Winning At Meetings: 7 Tips For Standing Out Without Falling Down

A lot – perhaps most – of what we learn at work comes by trial and error. Learning the hard way. On the job training.

Over lunch with a client not long ago, we discussed the things we wish we had learned earlier in our careers that could have helped us later avoid awkward moments or missed opportunities. It was a short lunch but the list grew quickly, and at the top for both of us: how to stand out in a meeting without looking like a show-off rather than fading into the background as a piece of furniture.

Meetings can be especially intimidating when you’re first starting out. You may be the least experienced in the room. Your comments (or lack thereof) may attract the attention of those in a position of power who might not otherwise have had the opportunity to appreciate (for better or worse) your value. Showtime!

It’s a balancing act. Too much and you’re wasting people’s time; too little and you’re a slacker. Say something brilliant and you’re a hero. Say something dumb and you’re, well, not a hero.

So I asked a number of people I know and respect, both in real life and on social media, “What’s your advice for standing out in meetings, without falling down?” Here’s what they said:

1. Prepare
Never walk into a meeting cold. Understand its purpose, why you’ve been invited, and what you’re expected to contribute (click to tweet).

2. Lean in
Most of your presence will be expressed by body language. Sit up straight, make eye contact with whoever is speaking and even in lean in physically to hear.

3. Listen
Let a few different people speak first, and absorb what they are saying. It’s not a race, and hearing different POVs gives you a sense of the mood and tone of the discussion.

4. Speak up
Literally, don’t mumble, get to the point in a clear, measured voice and don’t worry (too much) about whether anyone really wants to hear your point of view.

5. Disagree, politely
Productive meetings are generally not a battle of ideas, but an exploration of possibilities and a decision on actions. If you squarely disagree with something someone has said, speak up – but do so gently: “I understand your point but I see it from a slightly different perspective…”

6. When not sure, hesitate
“Better to remain silent and appear the fool, than to speak and remove all doubt.” A bit of an overstatement but there’s some truth in it; if you’re really not certain that what you’re about to say is accurate or helpful, strongly consider not saying it.

7. Be generous
Sounds like a Jedi-mind trick but when you say something complimentary about someone else, most people associate the compliment with you, too. “Mary made a very astute point just now, which made me think of …” Mary will appreciate the gesture and those in the room will sub-consciously register your remark as astute.

Meetings are an omnipresent reality of work life. Most won’t prove pivotal to your next promotion or the ultimate success of a business. But treating each one like an opportunity to give something or learn something will make the experience a lot more productive for everyone.

As a Senior Partner, CEO of Ketchum’s European operations and Chairman of the London office, David Gallagher brings more than 20 years of public relations experience, both as a client and as a senior agency adviser, to some of the world’s leading brands and companies. Interested in PR, politics, Texas Longhorns and life with two labradoodles. Follow him on Twitter @TBoneGallagher.