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Tips for Making Better Contributions in Meetings

There seem to be two kinds of people in business meetings: those in love with the sound of their own voice, and those who don’t make a peep. We’ve all been there, wishing someone would either be quiet or speak up, but finding the right balance is easier said than done – a big reason many meetings fail in their main purpose, which is to align views and plans toward some shared goal.

We can’t always silence the guy needing to be the smartest one in the room or coax comments from the shy bunnies in the back, but we can calibrate our own input in more productive ways. I’m usually on the quieter side; not out of modesty but in fear of saying something dumb. Even so, I’ve picked up a few lessons on how to make better contributions to meetings.

If you’re prone to “over contribute,” think about:

1. Pace yourself. A good rule is to simply take your turn and no more; if there are five in the meeting, try not to make more than a fifth of the comments. It’s seen as polite and will keep you from dominating the discussion.

2. Link your comments to those made by others. Rather than waiting for someone to quit talking so you can start again, try connecting your words to theirs … “Susan makes an interesting point, which makes me think…” is a good way to craft a sense of continuity and conversation, rather than a series of individual statements. It also suggests you are…

3. Listening. The second biggest sin of the non-stop-talkers is failing to really hear what others are saying. If you actually listen to the discussion, you may find you don’t need to waste time repeating a certain point. And it will help you avoid the first greatest sin, which is…

4. Do not cut others off. The quickest way to diminish your idea or negate your comment, no matter how brilliant it is, is to offer it by cutting another off or talking over them. Remember, the goal isn’t to script the meeting according to your views, but to help everyone reach a shared point of view.

For those who abide by the rule of “better to remain silent and avoid looking the fool, rather than opening your mouth and removing all doubt,” you have a point. Sometimes you simply don’t have anything to offer. More often, however, you do – you’re probably just not 100% sure of its value. For you (and I offer this humbly and with sympathy):

1. Jot down your thought before speaking it. This will force you to “package” it concisely and carefully, and allow you to offer it more confidently.

2. Choose your timing. I like to wait until everyone else has spoken in order to get a sense of who might be in agreement and who’s not. Even if you’re asked to comment early, there’s no harm in suggesting that you’d like to hear the views of others first.

3. Use the interrogative. Not sure how your comment might be interpreted? Pose it as a question: “Have we tried / Is it feasible to…?”. If the idea or comment is truly unworkable, you’re giving others a way to gently put it aside. And if it’s good, someone else can confirm it – making at least two people around the table in support of it.

I can’t guarantee these will work in every meeting, of course, but I’m pretty confident they will never hurt a discussion, either. Bottom line: if it feels like you’re talking too much, you probably are. And if you’ve got something to say, get it on the table. Otherwise, why have a meeting?