Getting the most out of meetings

If you work for a company where meetings are held in English, you may have had one or these problems:

– being unable to say what you mean clearly and concisely
– being unable to interrupt others to make a point
– being unable to prevent others from interrupting you
– being unable to understand others – especially if they joke, go off the point, or speak too quickly
– being unable to understand what the action points are – and what you’re expected to do
– being unable to concentrate for long periods of time on complex or detailed discussions
– being shy (not willing to initiate a discussion, even though you have plenty of things to say)

Some of these problems occur because the meeting is disorganised or lacks a clear focus and objective. Sometimes the chair can’t control the meeting – to make sure that people have enough time to get their points across, or to prevent others from taking up too much time, or going off the point. In many cases, “successful” meetings can be achieved by setting a suitable time limit, having a clear (but not over-ambitious) agenda, and by preventing interruptions and disturbances.

However, participants at a meeting also have an obligation to respect others’ time, to contribute meaningfully and appropriately, and to be well-prepared. Here are some tips to help you avoid the most common problems in meetings – and to help you get the most from them.

1. Agenda
Make sure you see a copy of the meeting agenda plenty of time before the meeting. This will help you prepare and make sure you’ve dealt with any previous action points. Seeing the agenda in advance means you can work out what you want to say, and make notes on how to say it. You can also think about any questions people might ask you, and prepare possible answers.

2. Make sure the chair can see you during the meeting.
Keep eye contact with the chair where necessary so that he / she can see if you don’t understand something. Be prepared to ask for clarification if necessary. Use phrases such as:

“Would you mind clarifying this point?”
“Sorry, but could you outline the main points again?”
“I’m not sure I understood your point about…”
“Sorry, could you repeat that please?”

You can also ask the chair to summarise the discussion or provide more information:

“Can you summarise the main points for me please?”
“Can you go into further detail on this please?”
“I’m not sure if I’ve fully understood the main points here…”

3. Learn how to handle interruptions
One of the most effective ways to interrupt someone is to maintain eye contact with them. Wait until there’s a natural pause and then come in with a phrase that shows you have something to say:

“Can I say something here?”
“I’d like to make a point.”
“Can I come in here?”
“Could I interrupt you for a moment?”
“May I just add something here?”
“Do you mind if I just come in here?”
“While we’re on the subject, I’d like to say…”

But if you want to prevent someone from interrupting you, you use a phrase like:

“Actually, if you could just let me finish…”
“Just let me finish, if you wouldn’t mind…”
“Actually, I’ve nearly finished…”

4. Develop your note-taking skills
It can be difficult to understand people – especially if they talk too fast, make jokes, or go off the subject. Taking notes will help you focus on the key ideas and points, and help you tune out irrelevant information. Listen for information words, and don’t worry too much about writing down grammatical words, such as articles, auxiliary verbs, prepositions, etc.
If you find that you’re getting lost in a technical discussion, ask for clarification – or a summary. Use phrases like:

“Could you summarise the main points of this discussion, please?”
“Would you mind summing up what you’ve just said?”
“So, in a nutshell, what you’re saying is…..” (and let someone come in and itemise the main points)

5. Bite the bullet!

If you’re a naturally shy person, it can be hard to speak confidently in public. Fortunately, there are plenty of confidence tricks you can use to make sure your shyness doesn’t prevent you from taking part in a meeting:

– prepare what you want to say in advance so you know you won’t forget anything important
– practise in front of a mirror the day before
– jot down notes about what you want to say
– know what phrases you can use to introduce your main points
– prepare answers to possible questions people could ask you
– worry less about perfect English, but more on your ideas
– maintain eye contact with all participants
– remember the importance of body language: nod to show you agree, frown if you don’t understand, and smile when you meet people
– ask the chair for help, if necessary
– check and confirm important information with other meeting participants:

It’s a lot to remember, but try one of these ideas per meeting, and you’ll soon find you get more out of business meetings.