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Don’t Sit on Your Hands

CHICAGO — In more than 40 years as a manager, platoon sergeant, platoon commander, officer in charge, commanding officer, director, program manager or CEO, I have heard peers and other managers say that they would like to be able to voice their opinion during a meeting.

Based on observation, some of it could have to do with their inability to get noticed. They remain wallflowers partly because they never say anything constructive about the subject at hand, or anything at all. I call them “yes” people.

The success-minded people holding the meeting often recognize these issues as they solicit ideas. There is head bobbing, when everyone seems to agree with the concepts that are being presented. But after the meeting, you often hear, “I don’t agree with that” and so forth.

We have all met people who talk too much during meetings. They love the sound of their voice and will speak at length on any given topic whether or not they have anything worthwhile to say. It’s during these times that the meeting leader must stand tall to move the agenda yet still listen in hope they will eventually say something of benefit.

Think about this: you’re in a meeting when you think of something you could say. You sit there, wondering whether to speak up, but you are nervous. Is it worth saying or is it a silly point?

A couple minutes pass while you try to decide whether to take the plunge. Then, before you can open your mouth, someone else pipes up and makes exactly the point you were going to make. Everything thinks it’s a helpful contribution, and you’re left cursing yourself.

I have some suggestions for making a positive impression at your next meeting.

Assuming you have an agenda—this is essential; my philosophy: no agenda, no plan, no meeting—prepare something to say. If the manager sends out the agenda for comment, do not ignore this opportunity to have input.

Always review the agenda to see what issues are coming up. Speak to others and find out what they think about them. Then sit for a moment and consider the topics. What do you know about them? What questions do you have? Can you think of anything useful to say?

Try to prepare a few talking points or questions. Write a list to take to your meeting. That way, you won’t be caught with nothing to say and be forced to try to think of something on the spur of the moment. You can always add to the list if other things come to mind.

Always have a goal to contribute something. Don’t just see how you feel when the time comes, make your presence felt. Sometimes, you just have to say what is in your gut. While it may raise eyebrows, it does force everyone to think.

Another tip: you don’t have to express an opinion to make a contribution. Asking a question can also get you noticed and be seen as more thoughtful and constructive.

Even just agreeing with someone else can be useful, especially if you can add something. Be aware of the attendee who sits back and waits for others to comment so he/she can attempt to be critical no matter how ridiculous the comments are.

Speaking up initially can cause you to be nervous, especially as that moment arrives when you are just about to say something, but having prepared what to say will help a lot.

Follow a simple structure to prevent nerves from taking over and to make sure what you say is clear.

If you are going to express an opinion, prepare a single point to make. State it clearly and give one reason in support.

Don’t try to say too much or go into a lot of detail. This is usually left to the person who jumps at the opportunity to make him or herself look good. In reality, they actually make themselves look helpless and insecure.

As you grow more confident, you will be more able to think on your feet (or on your backside, if it’s a meeting) and won’t be so reliant on your notes.

Watch your body language and listen to your tone. See how other attendees involved in the meeting are seated. You’ll notice they tend to sit forward, look attentive and maintain eye contact with others. They don’t slouch, look down and avoid the gaze of others.

Pick out the people you think are effective and watch what they do, when they speak, what they say, and how they sit. Model yourself after them.

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Have a question or comment? E-mail our editor Matt Poe at [email protected].