Organizations seem to run on meetings these days and so this page is all about how to manage your attendance at meetings so that you make a positive impression with everyone else at the table. Please note that I am making an assumption that you are neither presenting or in charge of the meeting but rather just an invitee or participant.
If you are in charge of a formal meeting such as an Annual General Meeting (AGM)or any structured meeting where there is a chairman and minutes are taken, then please click here for some additional tips.
You may not know what it means but you have undoubtedly seen it many times before, those letters, RSVP. It is an acronym for a French phrase: "Répondez s'il vous plaît" which translated literally means: "Answer if it pleases you." However, in North American culture it has come to mean, "please let us know of your intentions."
So it is not only good manners, but it is also expected that when you receive any sort of invitation with the letters RSVP on it, that you will let the party inviting you know if you are able to attend or not.
In a business environment, often the meeting invitation will be sent electronically however it is still important that you advise the meeting host of your ability to attend. This will allow them to reschedule it if possible to allow for your attendance. It is not acceptable to just show up nor is it acceptable to accept the invitation and then not show up. Both practices are not only rude and disrespectful, they can also cost your host a lot of money in food and preparation costs to say nothing of the awkwardness of attempting to fit you in at the last moment.
It is IMPERATIVE that you accept or decline any invitation you receive for any meeting, party, event or other situation where the host has asked for an RSVP. Many people fail to do this at all and some only respond if they are planning to attend. Neither is acceptable and thus will not raise your credibility.
I know this sounds ridiculous but I am forever amazed at how many people will come into a meeting room and say hello to the people they know and then ignore everyone else! Why would anyone be so rude? So when you enter a meeting room and there are already people present, make the attempt to walk over and introduce yourself to those that you do not know. They will be impressed and they will know who you are! If you are immediately drawn into a conversation with someone you already know, ask them who the others attending the meeting are and whether they know or not, make your move to introduce yourself.
If the meeting looks like it will be starting shortly and you are one of the last to arrive, it may not be possible to formally introduce yourself but this is no excuse to ignore the other people at the table. At the very least, nod your head at them to show that you are present and that you see them. Nothing feels quite as uncomfortable as being ignored!
Quite often the meeting host will do a quick roundtable of introductions. Don't forget to pass out your business cards to anyone that you do not know. For some tips on business cards, click here.
If you are new to an organization or are in unfamiliar territory in the meeting space, you always can take "option A" and say nothing. This is probably the lowest risk option although people may well feel disappointed that you were invited and yet apparently had nothing to offer the process. I think this is a poor option at best and strongly encourage you to engage in the meeting. Let's take a look at Option B.
Quite often I hear of people, (even senior people) who are new to a situation or environment saying that they didn't feel comfortable offering anything into the conversation because of their lack of experience, situational awareness or knowledge. I believe that this is a great time to overcome your ego concerns and leverage your ignorance!
Chances are, everyone already knows that you are new and thus don't have any great expectations of your situational knowledge or awareness. And granted, there may be some insecure people at the table who will roll their eyes at your question or point because "we have already done that" or whatever. I say - so what?
Your newness and unfamiliarity represent a great opportunity for you to accelerate your learning about the situation or organization and you will undoubtedly be surprised to learn that sometimes the most naive of questions are the best ones. I can not count the number of times people in organizations have taken a certain way of seeing or doing things as the "norm" without ever challenging the norm for a better way or even an understanding of why things are done that way in the first place. This is a great opportunity to leverage your newness while potentially making a profound contribution that is of incredible value to the organization.
Now of course this sort of questioning needs to be done in a respectful way so saying something like, "Why are you suggesting that?" which sounds threatening, it is much preferable to start from a place of truth, i.e. your ignorance, and say something like: "Excuse me Bob, but I am afraid I don't understand the approach you are sharing with us here. Would you mind giving me a bit of background?" Notice how this approach is very honoring of the speaker, i.e. asking him for help, rather than challenging his expertise in the first place.
Another approach that can be used to demonstrate your interest in a meeting is to employ something called "active listening" where you paraphrase what has been shared to determine if you have the correct understanding.
In this case, you might say something like: "Bob,just before we leave that slide, is my understanding that our third quarter results are depressed because of higher interest rates, correct?" This not only indicates that you have been paying attention and are interested, but it also allows people to challenge their own understanding. Of course with any technique such as this - don't over do things.
There are a number of things you can do to make sure you are heard in meetings. Some of these are obvious while others are perhaps less so.
When you are contributing to a meeting, this is no time to be looking at the table or off into space. Look at the individual you are speaking with and if necessary, share your voice with the rest of the table. Often people seated behind you will not be able to hear your question directed to the front of the room but a bit of "search lighting" by moving your head around slightly can make a huge difference.
Just as an aside - if this is a large room full of people, you should stand when you contribute. You are contributing to the room so you should command the room and you can not do that from your seat. It is also often quite polite to introduce yourself to the room before speaking. This can help create connection and build credibility.
When you have a question to ask the group or the individual giving the lecture or making the presentation, please limit yourself to one question. There is nothing quite as embarrassing as having someone stand up in the audience and ask a stacked question with two or three or even four different parts. This is unfair to the speaker, unfair to the audience and makes you look like a dweeb so don't do this. If you can state your question as a single, simple and straight forward question - don't ask it in public. Wait for a more private opportunity or follow up with the speaker after the session.
In his coaching book, Quiet Leadership, author David Rock has a chapter titled, "Speak with Intent" in which he talks about the value of being succinct, specific and generous. I think he makes a great point that being succinct means saying what you mean in one sentence! No - really - one sentence. Most of the other things we might add for context, clarity or just to hear our own voices actually diminish clarity because our audience actually stops listening. If you say what you need to say in one sentence, they literally don't get a chance to check out! I think this is awesome advice.
Being specific is also critical although I have found it difficult in helping people to do this. Often people struggle to find the right word or words that would make their sentence very specific and so instead, say things like: "You know", or "Those people", or some pronoun that is anything but clear. I really think you will get noticed and get ahead quickly if you can be very succinct and specific in what it is you want to say. Most people struggle with this.
When Rock speaks about generosity, he references the importance of being real. This means being human, sharing your personal perspective, paying attention to those that you are speaking to and choosing your words to match the audience. This is all very good advice for people who want to make a positive impression in meetings.
Some people are just naturally good at remembering people's names but I am not one of them. However, when you address someone by name in a meeting, your credibility automatically goes up. So, if you are sitting around the table with people you have not met before, I have found it very handy to draw a little diagram of the table and jot people's names down according to where they are sitting. This then allows me, not only to remember who it is that is speaking or contributing but it also allows me to acknowledge them by name, as a segue into making my contribution.
Just to build on what Bob said, I feel there is another opportunity we might be missing."
It never ceases to amaze me how using someone's name can endear you to them almost immediately.
In her book, "How to Talk so People Listen", Sonya Hamlin pays particular attention to some of the non-verbal clues that are displayed in meetings. You should be aware of them as well. Some of them are pretty obvious but here is a reminder.
This means no blackberries, open computers, cell phones, book reading, eye rolling, teeth picking or any other disgusting behaviors. You should be focused, alert and attentive.
You may think I am kidding, but I have seen executives push their chairs back from the table and put their feet up while someone was giving a presentation! This is totally unacceptable behavior. Again, this is showing nothing but contempt so, put your feet on the floor, straighten your chair and focus on the meeting at hand! You can relax later in your own office.
Notwithstanding lunch meetings where everyone is eating (kind of begs the question, who is actually doing the talking...) eating in a meeting room when no one else is, is rude and distracting.
Most people get the idea that speaking while a presenter is presenting their material or even when a question is being asked, is rude. Somehow though, this same courtesy does not seem to apply if one chooses to whisper. Okay, so this may not be as distracting from an auditory perspective but if everyone in the room were whispering to their neighbor, do you not think this would be distracting? Please refrain from making a point to your neighbor. If you can't share it with the whole room, then keep it to yourself!
One final point on this topic. If you have a tendency to bounce your legs up and down, twiddle your thumbs, spin your pencil, click your pen incessantly, rattle your keys, strum your fingers on the table top and a myriad of other possible afflictions, please don't succumb to them during a meeting! If you are not sure when your motions are shaking the whole room, enlist someone next to you to call your attention to it so you won't be embarrassed by the CEO looking at you and asking you to stop shaking the table so he can make some notes!