Why and how to speak up in meetings

Do you actively participate and speak up in meetings? Do you constructively provide your perspective and build on the insights of others? Confidently contributing with your perspective, making relevant points that push the conversation forward and listening to other’s views is a super power. Few possess it outright, but you can learn it through focused practiced.

People archetypes and how they speak in meetings

Jeff Immelt spent 16 years as CEO of General Electric (GE) and has if anyone spent his fair share of time in meetings. In his book “Hot Seat” he shares his view on the different archetypes of people and their contribution. It fascinated me, as I haven’t seen anyone put it that blunt before and he manages to shed light on the unspoken perception that rules inside large companies.

1. One type is always switched on and focused in meetings, equally good at making relevant points and listening to others

2. The second type talks too much, drowning the room in detail and leaving little space for opposing views

3. The third type prefers to hang back but has lots of valuable insights—they need to be encouraged to contribute

4. The fourth group I call simply silent and smoldering. They believe they are smarter than others, but they don’t want to dirty their hands by debating. They become the “unnamed source.” If you worry about them, you will never get anything done.

Jeff Immelt, Hot Seat

To be frank, I properly fell into category #3 in the start of my career and to some extent still do. I thought meetings were so ineffective and I was so afraid of speaking too much in meetings (#2 archetype) that I didn’t participate. Embarrassingly, I also had a hard time coming up with valuable contributions because I was just passively participating.

I noticed a large difference after I committed to speak up and participate actively in meetings. People not only valued my perspective, but they also automatically assumed I had valuable input on other discussions and actively sought it out. When you’re an active contributor, others also seek out your opinion.

Why you should speak up in meetings

There are many benefits to actively participate and improve speaking up in meetings. First of all, it’s about mindset – you have to realize that it is a net benefit to the company and your own career when you speak up.

  • The company and/or department only gains value from the insights you share and that influences decision making. Everything else is just ego masturbation about how smart you.
  • Meetings are the primary way seniors interact with you. If you’re silent here, they’ll get the impression you are silent all the time and unable to speak up and contribute with insights. Why should those seniors promote you, when you don’t contribute actively to move the discussion forward?
  • When you’re the most senior, being silent can be an authority signal. However, when you’re junior, people assume you don’t have anything to contribute if you don’t. Make sure you contribute.
  • Some people (especially extroverts) think better through talking. If you’re passive in the meeting, you’ll zone out and potentially lack valuable input when called upon. Instead, if you’re part of the conversation, your mind also engages actively with the topic and you come up with solutions.

Obviously, this assumes that you’re in contributing too little in meetings. There is a chance that you’re the type to talk too much, in which case you need to work on leaving more room for others to contribute. You likely already have an idea which category you fall into, but you should check with your manager where she/he would put you and what you should work on.

If you do find out you need to contribute more actively in meetings, you need to make an active decision and practice it.

How to practice to speaking up in meetings at work

There can be many reasons why you do not already speak up in meetings. Some people fear speaking up, some people flat out hate it, some think it’s a waste of their time, and others are simply not in the habit.

No matter the reason, it’s important that you identify what your barrier is and choose a strategy to overcome it. Below are some actionable and tactical tips on how you can practice speaking up.

  1. Practice to speak up strategically in low-stakes meetings (department meetings, status meetings, knowledge share sessions etc.)
  2. Show up prepared and write points, comments and insights down beforehand. Look to actively contribute with these. Ask for purpose/details of meeting when invited if it’s lacking.
  3. Commit to contribute beforehand. This could be e.g. speaking within the first 10 minutes, ask x number of questions in a meeting etc.
  4. Ask questions instead of providing answers. A well asked question can sometimes progress the discussion better than a bullshit answer. It’s also an easier way to get yourself into the conversation.
  5. Discuss with your manager and mention this as a development point. See if you can present an introduction slide or arrange that you get a prepared question to get you involved early if you don’t have a planned point. It can also just be used to align expectations – for some meetings it might not be intended that you contribute.
  6. Set a metric for the week and track your progress on how often you speak up and actively contribute in meetings and in general at work

How to answer questions – the key to dealing with senior executives

Dave Kellog wrote a blog post on how to answer questions in meetings with senior executives and it’s one of those experiences where someone else articulate your thoughts better than you were able to yourself.

Meetings often seem a terrible inefficient way to get decisions made. On this Dave mentions:

I have a old friend who used to say that corporate meetings were often “parallel independent conversations” due to two factors:  [1] the non-answering of questions posed and [2] the non-listening that comes from people spending all their energy preparing what they want to say next.

Both are bad behaviors.  But the one that will stall your career inside your company — or wreck a salescall outside of it — is not answering the question.

There are many reasons I dislike meetings in large organizations.

  • There are too many agendas at senior levels leading to the conversation beating around the bushes
  • Focus is on impressions and image management more than actual decisions leading to inefficient information flow
  • The presenter(s) is unprepared for the specific questions posed which results in a lot of follow-ups

All of those leads to the actual underlying questions not being answered. Too many times a question is asked and someone goes on a 10 minute rant talking about a lot of things but never really offering an answer to the question asked.

Dave describes the shared qualities of senior executives as:

They are direct.  They speak clearly and in simple language.  Buzzwords and spin are the province of middle management, not the C-suite.

They go fast.  They are busy.  They don’t want to waste time.

They want to drive the agenda (and are used to getting their way).  This is a key reason why you should not present to senior executives unless asked.

They have a series of questions that they want answered.

Though I am not (yet) a senior executive, I do share the impatience. Some times I’m asking open questions to understand where I appreciate the long answers and additional details.

Other times, I know exactly what I need to know and what I want clarified. Here is just want straight answers to the question and then I can double-click on an answer if needed. I’m showing up with a clear line of questioning and issues to be explained. Spending energy providing a lot of unimportant context is just wasting everyone’s time.

So how do you answer the questions?

So the best thing you can do in front of a senior executive is answer the question.

Question:  On a scale of 1-10 how is the team working?

Bad Answer:  Well, you know, the guys have been trying hard, things haven’t been perfect, but the team has really been pulling together lately, and I think things are improving.  We’ve filled the open headcount and are making real progress.

What the Executive Hears:  Blah, blah, blah this fool is not answering my question blah, blah, blah.

Good Answer:  7.

Best Answer.  7, but there one or two key problems to work out.

You should answer the question because the executive wants it answered.  You should answer it succinctly because there is a 90% chance he/she has a line of questioning prepared and wants to move through it quickly.  I believe the last answer, above, is the best one because:

Dave Kellog

I can only echo the below advice from David. However be aware that if you’re junior and not really in a position to challenge this, you’ll get reaaally annoyed.

My advice: in the meetings you attend, start tracking how often people actually answer the question and observe how much time is wasted on useless filler. My guess is that once you start paying attention to this issue that you’ll first be shocked at how often it occurs and second become a much better answerer in the process.

How to acquire knowledge

In order to speak up in meetings and contribute with confidence and authority, you need to have knowledge that is worthwhile contributing with.

Below is a quote from the user APAE on WallStreetOasis on how to acquire knowledge on the tech industry to break intro venture capital. The methodology is broadly applicable to any field. To sum up: (i) get in the information flow to develop background knowledge, (ii) absorb quality content to develop expertise, (iii) to learn to develop your own thesis and viewpoint.

(i) Put yourself on as many generic venture lists as you can manage. Good ones are Pro Rata (from Dan Primack, the don of tech newsletters), Term Sheet (what Dan spent six years editing at Fortune, now written by Erin Griffith after his departure), StrictlyVC, and Launch Ticker (from Jason Calcanis, arguably the most prominent angel, sort of this younger generation’s Ron Conway).

You’ll get daily emails (sometimes morning and night). If you read them thoroughly and start building any kind of tracking or bookmarking system of your own, this is 30-60 minutes daily that will keep you up to speed on what’s happening. Over a couple years, you’ll have an immediate grasp on useful things to know, like the rough intervals between certain hot companies’ raising rounds, average round sizes in specific verticals, and updates on who is currently where (it’s good to know when investors are changing shops).

(ii) Absorb as much quality long-form content as you can. At the beginning, the immediate value is that you simply know what some of the smartest minds in venture are thinking. Over the longer term, you will be able to critically evaluate someone’s thesis in light of your own insight.

Top-notch ones to start with include the First Round Review, Benedict Evans’ blog, Fred Wilson’s blog (AVC), all of Paul Graham’s essays, Bill Gurley’s blog, Marc Andreessen / Ben Horowitz’s (look at A16Z.com), and Stratechery.

(iii) Go talk to people. The best way to learn is from people doing what you want to do. VC operates religiously on warm intros, so figure out who in your immediate network can make an email introduction to someone at a fund where you’d have an interesting conversation. Make sure it’s always a double opt-in, otherwise the person you’re trying to reach will very likely file you away in the ‘avoid please’ box.

Ask smart questions. This means it’s better to not ask for meetings or calls until you can participate meaningfully in a conversation. This is the difference between you asking “please tell me about your experience” and “I’ve enjoyed studying your portfolio, congrats on the Series B so-and-so raised; did you see any compression in SaaS unit economics as the company nailed down the model and enters the growth phase?”

For that latter one, you’d need to know a) what ‘unit economics’ means (for a quick primer, read this), b) what the current barometer for ‘good’ unit economics reads, and c) that a company raising a Series B is expected to have finalized its business model to the point that there aren’t really unknown variables at play and an investor can expect X dollars to turn into Y revenue. (This is what “growth stage” refers to, in that the business has left the “early stage” (solving unknowns) and is now focused on market share capture.)

(i) and (ii) prepare you for (iii), and over time, (iii) starts informing how you view all that you learn in (i) and (ii); it becomes a self-reinforcing loop.

APAE

Conclusion

In summary: invest in becoming an active participant in meetings and speak up. It’s the right thing to do for both the company and the sake of your own career. Practice speaking up to be seen as a leader and help shape the company in the right direction. Invest in acquiring knowledge and becoming smarter in order to contribute intelligently.

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