Not long after you start a job, you will probably be asked to attend your first meeting there. Meetings are a great opportunity for you to impress your boss and peers. But if you aren’t prepared, you can also come across as a boob. I’ve probably held way over a thousand meetings in my career, and I’ve loved watching some of my staffers really strut their stuff in them. They’ve also been a perfect way to get a closer look at those on staff who don’t report directly to me.
Yet unfortunately, for every person who’s dazzled me at a meeting, there have been many more who have never volunteered a single solitary idea and have sat there with their jaws totally slack, as if I were up at the head of the table reading the instructions for installing a plasma-screen TV.
Never miss the chance to shine at a meeting. Meetings may sometimes seem very casual, and you may not even be called on to participate, but your boss is paying attention to how you perform. If you contribute and look engrossed, it will raise his opinion of you and may even lead to new assignments. If you do poorly, you will lose ground—and you may not be invited back.
Here are ten fail-proof strategies:
1. Be sure you know what the meeting’s about. Reread the e-mail. If you are new, ask around to see what’s generally expected, and come prepared.
2. Never be late—and get there early enough to grab a good seat. If you’re not one of your boss’s top people, don’t sit right next to her like a big brownnose, but find a spot close enough to show you’re delighted to be one of the participants.
3. Arrive with a game-on attitude. Seem enthused, excited about the agenda. This really sends a good message. When a promoted Cosmo staffer was suddenly included in a monthly meeting, I loved that she came in full makeup.
4. Always bring something to take notes with—your iPad or a pad and pencil. Turn your cell phone off. And I wouldn’t think I’d have to say not to use your iPhone or BlackBerry during a meeting, but I’ve often seen people make that dumb mistake.
5. Lean in. Women sometimes come across as tentative at meetings. One reason for this: they don’t belly up to the table. If you hang back, other participants may not hear you when you speak—or may even ignore your remarks because you don’t seem fully engaged. The body language expert, Janine Driver, recommends that you sit on the first third of your chair during a meeting and lean in when you speak, indicating that you have something important you want to get across.
6. When you do have something to contribute, don’t just blurt it out. Instead, lead into it with some kind of introductory statement. That helps grab people’s attention. Pause a moment before continuing—you want to make sure people are looking your way and know you are about to speak. Otherwise, someone may trample over your idea verbally and you’ll have to start again— awkwardly.
What kind of introductory comment works? If you’re established in your job and feel comfortable with your boss, I think it’s fine to gain the floor with a gutsy statement—such as “I have an idea that I think could save us at least twenty five thousand dollars a year in shipping costs.” But Andrea Kaplan, the head of Andrea Kaplan Public Relations and one of the most brilliant people I know at idea pitching, cautions about being that bold when you are first starting out. “Early in your career, part of what you’re doing when you’re first pitching ideas is gaining a confidence level,” she says. “So you want to do everything possible to get a good response. If you announce, ‘I have a great idea,’ it puts too big a spotlight on you, and if everyone turns up their noses, you can feel deflated.” Instead, she suggests making your intro statement a bit subtler, such as “Here’s a thought. What if we were to . . . ?”
7. Avoid a lot of warm-up with your actual idea. I’ve noticed that women often have a tendency to explain their thinking first (“I came across a study that said . . .”) rather than get right to the point. By the time they describe the actual idea, they’ve lost people’s attention despite how good the concept may be. Then some guy brings the same idea up succinctly two minutes later, and everyone gushes over it.
When you speak, also be careful not to use fillers such as “um” (practice delivering your ideas ahead of time), or end statements so they sound like a question. “We could do it in California?” Studies show that women are particularly guilty of these habits. And lock your hands to the table so they don’t flail around or touch your hair.
8. If you were asked to come to a meeting with ideas, do not, under any circumstances, arrive empty-handed and try to blend into the surroundings. Your boss will notice if you don’t volunteer anything. And don’t think of your ideas ten minutes before you dash in the door. I can always spot those lame-ass ideas, as well as the ones made up on the spot based on what someone else just said. The best time to begin thinking of your ideas is as soon as you receive a notice about the meeting. Rather than putting off the task until you “have more time,” tell yourself you’re going to take thirty minutes ASAP to come up with some initial ideas. This will actually save you time in the long run because over the next few days your subconscious will be on the lookout for ways to flesh out and add to what you’ve come up with. It also allows you the chance to polish the good ideas and dump the stupid ones.
9. Get a sense of your meeting face. I can’t tell you how many people look bored at meetings or even kind of sad. I had a staffer at one magazine who never sat at a meeting without looking as though her kitty cat had just been crushed by a Mack truck. I’m sure that most people have no idea that they appear that way, but though they may be blameless, the damage is still done. They come across as unengaged, and they can even end up sucking the energy out of the room, which bosses hate. So try to catch your reflection in the window or the flat-screen monitor during the meeting—or, when you’re alone later, reassume the expression you think you were wearing and check it out in a mirror. Do you seem invested, interested, enthusiastic? If not, fix it!
10. Compliment your colleagues’ winning ideas. It spreads goodwill. Don’t, however, go overboard complimenting your boss’s ideas. You’ll seem like a major butt kisser in front of your coworkers. You should, however, nod at her good comments, really taking them in, and smile when appropriate. Later, you can shoot your boss an e-mail and comment positively on the new strategy or ideas she suggested and say you are eager to implement them. She’ll appreciate any additional thoughts you have.
Kate White is a leading career expert and New York Times bestselling author of several influential books on work, leadership, and success, including, most recently, I Shouldn’t Be Telling You This: How to Ask for the Money, Snag the Promotion and Build the Career You Deserve and Why Good Girls Don’t Get Ahead but Gutsy Girls Do. Her advice is based on her extraordinary career running five major magazines. For 14 years she was the Editor-in-Chief of Cosmopolitan, which was the bestselling monthly magazine on the newsstand for her entire tenure.