Speaking up in meetings seems like such an easy and somewhat insignificant task. But in fact, many people do not say a word while in meetings and never think about the ramifications of this. No matter what profession you are in within the software industry, you will find that career growth into the higher levels of your company is dependent on visibility, confidence, and your scope of influence. There is one action (or lack of action) that can undermine all of these and that is sitting quietly in meetings and not speaking up. Of course, it’s not always appropriate, like training classes or very large presentations. But when meeting with your team, peers, managers, or others, sitting quietly in the meeting when others are talking is perceived as you not being engaged, not caring about the topic being discussed, not friendly, or just not confident. This in fact may not be the case. I would even goes as far as saying that those quiet people in meetings probably listened to every word and understood more of the content of the meeting then the people talking. In addition, they watched the interactions between the people and probably gained more insight into the dynamics of that group of people than those people talking. And although those listening and observation skills can help you in your daily tasks to do your job better, they don’t help you in your career growth.
Without a doubt, no matter what, speak up in every meeting you are in. Say something, anything! This can be very difficult for people, especially women (who are raised in most cultures to be quiet and in a supportive role) or people who tend to be more introverted. So here are some steps you can follow to start down the path of gaining visibility, influence, and credibility by speaking up in meetings. (And just to be clear, this isn’t about presentation skills – there are similarities, but not the focus on this discussion.)
Inexperienced: for those who find it difficult to say anything to a group of people larger than one, focus on talking pre and post meeting. As people are filing in for the meeting, try some small talk (especially good when you don’t know the people or aren’t familiar with the topic). Talk about the weather, ask them if they have plans for the weekend or if they had a good weekend (depending on what day of the week it is), or mention something simple about yourself. The benefit of doing this is that even though you may not say anything in the actual meeting, you still come across as engaged and friendly to the people in the room that heard you talking casually as they came in. If you didn’t get the courage to say something at the beginning, then try again at the end. As people are leaving the room, mention to someone that it was a really good meeting or that you are glad you came. Or think about something from the meeting that you wanted to mention or ask and ask it to that one person as you are walking out the door and down the hallway. Maybe even ask to schedule some time to talk one-on-one with that person. As people leave the room, they will hear you talking about the topic and engaging, and their perception of you will change.
Novice: Once you are comfortable with speaking up pre and post meeting, now comes actually saying something in the meeting in front of everyone. The easiest thing to say is just a statement (as opposed to a question or opinion which we will get to later). As you listen to the discussion, if someone says something that you agree with or that you were thinking about saying but chose not to, say that you agree with that person and basically repeat what they said. Although to some degree, this is an opinion, it is also the easiest way to speak up. If you disagree, voicing your opinion will not be as straight forward because this could continue into a lengthy discussion that you should only attempt if you are comfortable with that. As making an agreeable statement becomes easier, you can do this a lot throughout the meeting and it will look like you are very engaged. Even if you have no opinion or deep knowledge of the topic, agreeing and repeating others’ statements gives you the perception of being engaged. But be careful not to over-do this. I know people where this is all they do and eventually, the others in the room don’t expect them to add any value to the meeting. Of course, you still always invite them to the meetings because they are friendly, engaging people.
Intermediate: Time to start asking questions in meetings. For many, this is really difficult. Let’s face it, you are going to think that all your questions are dumb, that you will be exposing to others that you don’t get it, and that you will be wasting everyone else’s time in the meeting by asking your question. I’ve thought through all those excuses myself and they usually help to convince me to not ask the question…and then you know what happens? Someone else asks that exact question and people comment about what a good question it is and that they were wondering the same thing. So they get complimented and gain credibility, and I kick myself later for not speaking up. So don’t think about it – just ask your question. No question is dumb because if you are important enough to be invited to the meeting, and you have a question based on what is being discussed, then how can the question be dumb. Asking it will show that not only are you engaged, but that you are listening closely and trying to learn more about the topic which shows interest, and the presenter will appreciate that. I’ve been speaking up in meetings for so many years now that sometimes I ask the obvious questions to help start the conversation with the presenter when the rest of the audience seems to timid to speak up. And usually a few more people speak up after that.
Advanced: Now, you need to start giving your opinion in the meeting. In many cases, the only reasons you’ve been invited to the meeting are to hear the topic and voice your opinion. This is especially important for managers. Your position already gives you the power of influence, but your opinion adds to that. And if the attendees in the meeting are your management, adding good or thought-provoking opinions really boosts your visibility and credibility as a leader. So set your expectation before the meeting that you will need to form an opinion during the meeting and state it clearly.
Expert: There are no more mechanics to learn after practicing statements, questions, and opinions. But as you get more comfortable speaking up in meetings you will find two situations happening more often. First, the meeting audience starts getting much larger. Secondly, the opinions you need to give should be more thoughtful, given at a quicker pace, and typically on topics you may only be hearing for the first time within the meeting. If you find yourself in these situations regularly, then you are doing well at speaking up at meetings and you are probably already an influential leader who is widely-known across your organization.