We are a meeting society - a world made up of small groups that come together to share information, plan, and solve problems.
- Michael Doyle and David Straus
People I train always ask me, "How can I practice my public speaking more, if I only give a speech every six months?" Like any skill, public speaking needs to be practiced often. The answer lies in meetings. Studies have shown that up to 80 percent of executives' time is spent in meetings. Yet many people ignore the chance that meetings present to hone their speaking skills and strengthen their reputations as powerful and persuasive speakers. Even small meetings provide important forums to the speaker who knows how to run one properly, because each meeting is an opportunity to give a speech - however brief.
Because most meetings in companies aren't well run, meetings have developed a bad reputation as time wasters. This poor impression just makes for more of an opportunity for you; if you can do a good job running meetings, you really stand out.
To run a meeting well, you have to attend to the business of the meeting - before, during, and after the meeting. The "before" stage involves the preparation any good speech demands: What are your objectives, your purpose? What results do you hope for? How does your audience affect those objectives? You'll also need to decide how long the meeting will be, who should be there, and where to hold it. Then send out an agenda you plan to stick to; an advance agenda shows that you are organized and capable and plan to lead the meeting well.
During the meeting, you use the tools of a speaker's trade: openings, transitions, closings. The meetings people complain about usually lack discipline; people talk on and on to a degree they would never think of if they were speaking before a large audience as part of a formal program. Treat your meeting audience with the same respect and formality you would give to a large audience: Plan ahead; be succinct, vivid, and knowledgeable.
Any successful meeting demands follow-up. Send out a post-meeting summary that includes the title of the meeting, the date, the name of the person who ran it, and who was present. Summarize conclusions the group reached, commitments people made, and what future action the group will take.
Most meetings fall into one of four categories:
Report- and information-oriented.
Decision-making and problem-solving.
Creative and brainstorming.
Training and skill-building.
You need to decide which type your meeting will be at the outset. If you can choose the format, consider what you want your audience to come away with. If you have to operate within a set format, you can still shape the outcome by knowing the ins and outs of each meeting type.
Report- and Information-oriented. This kind of meeting requires the most advance preparation. Leadership is very important, because these meetings easily become boring and tend to be filled with too much information. If more than one person will be speaking, try to review the other presentations beforehand, to see if they can be pared down. This preplanning will reflect well on you. Some conferences that overload on information use small discussion groups, which allow people time to digest and sort out information.
The most formally structured of the four types, report- and information-oriented meetings give you plenty of opportunity to shine with an interesting opening, a lively introduction for each speaker, smooth transitions that carry the theme throughout the meeting, and a strong conclusion. What you say and how you say it can leave people thinking they just attended a very well-constructed meeting.
If you are giving a report at one of these meetings rather than leading it, all the rules of persuasive presentations apply. Your report is your chance to stand out from the others. Make it a memorable one.
Decision-making and Problem-solving. These meetings are tricky because all their aspects demand a display of leadership from the chairperson: where people are sitting, who gets the floor, how long the meeting lasts, and so on. You should make succinct summaries of progress during the meeting. Don't let people get off track, and watch the time carefully.
Stick to the agenda, which should be clear-cut so people can do valuable thinking beforehand. But don't make the agenda so clear-cut that people are locked into a decision before the meeting even begins. You don't want people coming in with their minds made up. I've experimented with my training sessions; when I ask people to make individual decisions before a meeting, they take twice as long to come up with a consensus as when they arrive with an open mind.
Because this is a "results" meeting, the challenge to you is to move things along and get the group to make the decision or solve the problem. If you can reach that successful point, the results can reflect very well on you.
Creative and Brainstorming. These meetings tend to be free-flowing and minimize your leadership role. But you can still exercise leadership by establishing the right atmosphere - one in which people feel free to come up with new slogans, ways to save money, and so on. Try to be nonjudgmental. I once sat in on a meeting where management wanted to brainstorm ideas for cutting down on staff errors. The first person brave enough to speak up said the company used too many different temporary workers, who weren't familiar with procedures and never had a chance to learn how to do things right. The executive running the meeting cut the staff member off and said aloud, "You are absolutely wrong." Needless to say, no one else contributed after that.
These meetings work best if everyone has a high level of energy. Avoid scheduling them after lunch.
Training and Skill-building. Really prepare for these meetings in advance. You'll need to make them long enough so that people will be able to really get involved. Save time for the practicing that the members of your audience will need to reinforce what they are learning.
In these meetings, you're really more of a facilitator, so let other people get actively involved. Your audience will learn by doing, not by just viewing and listening. The more they are involved - the more questions they ask and the more give-and-take there is - the better your reputation will be. These gatherings also give you lots of room for powerful summing up; don't be afraid to shine as you impart your final words.
In all four types of meetings, keep the continued attention of your audience by bridging all your topics with transitions and by summarizing frequently.
Here are guidelines for running successful group meetings:
Start on time.
State the meeting's purpose clearly.
Use a title and try to make it - and the meeting - interesting. (Call a presentation designed to train people how to fill out new forms "Don't Be Written Off, Write It Down" instead of "Filling Out This Year's Forms.")
Keep the meeting going; guide it along.
Remain impartial if people start to bicker with each other. Stress cooperation, not conflict. But if real conflict erupts, bring it out into the open, especially during decision-making and problem-solving meetings.
Don't play favorites.
Use humor where you can.
If someone starts to dominate, it's your responsibility to bring that person under control.
Ask direct questions if you need to. Make them clear and non-threatening and record the answers.
Have the person taking minutes read back what people have agreed to do. Discuss decisions, acknowledge differences or problems that surfaced, and sum up what will be done in the future. This person should be an active part of the group, not a secretary.
Wind up with a motivational conclusion. This is your chance to show your style and to tie everything together. Don't let people run off early.
End on time.
A quick talk with a colleague or the boss may not seem like a "meeting," but you should treat it like one nonetheless. Even a telephone call puts demands on your ability to organize your thoughts and get your points across. No matter how brief, one-on-one meetings are chances to communicate, and to do it well. Here are some tips:
Start on time.
Have a clear purpose.
Devise a good opening.
Summarize your key points at the end.
Meetings where someone is presenting a report and company get-togethers are just two of the many opportunities executives have to introduce people. These introductions are often done hastily, clumsily, and with something less than grace. Yet they are prime opportunities to make people take notice of your own public-speaking abilities.
Introductions have two purposes: to warm up the audience for the speaker and to help put the speaker at ease, both of which make the speaker's job easier. But the rewards of good introductions go both ways: They provide the introducer with a perfect opportunity to be gracious and charming - in public. Here's a checklist to consult before you deliver your next introduction.
Find out what you need to know about the audience. If you can, ask the speaker beforehand what he or she feels would be the most pertinent things to pass on to this audience.
Get all the background on the speaker you might need: special training, positions held, schooling, books or articles published, affiliations, anything particularly relevant to the group being addressed.
Construct your introduction just like a miniature speech, complete with an introduction, body, transitions, and a conclusion.
Stay away from a joke-filled introduction, unless the speaker is giving a humorous speech or you know the audience well.
Try to memorize as much of the opening as you can; it sounds better than if you read it. You want to seem conversational, and reading instills a formality that you must displace.
Pause long enough to get attention before you begin. Then speak with energy, enthusiasm, and warmth. Remember it's your job to get the audience interested in what's to come.
Make sure you pronounce the speaker's name correctly.
Insert a personal remark about how you met the speaker; it makes him or her seem more accessible to the audience.
End with a nice touch like "Please join me in welcoming..."; lead the applause. Speakers welcome a warm beginning.
Because meetings are so important I have included a checklist and several forms at the end of this chapter.
Running a meeting automatically puts you in a position of power. Don't wait for the next big speech or presentation; use that position to practice your speaking skills on a weekly - even daily - basis. Recognize that "meetings" occur all the time, whether they are formal and planned or a chance encounter in the hallway. Taking advantage of all your chances to hone your speaking skills is the first step to being your own coach, which is the key to ongoing training and success as a speaker.
You can use this checklist to evaluate yourself as a meeting leader and to review the presentations of others.
Were the room and the seating appropriate?
Were the visual aids supportive and visible?
How were the handouts and support materials handled?
Was the agenda distributed in advance?
Were the right people there?
Were name cards, smoking sections, breaks, and so on accounted for?
Was the purpose clear?
Did I or the facilitator keep the meeting on track?
Was I or the facilitator in control but not monopolizing?
How were interruptions and distractions handled?
Was maximum involvement and participation encouraged?
Was the group and the group process fully utilized?
Were all the key issues, key commitments, and future actions carefully noted by the recorder or minutes-taker?
Were the presentations interesting, pertinent, and well coordinated with the rest of the meeting?
Was the timing appropriate to the meeting priorities?
Were there sufficient summaries?
Did the minutes-taker have time to "feedback" key commitments?
If this was a decision-making meeting, was that decision made? Why or why not?
Were all future actions and assignments clear?
Was an evaluation form distributed?
Was there a clear summary and memorable closing remarks?
Thank you notes sent?
Any necessary follow-up or commitment?
Distribution of results (don't let meeting participants be the last to know).
Announcement of the next meeting.
You can get valuable feedback on your meeting style by asking attendees to fill out this form after a meeting.
I want to keep improving our meetings. Please take a moment to fill out this form. Thank you for your help.
Did you feel adequately prepared for the meeting?
Was the meeting run effectively?
Could the agenda have been improved?
Was the group process fully utilized?
Was the timing appropriate?
Were you clear on future actions and commitments?
On a scale of 1 to 10, how would you rate this meeting?
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10
Poor Fair Good Excellent
Any other suggestions for improvement?
The major benefits I derived from this session were:
The changes I'll make and actions I'll take as a result of this session are:
What is your overall evaluation of the workshop trainer?
( ) Excellent ( ) Good ( ) Satisfactory ( ) Unsatisfactory
What is your overall evaluation of this workshop?
( ) Excellent ( ) Good ( ) Satisfactory ( ) Unsatisfactory
What sections of this program were most helpful? Why?
What sections were least helpful? Why?
Other suggestions for program improvement.
You have been asked to chair a year-end department progress meeting. List the steps you will take to assure a timely and interesting session.
You have to run a brainstorming session on how to solve the turn-over problem. Who would you have at such a session? Develop an agenda and a time table for such a meeting.
Observe for a month the meetings you attend paying attention to leadership, organization, participation, and all the plusses and minuses. Use this to improve the next meeting you run.
Lucky you! You have been chosen to introduce your company president at an employee-orientation program. Write out a powerful introduction, which will make both you and your president look good.