Be a meetings maestro

Making
your mark in a meeting is important, but how can you be sure you’re having the
right impact? John Timperley shares his tips on how to perform better at meetings

Meetings are the tried and trusted way for people to pass on information,
solve problems, discuss issues, brainstorm ideas and to motivate and sell
themselves. Whatever guise a meeting takes – style deliberations through to
one-to-one discussions – there’s no arguing with the fact that a face-to-face
meeting with one or more people puts you firmly in the spotlight. And to
‘connect’ effectively with those present you have to perform.

Despite there being a vast difference in approach between a 14-member
partner or board meeting and an informal chat over coffee, your success factors
are exactly the same.

Here are the five things you’ll be judged on:

– How prepared you are

– What you say – and how you say it

– How you behave

– How well you listen

– And – would you believe it? – where you sit!

While we all know instinctively what makes for a good meeting the majority
of get-togethers don’t stick to the basic rules of timeliness and keeping to
the point. The housekeeping work of circulating information in advance (and
expecting participants to have read the papers before the meeting) and
producing clear minutes identifying who has agreed to do what, by when,
prepares the ground for a great meeting. There is nothing difficult in this,
all that is required is good business discipline so that meetings are seen to
be a platform for decision making, not a talking shop where no one around the
table sees its value.

Successful participation

People, rightly or wrongly, will form impressions of you based on your
performance at meetings, and it is vital that you participate actively in the
discussions. Studies have shown that at the start of a meeting, participants’
impressions of you are largely neutral if they have not met you before, but
will soon turn negative if you don’t speak up or ask questions. So, sitting
there and keeping your mouth shut is actually harmful to your image.

At this point someone in the audience at my meetings management training
sessions will invariably raise their hand and say: ‘I understand that point,
but my problem is I don’t know what to say – my comments somehow don’t seem
appropriate.’ They often go on to say that they’ve seen others seemingly have
the gift of asking the right questions at the right time, chipping in with
well-timed observations, and generally being seen as a much more valued member
of the group.

What’s their secret? Luckily, its not some God-given gift. In all likelihood
they are following, whether they know it or not, the six routes to contributing
effectively to any meeting. Believe me, after working on these – particularly
those aspects of asking questions – you’ll never be at a loss again for making
a timely and relevant contribution.

Preparation is the key

Prepare, prepare, prepare – it needs saying three times because if you do it
properly this is your highway to making your contribution to the meeting.
Neglect it and you’ll quickly find your ability to get involved hits a dead
end. You’ve probably heard what my Dad used to say to me – ‘proper preparation prevents
pretty poor performance’ – and he was right. Top connectors prepare properly
because they know that this is the key to making an impact and being seen to
know what they are talking about.

Mundane as it may seem, they make sure they read the minutes of the last
meeting if there are any. They read the papers sent to them in advance (and
highlight anything that appears significant to them), they consider their
position on the issues, and they think about what questions they may ask. If
there are any points they are unsure of or don’t understand, they’ll make a
note to seek further clarification.

Reading the information may also have given them some ideas they may wish to
test out in the meeting. All in all, where they can, top connectors go into that
meeting with a range of thoughts, ideas, questions and, above all, key points
of information buzzing around in their head. They are ready to participate.
Where performing at meetings is concerned, ignorance is not bliss, it’s the
road to nowhere.

Know your facts

Not all meetings called have the luxury of papers being circulated in
advance, but this doesn’t take away the need for preparation. If you know the
subject for discussion (if you don’t you shouldn’t be holding or attending the
meeting in the first place) the key question to ask yourself is an unusual one:
‘What don’t I know about this area?’ This gets your thinking away from your
preconceived ideas into areas such as ‘what if I’m asked aboutÉ?’, ‘what would
my response be onÉ.?’, ‘how long would it take to…?’ or ‘how much would it
cost forÉ?’

You may find that you don’t have enough knowledge to accurately answer some
of the questions that may be raised, or you don’t have sufficient facts at your
fingertips to support your position on an issue. The solution, of course, is to
go back to route number one and prepare. If you know your facts you will
quickly be seen by the meeting participants as a reliable authority, not
someone who has just brought their opinions with them.

There will be times, however, when facts aren’t available, particularly in
subjective or emotive areas, in which case that’s great news for you – you’ll
have prepared as far as you can, but can quite legitimately check if others
have any additional information. Or you could simply ask a question that helps
them to share their views.

Get there early

Would you prefer to choose the best seat at the table for you; would you
like the opportunity to break the ice with some of the key players before the
meeting and the chance to network with others? Then do what the best performers
do and get there early. At the very least it shows professionalism and interest
that will be noticed, and it could even bring you new opportunities before the
meeting gets underway.

Alternatively, you could disturb the meeting by apologetically arriving late
and sneaking into the only seat left. Then try to get a flavour of what’s going
on before making your opening remark, hoping that someone hasn’t already raised
the same point before you came in.

Focus on the big issues

Big fish concentrate on big matters and you should do the same. Leave the
discussion of the minutiae and details to the little fish who, surprisingly
often, will try to spend an inordinate amount of time in meetings doing just
that.

All good meeting leaders know that the strategic issues are what need to be
discussed, agreed and acted on. Give your credibility – and promotion prospects
– a boost by focusing your questions, observations and discussion points on
these.

If you have something to say on the smaller details, do so, but avoid at all
costs plunging to the depths of the discussion pool by squabbling over
relatively unimportant scraps with meeting participants. Such public behaviour
is a sure-fire way of telling those in charge that you are not ready for higher
things.

Make an early impact

The sooner you say something relevant, the higher your credibility will be.
The longer you leave it to join in the discussions, the more pressure you’ll
feel, the worse you’ll be perceived by your fellow participants and the less
you’ll enjoy the meeting.

The message couldn’t be more crystal clear: get your relevant comments in
early and you’ll be accepted by the group more readily. You’ll then have set
yourself up for a participative and enjoyable session.

Ask questions

Watch the professional interviewers on national television news.The
newscasters who interview politicians, business leaders, trade unionists and
others who have public accountability when things have gone wrong or there’s a contentious
issue to debate.

How much time to do you think they have to research an issue in the depth
they need to ask probing questions of the high-profile interviewees? Often only
hours, sometimes very much less. But consider how they control the discussion
through timely and relevant questions – questions that make interviewees think,
and viewers say ‘I would have asked that one’. That’s exactly the top
connector’s mindset and preparation for meetings.

Just like UK TV anchorman Jeremy Paxman or his US counterpart Walter
Kronkite, they prepare by gathering information on the subject and the issues,
they make sure of their facts and focus entirely on the big issues – they want
to know what the present situation is, how will it affect people, what is being
done about it and what will happen next? And they do all of this by making
statements of fact and asking questions.

Address your comments to the chairman

It is accepted protocol in formal meetings to address your comments to the
chairman, not to other members of the group. The reason is obvious, if you are
not careful the meeting degenerates into a series of sub-discussions with
people talking across each other – often on different subjects. Experienced
meeting goers will no doubt have seen this syndrome – and it’s not always the
fault of a bad chairman – but it’s definitely the result of bad manners on the
part of the offending meeting participants. If you want to be seen to be a top
performer, don’t indulge. Instead, help the chairman keep the meeting in order

Use other people’s comments as a bridge

Rather than shout out your comments and hope that you get your say in at the
right time, the elegant way to do it is to use the comments of the person
speaking as a link to yours. For example, try out the following:

– ‘I understand Kate’s point, and agree with what she says about [whatever]
I can also see that…’ then make your comment

– ‘I agree with Harry and would add…’

– ‘Coming back to Jane’s earlier thought on…. I see it like this…’

In this way you show that you recognise other people’s contribution and that
you have been listening to what they say.

Get to the point

Short and sharp is the key. We’ve all sat in meetings where someone has
pontificated on some point or other and clearly bored half the meeting to the
edge of sleep, while annoying the others who are cursing them under their
breath to get on with it.

Connectors know that the best way to make a point is to concentrate on the essentials,
keep the message clear and use ‘soundbites’ just as the politicians do on
television. Why do this? Because attention span is short, and the best way to
capture it is to do what the professional broadcasters on TV do – keep it
short, pithy and relevant. Think how much information a TV reporter gets across
in a 90-second report on some significant world event.

If they can do it, so can you. Watch them, adapt their style for your next
meeting and see the impact you make. you’ll be surprised.

Listen and learn

You can only participate effectively in a meeting if you are
interested in what’s going on. That means:

– listen to others’ opinions and evaluating them – who knows,
they may help you to change your own preconceived ideas

– follow the discussion, do not just wait for your pet subject
to arise

Top connectors treat meetings as a learning experience they:

– watch people’s body language

– attempt to unravel fact from opinion

– and are constantly on the lookout for opportunities – new
ideas, fresh ways of doing things, new contacts, and information that will be
valuable.

The meetings you attend never have to be dull and boring
affairs ever again.

Managing your meetings how
was it for you?

Think of a meeting that you recently attended or chaired, and
answer these questions as honestly as you can with a yes or no. Then consider
the implications of your answers for your own networking effectiveness on this
occasion.

The dynamics of a meeting (yes or
no answers)

Was the outcome worth the time you spent in the meeting?

Did you have a clear understanding of what contribution you
were expected to make?

Did you make that contribution?

Did you receive an agenda before the meeting?

Were you able to contribute to it?

Were relevant background papers circulated before the meeting?

Did you have enough time to read them?

Did you know the other participants in the meeting, and their
roles?

Did you (or others) introduce yourselves?

Did the meeting start on time?

Was a finish time set?

Did you stick to it?

Was the meeting too long?

Did you speak as much as you would have wanted?

Did you feel that you listened effectively?

Did you ask questions of the participants?

Was someone responsible for taking notes of the actions?

Was a personal responsibility and a deadline given to each
participant?

Have you received a copy of the actions yet?

Have you done your actions yet?

Network your way to success…

Discover the Secrets of the World’s Top Connectors is published
by Piatkus Books and is on sale from 25 April, price £10.99. Readers of
Training Magazine can order a copy at the specially discounted price of £8.99,
including postage and packing by telephoning Piatkus Books on 01476 54100 and
quoting this offer. The offer applies for three months.

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