—Leslie P. Martinich
Principal, Competitive Focus
Sr. Member, IEEE
An excerpt from the upcoming publication “Top Ten Lessons for Managers: How to be Heard,” IEEE Engineering Management Review, 4th Quarter, 2017.
Being heard in meetings with your peers is needed for the success of your organization and for your career. How are you going to make sure that your questions are answered, that you have an impact, that your ideas are taken seriously, and that your contributions are recognized?
Let’s look at the issue in a chronological sort of way: before, during and after meetings.
Right now, before anything else, start learning about your organization’s goals, style and challenges. What is the culture of your organization? Is it collaborative or combative? What are the challenges your organization is facing? Is it struggling to meet financial goals? Or competitive threats? Or schedule slips? Keep the challenge in mind when considering proposals you’d like to make. Is your proposal going to help your organization to address these challenges? Make that explicit. Prepare your ideas for acceptance. Does your team (and your boss) want the big picture or lots of data? What are your boss’s main concerns? Schedule, functionality, features, quality? Construct your delivery with those concerns in mind.
If you have not had much opportunity to speak up at meetings, practice speaking in front of a friend or a mirror. You may benefit from joining a Toastmasters group and getting some friendly experience.
Remember to breathe. You need oxygen to keep your brain functioning, and you need to expand your lungs in order to speak forcefully. Learn to speak loudly and clearly, enunciating your words carefully so that others can understand you. Speak deliberately, avoid sarcasm or curtness, and avoid signaling frustration. Slow down, speak clearly, and maintain eye contact, good posture and strong body language.
Organize your thoughts and make your proposal clear in your own mind. Research shows that writing improves idea composition (Bounds, 2010), so write the following out with pen and paper:
My audience is …
They care about …
The take away is …
My audience is the design team.
They care about competition with Company ABC.
The take away is that we should use widget X in our product.
Now you have the basics for making the point you want to make. Tannen (1995) provides especially helpful guidance on communicating, reminding us that there is no one best way to communicate. But it is important to understand the norms of your organization and its culture. In the example below about widget X, I use the conditional structure “If we did p, then q.” That is, “If we incorporate widget X …, [then]…we can provide additional functionality…” But in an organization in which you need to be more forceful, you can move to a propositional structure, “I propose that we do p.” That is, with a few niceties thrown in, “I propose that we incorporate widget X which will give us a competitive advantage over Company ABC.”
Write out with pen and paper your entire proposal. Be succinct and orderly.
4. Informal Pre-Meetings
The idea of an informal pre-meeting is what I call “walking the dog” (apologies to Rufus Thomas!). Take your idea, your dog, out, and walk around to other people’s desks. Ask if you can get their feedback on an idea you have. Then present your idea exactly as your have prepared. What do they think? Who might have objections and why? How can you address those objections? Ask them how you might reformulate or modify your proposal. Synthesize others’ ideas to re-cast your proposal.
5. Get on the agenda
If you have the opportunity to do so, ask the person calling the meeting to put time for your proposal on the agenda.
For example, suppose you want to propose that your team attend training. You think your team needs training, and that should be enough. But it is not enough. How is it going to help your organization to address a problem of schedule slips? On the face of it, another person may see it as causing yet more delays by taking people off the project for three days!
Get some data; how has this training improved productivity for other teams? Have three days of training resulted in 200% productivity improvements? If so, that would certainly justify the time away from the project.
Consider another scenario. Suppose you want to propose an alternative technical solution for a problem. Will your solution result in lower costs? Will it result in better product performance? Will it meet a competitive threat? Incorporate the benefit into your proposal.
Instead of saying “I think we should incorporate widget X from company XYZ into our product,” consider saying, “I know we are concerned with the competitive threat from ABC. If we incorporate widget X from company XYZ into our product, we can provide additional functionality that ABC does not have, and we can deliver a superior product. I’ve looked at the costs for X, and they are the same as our current widget costs. In addition, XYZ is a good supplier and partner of ours, so adequate supply should not be a problem.”
In that way, you’ve framed your proposal in terms of meeting the competitive threat as well as maintaining costs and having a reasonable supply. You’ve headed off spurious objections to your proposal and prepared it for acceptance.
Speak up early, especially if your proposal is not on the agenda. If you wait until all others have spoken, the opportunity for you to be heard may have passed. Share your ideas and ask important questions.
Don’t allow yourself to be interrupted. Say, “Please allow me to finish my thought…” while holding your hand at an almost 90 degree angle to your arm.
Use what you have practiced: breathing, speaking loudly and clearly. Make your comments to the point and do not ramble on.
After the meeting, confirm with your boss that your proposal was heard. Ask for tips to make your point more effectively, if needed. Restructure your proposal and verify with your boss that your new version is better, or, if not, why not. Listen carefully.
I hope readers will find some useful tips in this article. If you need more depth, look further at the original articles themselves. And pass this article on to a colleague who you think could benefit from these tips. Feel free to ask me questions at email@example.com.
Bounds, Gwendolyn, “How Handwriting Trains the Brain,” Wall Street Journal, October 5, 2010.
Tannen, Deborah, “The Power of Talk: Who Gets Heard and Why,” Harvard Business Review, September-October 1995.