Consider this scenario:
You are new to your job or have recently been promoted, you are required to attend a meeting, you turn up, take your seat around the table and see that the meeting mainly consists of your male colleagues and superiors.
You feel that you have something to contribute, but you are anxious and nervous, you don’t want to make a fool of yourself. The others in the meeting end up doing most of the talking and you find it difficult or impossible to interject. When you are asked for your input, you talk too quickly and you don’t manage to say what you had intended.
You leave the meeting feeling that you haven’t made your best impression and you have somehow let yourself down.
If you have ever experienced something like this at a meeting, you are not alone.
We are not born supremely confident in complex social situations, it is something that we have to learn, and it is certainly possible to learn to behave with confidence in meetings.
Meetings are interesting social interactions and are rarely solely about what is on the agenda. People are there for two reasons: firstly as you might expect, they are there to get through the order of business on the agenda. But secondly and perhaps at least as importantly, those attending will be trying to impress in order to further their own career interests. It is very important that we understand this when building our own confidence and skills in meetings.
Before the Meeting
The first and perhaps most important thing to remember is that it is vitally important that you are well prepared for the meeting. Knowing that you have the information you need right there at your fingertips will help you to feel in control should you be asked to contribute. The MD of a large company I used to work for always said ‘do not turn up unless you have evidence and figures to back your points.’ It was good advice.
Even if you are very busy, you should schedule some time for preparation before the meeting. Look at the agenda and gather together all the information you might need or be asked for, and have it in such a way that you can find facts and figures easily and quickly in the meeting itself. You don’t want to have to shuffle through lots of paper to find what you are looking for. It is better to over prepare than under prepare, but be realistic – be wary of producing reams of paper containing details you won’t be asked for.
If you are unsure, ask your line manager for advice on what kind and level of information you might require. If there is an item on the agenda that you will have a specific input to, consider whether you need or want to prepare any notes or points to distribute to the other attendees. If you do this, keep the points very brief and don’t distribute anything at the meeting that requires in depth scrutiny or that isn’t absolutely necessary. Consider whether there is anything that you would like your co-workers to read before the meeting and if there is, e mail it to them, giving them time to read it. Be careful with this – you don’t want to burden people with additional work unless it is vital that they read it.
At the Meeting
It should go without saying that you must arrive on time. Take your prepared notes with you plus pens and notepaper. The nature of meetings is such that agendas are often not rigidly stuck to, and you need to be flexible about this. Don’t get anxious if people wander off the point, or if something you have prepared is not raised in the way you thought it would be. You need to be seen as being composed and in control throughout. You should not overcompensate for nerves or lack of confidence by being too loud or overpowering. Neither should you be silent and timid throughout the meeting.
The way to appear confident is to act like a confident person (even if you don’t feel like one!) Your aim is to contribute appropriately and to create the impression of someone who is in control, knowledgeable and efficient.
Here are some tips that should help:
1. Make up your mind that you are going to contribute, but don’t speak immediately. Get a feel for the meeting first, watch carefully and observe the roles that people play and where the seats of power lie.
2. Don’t smile too much and don’t giggle. Laugh when appropriate, but you don’t want to come across as frivolous. This is especially useful advice if you are much younger (or look much younger) than your co-workers.
3. Once the meeting begins, speak only when you have a relevant and useful point to make. This will create the impression that you are incisive. When you want to make a point, make eye contact with the person who is currently speaking, wait until they have finished and start your point by addressing him or her clearly and directly. Once you are actually speaking, make eye contact with the others around the table. Do not stare down at your notes when speaking.
4. Don’t worry or panic if you get spoken over when you try to speak. If this happens, make strong eye contact with either the person speaking or the chair of the meeting and as soon as there is a gap, lean forward in your seat, raise your hand slightly, palm forward and say clearly ‘I’d like to come in here’ – then make your point. It usually works.
5. Don’t interrupt people.
6. Don’t show too much negative emotion. Even if you feel angry or frustrated, don’t let it show. Keep your face muscles relaxed and calm and be aware of your body language. Don’t fold your arms or frown too much. Makes your points carefully, objectively, without emotional overtones and in such a way that doesn’t imply criticism.
After the meeting
Don’t scurry away. Gather your notes and your things calmly, stand up and smile. Say thank you to the chair or to the most senior person there. Say goodbye to people clearly, and leave the meeting purposefully, not too fast not too slowly.
A note about appearance – how you present yourself will of course depend on the norms and standards of the company you work for. But be wary of dressing in an overtly sexy way. Drawing attention from colleagues by dressing in tight or revealing clothes may give you a certain kind of confidence, but in a work environment, you want your co-workers and superiors to notice what you contribute, not your cleavage.
If you are not used to being assertive in meetings and lack confidence then the tips above may seem like a lot to take on board. You probably won’t assimilate them all in one go, but if you try and put them into practice each time you have a meeting to attend, it won’t be too long until they become second nature and your confidence levels grow.