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Published: Mar 18, 2015 12 min read
mouse talking into megaphone
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It pays to contribute confidently in meetings. You don’t want to end up in a six-month performance review with a boss who complains that you “don’t speak up.” But it can be hard to speak up when others speak over you, interrupt you, and are apparently in love with the sound of their own voices.

There are ways around this — and I’m not talking about psyching yourself up in the bathroom mirror before going into a meeting. You don’t need to become louder and more aggressive. You don’t need to become part of the problem.

Read on for tips on speaking up and getting heard.

Interrupted? Interrupt Back

Soraya Chemaly in the Huffington Post wrote that there are ten words every girl and woman should learn:

"Stop interrupting me."

"I just said that."

"No explanation needed."

But for a meeting involving your boss, “Stop interrupting me” is probably a bit harsh. You need to have some meeting-appropriate alternatives at the ready so you can get back to what you were saying before the interrupter runs away with the conversation (and possibly takes credit for your idea).

I’m a fan of the joking-not-joking approach. For instance, “Hang on, I’ve still got the floor.” Or even, “Do we need to use parliamentary procedure?! Hold the phone, buddy!”

Also, get in the habit of confidently turning attention back to other people who get interrupted. As in, “Hang on, Sameera wasn’t finished. Sameera?”

If you do this consistently for everyone, then even when you do it for yourself you’ll come across as someone with a good attention span and an appetite for order, rather than as someone seeking attention for herself.

And, of course, some of the people you lend a hand to will, hopefully, do the same for you.

Create a “Teaser” via Email

If the meeting’s agenda is set in stone (or a Google doc), and the person running the meeting doesn’t seem to care that you exist, pump up your contribution the way you’d promote an indie film you’re hoping becomes the new sleeper hit — with a teaser.

If it’s normal in your company to “reply all” with the group attending your meeting, wait for the email reminder about the meeting, reply all, and write, “Can’t wait! I have some ideas about how to solve the LogicCorp problem! Looking forward to everyone’s feedback.”

Ooh, teaser! Now it would be weird if the whole meeting went by and you didn’t contribute. You’ll get your opening. You’ve created suspense.

If the group email won’t work, try the same thing in person. Catch others who will be in the meeting later at the proverbial water cooler, and tell them, “I have some amazing data that will help us decide X.” If pressed about the “amazing data,” say, “Let’s save it for the meeting so we can get everybody’s feedback.”

Get on the Agenda

Do meetings just come and go, while you barely get a word in? Set the agenda.

Even if you’re the least powerful person in the room, you can often set some part of the agenda. Who called the meeting? Run into that person a few hours before the meeting and ask what the agenda is. If you get a vague answer (“Well, we’re just going to talk about…”), try something like, “Great, I’d like to make sure I get to share [this thing I’ve been doing] so we can all coordinate [other parts of the project]. Can we make sure we give that five to 10 minutes?” Or, “I’d like to give a progress report on X. Can I get five minutes for that?”

If what you really want to do is have your ideas heard and get credit for them, don’t say that, exactly. Couch it in language no boss could say no to. For instance, you’d like to give an “executive-level briefing” about Project X. Ooh, executive-level briefings are for important people! I want one of those!

If you can’t quite pull that off, “briefing” is still a great word. It puts the emphasis on the importance of the listener, which can help to get you airtime.

Practice Socially (Not at a Podium)

If you have trouble speaking up (or if the trouble isn’t yours, but rather a personality problem held by sexist coworkers), you’re going to want to practice.

But you don’t need to join Toastmasters. In fact, taking a public speaking class isn’t very good practice at all, because speechmaking is pretty much the only time ever that you get a specific amount of time to speak. This will not happen in a meeting. Even if you get 10 minutes on the agenda, it is quite likely that you will be interrupted and talked over during much of that time. You need to practice in a situation that is very much like a meeting. That is, a conversation with a bunch of power dynamics going on.

Go out to dinner with a male partner, friend, or your brother. Tell him ahead of time you’d like to share some interesting things you’ve been working on, because you haven’t talked about work in a while. Think over a five to 10-minute update. Plan ahead of time what you’ll say to deal with interruptions. For instance, “Oh, I want to hear about that, but let me finish my story.” Or just, “Hold up, I wasn’t finished.” Of course you'll get normal conversational interludes and feedback, but stay on-message like a politician: You specifically invited someone out for the purpose of giving your update, so bring the conversation back on track and make sure you get your airspace. And then, of course, return the favor and listen.

Then, try it in a group. If you don’t have a social event with six friends planned anytime soon, join a Meetup on some random topic where you’ll be the new person. Maybe even pick a group that seems mostly older, or mostly male. And then show up at that Barnes & Noble cafe and make your opinions about The Fountainhead known. Did you get steamrolled and have a terrible time? Better at the Objectivist coffee klatch than at work. Pick another Meetup and keep at it until you can hold your place in any room.

Think Posture, Not Just Body Language

There are a lot of mixed messages out there about professional women and body language.

Amy Cuddy’s TED talk on power poses tells us that standing in a “confident posture,” even when we don’t feel confident, can affect cortisol and testosterone levels in the brain (oh please, why did I even go to college when I could have just upped my testosterone!).

However, I am opposed to advice that tells women to try to puff themselves up to look larger, like blowfish. What is the point of advice that, when applied to women, will allow most women to come in a distant second to most men, at best? Furthermore, pop culture telling women to be smaller and business articles telling women to seem larger — well, it’s a bit of a double bind, isn’t it?

Casey Erin Clark, who runs Vital Voice Training in NYC with Julie Fogh, also finds fault with the artificial power pose:

"We’ve all heard that stress can cause a fight or flight reaction — but there is a third response, and it’s the most common one we see: freeze.

You know those “low-power pose/high-power pose” example pictures? Yes, sometimes we do shrink when we get nervous — but we also see clients who find that formula of good posture and then lock into it. Contraction (freeze) is about tension, whether you’re crossing your arms and receding into your chair or standing in a full-out 'power pose.' Neither reads as compelling, and locking into ANY position prevents you from accessing your full breath, voice, and physical presence."

Also, here is a picture of Sheryl Sandberg standing with her ankles crossed, like some kind of submissive sucker — it seems to have worked out pretty well for her.

There’s something to be said for body language. However, if you are small, you are not fooling anyone by trying to act tall — or worse, sitting like you have giant testicles that need an airing. Everyone looks better with good posture, though. Here’s a tip from Julie:

"Want to 'take your space'? Think direction, not destination. Space originates from your center (core, lungs, ribcage, back), not peripherally (Wonder Woman arms). Practice breathing into your back. It seems simple, but it’s seriously effective."

Be Concise and End On Point

Most of the little speeches people make in meetings would be more powerful if they simply ended sooner. For instance:

Typical: “I’m not sure that assigning two new people to the project is the solution. If we do this, we may just be prolonging a project that ultimately isn’t going to work, and we lose the opportunity to put the new talent where it counts. So I think we should consider some other options. Not that the new people aren’t great….”

Better: “I’m not sure that assigning two new people to the project is the solution. If we do this, we may just be prolonging a project that ultimately isn’t going to work, and we lose the opportunity to put new talent where it counts.”

If you’ve made your point, simply stop talking. Make (piercing!) eye contact with the other person. You’ve made a point, ended decisively, and you expect a meaningful and on-topic response. Don’t pad your statement with softening, relationship-building conversational chitchat that just trails off at the end.

Sometimes I find that I’ve already made my point, and I’ve even gone a few words past — usually something like, “So, well, I really think….” I just stop right there, mid-pointless sentence. It’s abrupt; that’s okay. Then I say something like, “So is 5,000 the right number or should we go higher?” or “Can I count on your support?” Prolong your command of the situation by asking a direct and specific question (not, “So what do you think?”).

When you say something meaningful and follow it with a bunch of wishy-washy, wasted verbiage, you’re training people to think that half of what you say doesn’t matter. Don’t do it. Cut the crap. Say what you mean. Then stop.

Jennifer Dziura is the founder of GetBullish and the Bullish Conference.

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