The first big job I ever landed was as a junior feature writer for Glamour magazine. I loved every single part of it, save for the monthly ideas meeting, where I was expected to pitch to the editor-in-chief along with other staffers.
I’ve always been fairly extroverted, but speaking up in a meeting petrified me. During staff meetings in the editor-in-chief’s office, I felt unsure, incompetent, and suddenly squeaky-voiced. When it was my turn to pitch, I would become so flustered that people seemed totally confused about what came out of my mouth.
Over time, though, I improved drastically, in part because I knew I had to. Your meeting presence can really affect your promotability factor, and it’s essential to master the art with forethought, prep, strategy, and even a bit of cunning.
As someone who learned to pitch effectively (I ended up running five magazines, including Cosmopolitan for 14 years), as well as a boss who ran hundreds of meetings and observed how staffers presented, I have some words of wisdom for those who, like me, aren’t fond of meetings but know they have to ace them.
Never go to a meeting and fail to offer ideas or opinions — or you’ll look totally unprepared.
For starters, never go in cold, no matter how casual the meeting seems. Prepare in advance, even rehearsing in advance (both what you plan to say and how you intend to say it). My friend Lauren Anderson, who’s a former FBI executive, told me that when she was with the Bureau, she would always try to “game” a meeting first. “I’d get a sense of the key person’s agenda and the agendas of my colleagues in the room and speak to them without seeming obvious.” She points out that it’s good to show others, subtly or not, that you’re interested in their perspectives, needs, wants, and not only your own.
If the meeting will include mostly men, you’re going to need special prep because guys, even the best of them, often end up mansplaining or interrupting women, or even hijacking their ideas. If there will be at least one other woman at the table, and you two have a good rapport, consider chatting with her beforehand about what you both hope to accomplish and agree to have each other’s backs.
It’s also key to arrive early and secure the right seat. You probably know not to meekly retreat to the sad row of chairs against the wall in a conference room, but then where? I think the best seat is near the person in charge but not right next to him or her because you won’t be able to maintain eye contact, which is key. If you’re at a small table, sit across from your boss. At a large one, sit two seats down.
Once you’re in position, own your space. This not only inspires confidence on your part, but projects it, too, which will encourage people to take your ideas seriously. Anderson told me that during her FBI days, she used props — like a pad and beverage — to expand and mark her territory, and she kept her arms open at the table.
Most important of all, SPEAK. Never go to a meeting and fail to offer ideas or opinions — or you’ll look totally unprepared. When the time comes, take a second to gain the floor, perhaps even by saying your boss’s name. For example, “Amy, I have an idea that could probably save us five percent in shipping costs.”
Offering ideas is important, but when you do, avoid some common idea-pitching mistakes that research shows women tend to make. For example, don’t qualify your comment with a phrase like, “Maybe we could…” or “I’m not sure but….” or “I’m just spitballing here….” Those are clout killers that nullify your idea before it’s even out of your mouth. Speak loud enough to be clearly heard but don’t run on and on. Try to sum up your views in two quick sentences and not throw out lots of data unless asked for it. Long-winded speakers lose listener attention quickly.
If someone hijacks your idea, you may be tempted to blurt out a comment like, “Hey, I just said that,” but don’t. It only makes you seem defensive, even desperate. Instead say something like, “I’m glad to hear that referenced again. It’s an important idea.” That way you still have partial ownership.
And what if you’re interrupted? Guys can be notorious for this, particularly, research shows, in male-dominated settings. And it doesn’t matter how accomplished you are. A study showed that the male justices on the Supreme Court interrupted the female justices approximately three times as often as they interrupted each other during oral arguments.
Here’s a trick I love for stopping an interrupter in his tracks: Lift your hand, palm forward, and say: ‘Let me finish my thought, please. I’m almost done and then I’ll be glad to give you the floor.’
End strong. A wonderful screenwriter I know, Sarah Heyward, says she learned this from watching her boss Lena Dunham in action when she was working on Girls. “Dunham never lets a sentence dangle,” says Heyward. “She always finds a way to complete her thought, and she sounds articulate and intelligent as a result.”
Lastly, after the meeting is over, I believe it’s smart to do a post mortem. How do you think you sounded? What could you do differently next time to come across even more effectively and really improve your meeting mojo? Write these thoughts down, and it can all become part of the groundwork you’ll do for the next meeting. Remember, your boss and your colleagues are judging your meeting performance whether it seems fair or not. Learning to ace a meeting is a critical skill not only for your job but for your whole career as well.