How to Speak Up in a Meeting, and When to Hold Back
I recently spent a month interviewing the group heads of a large financial services company in order to understand how their direct reports need to communicate as they move into leadership positions. Again and again, I heard the same comment: “If you are in the room for a meeting, we expect you to speak up. Don’t wait for someone to ask you.” In many organizations, our leadership readiness is measured in part by our willingness to speak up in meetings. How we speak off the cuff can have a bigger impact on our career trajectory than our presentations or speeches, because every single day we have an opportunity to make an impact. While much of my work focuses on women in leadership, everyone can use meetings as an opportunity to move up in their careers — and bring others with them. Here are three strategies for speaking up effectively, followed by three warnings for when you should hold back.
Strategies for Speaking Up Effectively
Prepare a few bullets in advance. One senior executive I worked with was deathly afraid of public speaking early in her career. In order to overcome that fear, she challenged herself to speak up at every single meeting and prepared comments or questions in advance. That executive is now a role model within her organization and is considered one of the most confident and authentic speakers in her industry. Don’t wait for inspiration to hit in the meeting; prepare in advance.
Ask, “why you?” This is a question I recommend people ask before they craft a presentation, walk into a meeting, or even prepare for a networking event. It means, why do you care about what you do, about your organization, or about your role? Answering this question helps you connect with a sense of purpose and builds your confidence. It reminds you that you’re speaking up not to show off but because you truly care about the subject. It reminds you that your credibility doesn’t come solely from your title or years of experience but can also comes from your commitment and passion.
Pause and breathe to build your confidence. Speaking up in a meeting takes courage. You have the ability to affect the trajectory of the conversation, potentially guiding your client towards saying yes to a deal when your colleagues have taken the meeting off track. Pausing and breathing helps center you and strengthens your voice so that when you do speak up, you speak with the full weight of your conviction. While you pause, ask yourself, “If one other person in this room has the same question, am I willing to ask on behalf of that person?” The answer should build your confidence. A client recently shared that she had used this technique to ask a question — in public — at a large conference, and her question changed the direction of the entire panel discussion, shedding light on a critical issue that the panel had been avoiding.
With that being said, sometimes it’s the person who says the least in a meeting who has the most power. Your executive presence comes from being strategic about when you speak up in addition to what you say. Here are three warnings for when you should hold back.
Warnings for When to Hold Back
If you’re only trying to show off. We’ve all had the experience of sitting in a meeting or on a conference call that runs late, where everyone is trying to wrap up, and someone is rambling about a topic the group had already moved on from 30 minutes ago. Right before you speak up, ask yourself why you are speaking. If you are speaking up just to show how much you know, it’s better to let someone else talk or let the meeting run its natural course.
If you are trying to empower others on your team. I had a pivotal moment in graduate school where I received feedback that I spoke up too much in class. Why was that a problem? A classmate said, “You become a crutch for others. We can’t wrestle with the question being asked because you jump in with the answer. Sometimes leadership is about letting others find their own solution.” Ten years later, that comment has stayed with me and has deeply influenced my leadership style. In the meeting, let members of your team speak up in order to build their own relationships of trust with your clients. Giving others an opportunity to speak in a meeting is one of the most powerful ways we can build their leadership skills, raise their visibility — both internally and externally — and give the client a more comprehensive sense of support from your whole team.
If your comment would be better left for a one-on-one conversation. Senior executives consistently offer feedback on their direct reports in my training programs by saying, “They need to learn when to leave something to a one-on-one conversation.” So many difficult conversations within an organization can be mitigated by talking privately to someone — in person whenever possible — rather than addressing the issue in a group where the person will feel defensive. This applies to email as well as spoken conversation. Before speaking up or hitting “reply all,” ask yourself, “Would this be better said privately?”
Speaking up in a meeting is one of the single-most effective ways to raise your visibility and build a relationship of trust with your clients and colleagues. Practice it strategically every single day and you will have a powerful impact on your career and in your business.