Speaking Up and Standing Out
June 25, 2020
There’s nothing better than a good meeting, and nothing more infuriating than a useless one. A good meeting brings a team together, smooths over bumps in communication, brings light to hidden risks and bright ideas. They’re a place where you can stand out as a leader, regardless of your role or title.
At Softway, we’re fans of good meetings, and we do what we can to make them happen. It starts with a leader who values a vocal team and the power of questions—but while leaders get the ball rolling, it’s up to the team to maintain the momentum.
Making a meeting great
People often approach meetings with a lackadaisical attitude. The host is going to be running things so there’s not much you need to do but show up, right? Meetings can take many forms, but even in a pure presentation it’s crucial to be engaged. Anyone who’s ever been to a live comedy show will tell you that a dead audience can kill the funniest material, and visa-versa.
Meetings aren’t comedy (usually), but the same principle holds true.
If you’re virtual, turn your camera on
Nothing feels weirder or more alienating than talking to a blank, silent screen. Humans are social animals that rely on vocal and physical feedback from our peers. Leaving your video on gives the presenter something to anchor to, and it forces you to pay a higher degree of attention. Your host will thank you, no matter how messy your living room works today.
Prepare in advance
If your host sent out advance material, take the time to read it (or at least skim!). It’s courteous, but more importantly it'll make the meeting more interesting. Most presentations and working sessions waste a lot of time on familiarity-building that could've happened before-hand. Getting ahead of the game saves you headache and sets you up to ask better questions when the time comes.
Speaking of questions…
Ask goal-oriented questions
As kids, we ask 70-150 questions a day; as adults, it’s easy to forget why they’re important. Good questions build clarity, strengthen relationships, and lead to greater creativity. However, we've all heard the other type of question too. The kind that ramble on, fail to relate to an objective, or simply exist to let the asker hear their own voice. In this HBR article, two experts on engagement lay out four questioning frameworks you can use to add value to any end-of-meeting conversation.
Choose your Timing
We all have a natural rhythm when it comes to participation. Some of us speak up early and often, others are more comfortable hanging back and letting the louder personalities lead the conversation. Whatever your preferred style, switching it up can be a productive exercise.
If you never speak (or find yourself waiting until the end) try speaking first. You may find it's easier to contribute when the air is clear, instead of crowded with other people's ideas.
If you speak often, hold back. Not only will this encourage quieter voices to take the lead, you may find that keeping yourself in reserve can be a lifesaver when energy starts to lull. Every meeting eventually runs into natural silences, and these can kill the momentum when the happen. Make that your moment, and your contribution is sure to shine.
Even if you have an official note/minutes-taker for the meeting, writing you down your own notes can be invaluable. We all have our unique needs and perspectives, so someone else's take on what was important will never quite match up with yours. Even if all you do is jot down bullets on a few key points, keeping your own record pays back dividends when it's time to contribute.
Need to watch the screen? Try taking notes by hand. Going back to analog has a variety of memory and organization benefits compared to squeezing your bullet points into yet another Untitled.txt.
Why we don’t engage
We know collaboration is important, but sometimes that isn’t enough. There are always barriers, internal and external, that make engagement feel scary, risky, or just not worth the effort. Whatever our circumstance, understanding the obstacles that prevent us from proper participation can help us better overcome them.
Virtual meeting woes
Your video is blurry. Your voice sounds like a robot. You can barely hear the presenter. Needy dog. Needy kids. Car alarm. NOISE.
For all the benefits of working from home, sometimes it’s more trouble than it’s worth. Tech and home-office problems can make it impossible to participate in a meeting (or even listen properly). But being an active audience member is essential to creating a good meeting vibe. If you really can't bear to show your face (or your unmade bed, your bad hair day, your leftover pizza...) at least engage on chat. Substituting what would've been a laugh or a smile with quick word of encouragement can make all the difference to an isolated speaker.
It’s already been said.
You have good intentions: you’re not trying to make this meeting drag on, and you hate it when other people waste time saying nothing. Better to just listen, let the good ideas come out naturally, and give the more dominant personalities hash things out (like they always do anyway). It seems like a safe plan, in doing so you put both yourself and your team at a disadvantage.
A meeting is a time to align with teammates, share ideas, and let your voice be heard. Sitting back and letting others do the work means giving up your chance to be seen and recognized for the valuable perspective you have.
In one study, 65% of executives saw introversion as a barrier to leadership. While that view is rightly changing, it’s still a common notion.
For some, that reasoning sounds a bit self-aggrandizing. Good teammates aren’t social climbers, isn’t it a good thing to give others a chance to contribute?
Sure, but not if that’s all you do. Silence can read as apathy to your leader and your teammates, and nothing drains the energy of a team faster than that (even if it’s only perceived apathy). So what can you do if you really feel it’s all been said?
The simple answer: ask a question, or offer support. You may worry that you’re just adding to the noise, but a vote of confidence and support is one of the most important signals you can send. That’s because meetings, especially virtual meetings, can be alienating. Taking the chance to champion another’s idea helps alleviate one of the less perceptible barriers to engagement.
We feel isolated
This is the other side of the spectrum: the sinking sensation of "I'm the only one who feels this way."
Even when you feel like something is really wrong, or that there's a big problem that the leader needs to know about, it’s hard to speak up when you think you’re the only person with that thought in your head.
This assumption, that someone else would say something if they also felt this way, is the ultimate self-fulfilling prophecy. Unfortunately, our current virtual environment makes this dynamic even hard to break out of.
In an in-person meeting non-verbal communication like glances or body language can help teammates figure out that an individual thought is really shared. In today’s reality it’s harder, sometimes the best gift you can give to your team is being the person who speaks up first.