Speaking up in meetings can be nerve-wracking for many people. Even workers who are not normally shy feel panic at the thought of expressing ideas in front of the boss. One employee of a nonprofit says she can feel her throat close up if she’s called on to express an opinion. Another colleague says, “I’m an introvert, so it’s not easy for me to speak up, anyway. I’ll sit and think about a point I want to make for an entire meeting. By the time I work up my courage to speak, the meeting is almost over, and the original issue is effectively forgotten.”
Even outspoken employees can sabotage their own communication by sounding uncertain. Here are five tips for sounding more confident in meetings.
Have the courage to jump into the discussion. Most people wait for someone else to start the discussion, fearing that their own ideas aren’t strong. Or perhaps they’re simply too shy to speak up first. If you have an idea or an opinion, the first few moments after the floor is open for discussion is a great time to speak up. Once the crowd has had time to think, the ideas will flow quickly, and you might not get a chance to break in and be heard. If you’re worried about your idea being weak, try opening with this lead: “Here’s an idea to get the discussion started…” By offering to start the discussion, you take on the role of facilitator, instead of expert. Your idea may even get the credit for generating the eventual solution coming out of the discussion.
Get to the point quickly. Good writing starts out with a lead sentence that captures the reader and draws him in. Good speaking uses the same technique. Start out with a statement that captures people’s attention and they will hang on your next words. Rather than wade slowly into your thought, consider these strong openings: “I think there’s a way we can make it work.” “I’ve had success with that before.” “There’s one mistake that might cost us the account.”
Know when to state an opinion – and when not to. Many people sabotage their own communication by starting out with hesitance. “I’m not really sure, but I think…” “This may sound silly, but I feel…” No matter how good your thinking is, the wimpy opening will always weaken what follows. Expressing your opinion and advising others to adopt it may feel very risky, but there’s a way to do it right. Here’s a guideline for when to lead with “I believe” or “I think.” When you are discussing values, you should own the opinion. “I believe that everyone should be told the truth as soon as possible.” When you want to give your opinion extra credibility, or you’re discussing objective facts instead of values, use a phrase such as, “My experience has always been that…” or “My research indicates that…”
Use “and” instead of “but.” You’ll be amazed at how much easier discussions are when the speakers take time to validate what others in the group are saying. Take just a moment to say, “That’s a great idea” before starting your sentence. The previous speaker will be more willing to listen to what you have to say when she feels that she’s had her turn to speak and be heard. When you start sentences with “But,” your listeners always assume you are negating or contradicting the previous speaker. Consider how much more positive the following sentence sounds: “The starting time is a key element, and I think that the number of breaks we take can be just as important.”
Quit when you’ve made your point. One of the most common mistakes made in meetings is continuing to talk after you’ve made your point. It’s easy to tell if people have grasped your concept; body language or validating responses will give you clear signals. If you find yourself repeating what you said at the beginning of your speech, stop cold. You can always end with the offer to write out your ideas in more detail and send them on to the group later for their consideration.
In fact, sending an email after the meeting is a great way to expand on your idea or outline it in more detail. You may find that it gets more attention after the meeting than during the discussion.