper into this, I am too. I don't have more details right now, but I'd love to do more research and send you more information after the meeting,'” says Emily Miethner, CEO of Findspark.com, a career resource website for young professionals.
5. Say what you think
“Be confident enough to offer dissenting opinions or ideas when they are backed up by prep, facts, and real experiences,” says Miethner. All that homework you prepared for really pays off in a meeting.
Cayla echoes similar sentiments, saying, “Don’t apologize for who you are. Be yourself. If you are scared to contradict someone, no matter who they are, you are doing yourself a disservice. If you believe something is right or should be done a certain way, the best way to get there is to say it outright.”
This starts the conversation and gets the ball rolling where you want it to go. Even if the group or executive doesn’t choose that option, you won’t regret putting your idea out there. Say what you think. That doesn’t mean you go up to your boss tomorrow and say, “You’re a jerk and I hate you.” What it does mean is that if you have something to say, and you’re prepared, then say it. Ideas don’t die from other people shooting them down; they die from doubting yourself and never bringing them to the table.
If there’s a disagreement, embrace it. Healthy debate makes your idea—and your opponents—better. Says Cayla, “By talking through both points of view you have a better chance of understanding both sides and coming to an agreement that helps [everyone].”
6. Fake it till you make it
Taking risks and saying what you think is easier said than done. If it makes you weak-kneed to even contemplate speaking up, try smaller steps, and take courage in the knowledge that we’re all faking it to some extent. Says Cayla, “Good leaders will respect that you have the tenacity and commitment to pitch your idea.” They’re people too, and they know it takes determination and heart to speak up as a newbie.
Related: 8 Ways To Stop Doubting Yourself
It’s ok to not feel like you know what you’re doing or that you will succeed. But the more you can speak up, take risks, and get your voice heard, the more practice you’ll have faking confidence—until one day, you’ll realize that hey, you are super knowledgeable and awesome.
“If talking at a meeting is a scary thought to you, don't worry, you're not alone,” says Miethner. “Practice speaking up in pressure-free and less intimidating environments. This could be anything from class projects, study groups, family meals, or outings with friends.” The more you practice, the faster you go from faking it to making it.
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7. Always follow up
This is the secret ingredient to a successful meeting because it’s so often forgotten. Just as you should send out an agenda, you should also send out notes, action items, and follow up questions shortly after the meeting. At the very least, make sure to thank the other person for their time. You’re probably not the only meeting they’ll ever have on the calendar, and that small gesture alone can make the other person want to work with you again.
Meetings are your chance to shine. If you have ideas, share them. Pounding away in your cubicle or alone on your computer may generate great work, but it won’t help your career in the same way. Building face-to-face relationships and getting your ideas in front of others helps you stand out in the best way.