How to hold an effective meeting
Part II – A meeting participant’s primer
By Peggie W. Koon, PhD
Editor’s note: This article is an expanded version of the 2015 November/December issue’s Special Section.
About 20 years ago, when I was a process control manager for a textile manufacturing company, the regional sales manager of Bailey Controls asked me if I would co-write a paper for the ISA technical conference in Anaheim, Calif. The paper was entitled Business Partnerships for the Next Century – A User’s and Supplier’s View. The paper explained how Graniteville Company’s decision to form a strategic alliance with Bailey Controls had benefited both Graniteville and Bailey Controls. ISA’s paper reviewers accepted the paper and asked the regional sales manager and me to present the paper. We developed a presentation on transparencies and converted it to PowerPoint before the conference. ISA sent me a copy of the technical program and agenda, so that I knew when and where I would be speaking. The meeting leader, ISA director of the management division, contacted me to obtain a bio and a brief description of my presentation. My co-author and I had reviewed our presentations together, so we were each ready to present our parts of the paper. Just before the meeting, the regional manager asked if I would give the entire presentation—and to my surprise, I said “yes.” Those of you who know me know that I love to speak! But this time, after I agreed to speak, I was nervous.
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, are a participant on the agenda, or are an attendee with something to say, if you can follow a few basic principles, you can communicate effectively in the meeting.
First, be prepared. You may think that being prepared means something different depending on your role in the meeting. But in reality, there are a few common areas on which all types of participants should focus. So here is a primer that includes 10 of my best practices for participating effectively in meetings.
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 will be 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.
Yes, speaking requires planning. If you are a speaker, know the material you plan to present, how much time you have to speak, and your goals for your presentation. If you are a speaker at an online meeting who will have control passed to you for a presentation, test the process with the meeting host before the meeting begins. Establish a plan to field questions that cannot be answered because of time constraints. Plan to either make yourself available after the meeting or provide contact information for additional questions and discussion.
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 clearly and concisely. 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, make sure that the right subject-matter experts (SMEs) are invited and attending the meeting. Let the SMEs know in advance that you will likely call on them to field any questions that go beyond your expertise on the topic, so that they are also prepared.
Think before you speak
Whether you are speaking or presenting as part of the agenda or you plan to interact with the speaker on a topic, think about why you are speaking and what you plan to say before you speak. Questions you should ask include:
- Who is my audience?
- What message do I want to convey?
- Is what I have to say relevant to the topic being discussed? (Yes, even the speaker should be mindful of this question at all times to prevent tangential discussion.)
- 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 engaging with your audience. Whether there are 10 people in the room or 100, find ways to connect with them—to bring them into the discussion. Here are some simple ways to engage:
- Start by introducing yourself. Briefly tell them 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. Many speakers do this by including a funny video clip or telling a funny story to “break the ice” in the room. If you know your audience, you can sometimes accomplish this with a simple question related to your topic or some relevant historical fact. A simple show of hands to a “How many of you remember when” question causes the folks in the room to look around to see who has the memory in common, breaking the ice in the room. If you are an attendee, you can use a similar tactic with the speaker to draw him or her into a common thread by relating why you are interested in the topic before you ask the question or make the comment. Again, this creates a connection and breaks the ice.
- Spend more time looking at the audience than at your presentation. Look at the folks you are speaking to so they can see your passion and you can see their responses to what you are saying. Learning to engage with an audience can help a speaker know when to pause for questions or solicit feedback, when to rephrase or reiterate a point, and when to move on. As a meeting participant, you can enhance the speaker’s engagement by making eye contact.
Cover the topic, but don’t over communicate
This is particularly important for presenters. There is nothing more disturbing than to look around a room from the podium (or a meeting table) to see people who are bored to death. The dreaded “death by PowerPoint” can be avoided if you:
- Keep your presentation concise and to the point.
- Allow yourself two to three minutes per slide when speaking. This means if you have 15 to 20 minutes, your slide deck should only include five to 10 slides. You may need to adjust the size of the deck up or down depending on your speech. You want to allow enough time to articulate the major concept or thoughts on each slide in your natural speaking voice.
- Remember that your audience can READ. Resist the temptation to read every sentence or phrase at every bullet on every slide. Instead, speak briefly to drive home the major point on each slide.
- Use multimedia and not just text in your presentations. A picture is worth a thousand words. In today’s technology-savvy world, there is no reason why visual images such as graphs and videos would not be used to help with conveyance. If you are speaking, incorporate technology into the presentation to break up the monotony of your presentation.
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 or present, make sure that you speak clearly so that 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 a term, policy, or process in its simplest terms. And when you speak, do it clearly and methodically, so that every word is audible. If your native tongue is different from the language spoken by the majority of the attendees in the meeting, interject examples to ensure attendees understand the meaning of what is being said.
Leave emotions behind
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. Stay focused on the facts. This can be extremely difficult. If you are presenting the details at a post-mortem meeting, present the analysis in a way that focuses on cause and effect and resolution, and not on the individuals involved in the incident.
Use the presentation as an opportunity to help identify weaknesses (in systems, processes, operations, lack of resources, lack of training, etc.) and strengths, so that attendees learn from mistakes.
If you are an attendee who is either asked to speak or who volunteers to speak, please be mindful that emotions may be high. Avoid pointing fingers or taking credit. Remember to think before you speak.
Do not hijack the meeting
Do not take over a discussion or talk over others when they have the floor. Wait your turn. Although you may disagree with or feel passionate about or think 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 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 have more experience in the field doing a job like the one you have, but they did not write the speech or develop your PowerPoint presentation or form your question. No one knows more about what you are going to say than you!
When I was asked to speak some 20 years ago at the ISA technical conference, I was nervous. But I remembered that I was prepared. I had written my part of the paper, done the research, and developed the slides, including graphs and tables. I had led the transition from the Foxboro to the Bailey Controls distributed control system at the plant. I had developed the return-on-investment analysis for the transition and worked with the Bailey Controls regional sales manager, purchasing director, and chief financial officer to develop the strategic alliance. No one in the audience knew more than I did about this topic. I had familiarized myself with the supplier’s perspective, slides, tables, and charts. And the regional sales manager was sitting in the audience to field any questions about his part of the presentation. So I looked out into the audience and gave my speech confidently. After my presentation, I received a huge round of applause and was approached by the meeting leader about joining ISA. Since that day, I have been participating in meetings—both as a participant on the agenda and from my meeting seat as an attendee.
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!