Getting your ideas heard in meetings

Everyone has been in a meeting with a natural. The person who seems to with such ease direct the conversation and get their ideas heard. It seems everything flows through them and whether you respect it or envy it they’re impossible to ignore.

Frankly most engineers and technical people I’ve known struggle in meetings to get their ideas out, and its a shame cause often they hold the best ones. It’s easy to over look this and say its just a meeting, who really cares. But if you want your ideas out there instead of forever bouncing around your head its integral to take it seriously. The cool thing is isn’t as hard as it looks and you don’t have to be the loudest in the room.

When I first started at the World Bank I was the youngest person probably by ten years and definitely the most naive. I was quiet in meetings, waited my turn to speak and spoke in short terse statements. I was simply too nervous and overwhelmed to make any meaningful impact in a meeting. I got the moniker of “boy genius” because I was so young and sitting a table of experienced analysts. I was lucky to even get that moniker. But over time I learned. I saw a pattern in the meetings and in almost every meeting. There were the same characters.

Most meetings can be broken down to a few character tropes. There’s the speakerphone, the person who generally is talking the most during the meeting. They’re the ones telling the stories, cracking jokes, and complaining about the work. There’s plenty I could digress on about them but as most people already know someone like this you can infer their attributes. Although sometimes they are leading the discussion and its direction its actually often the expert who’s decision gets implemented.

The expert is the one in the room who’s highly regarded. They're opinion is valued for its insight and they don’t have to speak much to get their point across. There’s almost an air about them and they can be anyone. Ive seen the smallest girl to the biggest guy in the room holding this position. The smart experts joke around a bit in order to lighten the air as they command so much attention it can be intimidating for the rest of the people in the room. Typically a meeting is dictated by one of these two people but there’s definitely at least two other groups int he room.

The other members typically fall under either what I like to call chimers or silent members. The chimers are people who have some expertise or camaraderie with other members and every now and then give their opinion. The mistake i’ve seen most often with people who chime in is that rather than trying to sway the expert they spend most of their time trying to engage the speakerphone.

And finally we have the silent members, these are the people who almost never talk during meetings and look on. You would have to pry their mouth open to get a word out of them.

When I’ve told people about the types of characters that are in meetings I’ve almost always seen people have some type of agreement. But what follows is even better, they start rationalizing.

Nobody likes to think that just two people get to decide for a whole group so they’ll qualify why it sort of works like that but they also have a voice at the table doing something different. Regardless of where you fall in the spectrum for meetings there’s room to improve, and typically I see technical people make one of these mistakes.

The Donts of Meetings:


Would you listen to this guy

The most common mistake you’ll see by some people is they have a tendency to zone out. You’ll immediately see it on their face and from that point on its hard to take they’re opinions seriously. How can you give weight to something someone offers when they won’t even pay attention to the other members in the room. Ive had this problem since I was a kid and simply bringing a pen and pad helps enormously in focusing me back to the meeting. There’s other advice I would give but there’s plenty out there about this vice so I won’t digress.

The other mistake that is equally as deadly but less talked about. The one that hurts the most to see is when technical people state short abrupt facts. You’ll see it in any meeting, everyone is talking and then someone chimes in with a short fact. Its mulled over by the group and they move on. It might be the most insightful statement of the meeting but if its done an abrupt manner with little context it quickly is passed on.

I see people do this who haven’t been involved in the conversation and they use these short bursts of facts to get their voice. For those people who struggle with this I would suggest two things, the first is to show up to the meeting five minutes early. By doing so you’ll break the ice with the members and just a little bit of small talk with them we’ll get you in a more comfortable zone.

There’s plenty of research on the power of small victories and it certainly applies to meetings. If you can get going before it starts you’ve one most of the battle.

Secondly if you can add some humor or wrap whatever fact or important piece of information into a story you’ll find people pay far more attention. Everyone is stuck in their own head and it takes a few moments for anyone to adjust their attention when someone new is talking. By giving them a moment you’re really allowing them to take you and what you’re offering in.

It won’t happen overnight in meetings where people turn to you as the expert or the speakerphone but if you take it seriously and just apply one to two these things, you’ll find your ideas getting much more attention.


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