Most people accept that meetings are a part of work—but that doesn’t mean they enjoy them. As this infographic shows, managers spend between 35-50% of their time in meetings, and up to four hours a week just on status updates. And those same bosses consider 67% of meetings to be failures.
Try as you might to escape them, they’re also incredibly important to your career. Meetings are a professional stage—it’s where others see your leadership ability. How you get your point across, handle difficult questions, and facilitate a discussion speak volumes about your capacity. People use this time to assess and judge others. Even if you sit quietly and listen, you’re sending a message.
Regardless of the reasons why they struggle with meetings, savvy professionals know they have to find a way to use them to gain and expand their credibility. Instead of trying to duck out or hang back, here are five ways to make the most of every meeting you’re in.
1. Get Your Voice in the Room Early
Meeting dynamics are established early on by the most vocal speakers. So, aim to speak up in the first five minutes to show confidence and establish your voice. Not only do you benefit from getting your ideas out there while everyone is still fresh and paying attention, your comments are also more likely to be referred to later, providing you with other openings to be heard.
2. Build on Other’s Thoughts
Dialogue in meetings can go fast, with ideas being thrown out quickly. If other people take the points you wanted to say, you may feel that you need to wait for a truly original, creative thought to speak up. But that’s a high bar and can keep you on the sidelines (maybe for the entire meeting).
Instead, notice what others are saying and look for common threads that can take the conversation forward. It can be as simple as saying, “I’ve heard three people mention product modifications, what could that look like?” or “If we take a step back, the only point we’re getting stuck on is the timeline.” This can also be a helpful way to keep people from talking over each other and encourage them to find areas of agreement.
3. Ask Powerful Questions
One common criticism of meetings is that they have too much talking and not enough listening. When people are overly focused on getting out a barrage of ideas, you can set yourself apart by encouraging the group to listen to one another. This is a role rarely played, but needed and appreciated—it shows confidence to make everyone pause and reflect.
One simple way to do this is to ask powerful questions. These are “how” and “what” questions rather than “why” ones. Because they don’t put people on the defensive or delve into fact finding, they encourage people to open up and think expansively.
For example, you may ask:
- What’s the most important aspect of this decision?
- How will we measure the success of this?
- What’s different about this suggestion than what we’ve tried before?
- What are the themes you see emerging?
4. Be Prepared (But Stay Flexible)
If you prepare for meetings, you instantly come in from a position of strength. That could mean reading through the agenda, doing advance research, or coming up with ideas beforehand.
Most of us know that if we want to build credibility, having our thoughts together ahead of time will help us to show up with confidence. However, we also have to factor in the variability of meetings. For all of our preparation, it’s actually more likely that things won’t go exactly as planned with so many people and factors involved (running out of time, technology not working, key players not showing up).
So, you should both prepare for the meeting and prepare to be flexible.
For example, if you have 15 minutes scheduled to present, prepare both a full and condensed presentation in case your time gets squeezed. If you do background research on the meeting topic, also research tangential topics that may arise. If the topic you want to address gets thrown under the table, ask if you can reach out separately to attendees to discuss further.
Being prepared displays your strategic thinking, and flexibility shows that you’re quick on your feet—both key attributes of a great leader.
5. Emphasize Next Steps
In my coaching work, by far the biggest complaint I hear about meetings is that nothing happens from them. Sure, everyone knows they should end with responsibilities being handed out, but few actually do. Because we want our meeting time to actually be useful, it’s helpful when someone takes the initiative to ask for next steps and assignments before ending it.
If you’re running the meeting, this is simple to do. If you’re just a participant, it can feel more difficult.
Don’t let that stop you. It shows leadership to state, “I’m not clear on what the next steps are for each of us; it would be helpful to clarify before we finish up.” You can even offer to track next steps for the group, if appropriate, which gives you an additional speaking opportunity for the next meeting.
While you may never look forward to an upcoming meeting, by using them as an opportunity to come across more as a leader, they’ll start to feel more valuable (and more productive).
Kristi Hedges is a nationally recognized expert in leadership communications and the founder of The Hedges Company. She is the author of The Inspiration Code and The Power of Presence , writes about leadership for Forbes.com, and is regularly featured in publications like The Wall Street Journal, The Financial Times, and Entrepreneur.More from this Author