Participant’s meeting primer
By Peggie W. Koon, PhD
Editor’s note: The expanded version of this article is available in the 2015 November/December issue’s Web Exclusive.
Over the past 35 years, I have worked for companies across a variety of industries—automotive, aerospace, nuclear reprocessing, thermal ceramics/insulation, textiles, and media. And while at those companies, I have held a variety of roles ranging from industrial and systems engineer to programmer/analyst to information technology manager to process control manager to director of computer-integrated manufacturing to vice president of audience. During these years, I have also been engaged in several professional and community volunteer organizations, the most recent of which has been ISA. And at every company or organization, irrespective of the role I have held, I have been involved in meetings. More often than not, especially during the first 15 years of my professional career, I have been an attendee at meetings.
From the participant’s vantage point, I have reaffirmed over and over again that meetings are just another way of communicating. Whether you are leading the meeting, or you are a participant on the agenda, or you just have something to say as an attendee, if you can follow a few basic principles, you can communicate effectively in the meeting.
So here is a primer that includes 10 of my best practices for participating effectively in meetings. You may think that being prepared means something different depending on your role at the meeting. But in reality, whether you are participating in the meeting as a speaker or you have something to say as a meeting attendee, there are a few common areas on which you need to focus:
Know the agenda and meeting format
Make sure you are aware of the time and place of the meeting, the meeting format, and when you are scheduled (or plan) to speak. Also know how much time you have been allotted on the agenda (or how much time you expect to talk). And know the rules of engagement. This is very important for both the speaker and all attendees, so that any action you take is not disruptive or perceived as counterproductive. If you are speaking during a Web meeting or conference call, the rules of engagement are different. Be sure to use proper online meeting etiquette when speaking, and place your phone on mute to minimize background noise when you are not engaged on the call.
If you are an attendee who just wants to share a comment or perspective or ask a question, set a reasonable expectation for the outcome of your engagement. Stay on topic, and make sure you phrase the question or comment so that it is clear and concise. If you know that there will be discussion or follow-up questions, be prepared to wait until others in the meeting also have a chance to speak before you ask additional questions. And be prepared to continue your discussion after the meeting if requested.
Make sure the right people are at the meeting
If you are not familiar with some of the more technical aspects of your topic, suggest to the presenter subject-matter experts to invite and explain why they should attend the meeting.
Think before you speak
If you interact and engage with the speaker on a topic, you should think about why you are speaking and what you plan to say before you speak. Questions you should ask include:
- Who is the audience?
- What message do I want to convey?
- Is what I have to say relevant to the topic being discussed?
- Is what I am saying important to the entire audience? Why?
- Can I articulate what I have to say in a way that the majority of the folks in the meeting understand me?
- Can I do this in the allotted time?
- If the topic is too broad, where should I stop?
- What can I discuss later?
There is nothing more boring than sitting through a presentation or listening to someone who speaks in a monotone voice about a technical topic. OK, so you can’t help that you have a monotone voice, but that does not prevent you from being engaging with the audience. Whether there are 10 people in the room or 100, find ways to connect with them—bring them into the discussion. Here are some simple ways to engage:
- Start by introducing yourself. Briefly tell the audience who you are and why you are so passionate about the topic. You should always do this when you are presenting, but you can also do this quickly, even when you are an attendee making a comment or asking a question for the first time.
- Find a way to break the ice. It is so much easier to communicate with people when you know them or can identify a common thread or connection with them. If you are an attendee, you can relate why you are interested in the topic before you ask a question or make the comment—again creating a connection and breaking the ice.
- Spend more time looking at the audience than at your presentation. As a meeting participant, you can enhance the speaker’s engagement by making eye contact with the person to whom you are speaking.
Cover the topic, but don’t over communicate
There is nothing more disturbing than to look around a room from the podium (or a meeting table) and to see people who are bored to death. If you are an attendee asking a question, remain respectful of the agenda and the speaker, speaking clearly and concisely to articulate your comment or question. And don’t belabor your comment with circular discussion.
When you speak, make sure that you speak clearly so you are heard. Avoid acronyms or other terms that may be unfamiliar to the audience or the speaker.
Engineers and technical folks love acronyms. If you use an acronym, define it the first time it is used. Also, do not assume that folks around the table (or in the room) are familiar with a topic, a principle, or a policy just because you are. Be able to explain it in its simplest terms. Also, when you speak, do it clearly and methodically, so every word is audible. If your native tongue is different from the language spoken by the majority of the attendees in the meeting, be sure to interject examples to ensure attendees understand what you mean.
Stay focused on the facts
If you are discussing a problem or incident, and you are involved in either the cause or resolution of the problem, leave your emotions outside of the meeting. Focus on the facts.
This can be extremely difficult. If you are presenting the details at a post-mortem meeting, be sure to present the analysis in a way that focuses on cause and effect and resolution, and not the individuals involved in the incident. Use this as an opportunity to help identify weaknesses (in systems, processes, operations, resources, training, etc.) and strengths, so attendees learn from mistakes. Please be mindful that emotions may be high. Avoid pointing fingers or taking credit.
Don’t hijack the meeting
Do not take over a discussion or talk over others when they have the floor. Wait your turn. While you may disagree with or feel passionate about or think that you have something to add to what is being said, an attendee who has been recognized by the speaker or meeting leader has the right to completely express his or her thoughts and comments without interruption. This type of behavior is disrespectful and unprofessional and can disrupt an entire meeting.
Don’t be afraid
Speaking in front of others, especially to people you don’t know, can be daunting. But remember this: No one in the audience or around the table knows more about what you will say than you! They may know more of the technical details about a topic, or they may have more experience in the field doing a job like the one you have. However, no one knows more about what you are going to say than you!
Remember, effective meetings include meeting leaders, participants on the agenda, and attendees—all of whom can learn from or contribute to the meeting—preferably both.
When this happens, a meeting becomes an effective, productive dialogue that will help all those in attendance achieve their goals!