Are you struggling to speak up in team meetings? Here is how to fix it.

This is the first part of the three part series on speaking up.

In today’s corporate world, one cannot succeed without speaking up. You may be the smartest person in your organisation, generate the best ideas and create the best solutions, but if you are not able to communicate well, people will not buy your ideas. You may not get credit for the work you do. You may fail to get the right opportunities.

I am an introvert. Speaking up in meetings, group discussions and social settings had been a struggle for me for a long time. For the first few years of my career, I used to dread team meetings. There have been thousands of meetings where I did not open my mouth even once. I was slightly more comfortable speaking up in 1:1 settings, but even there, I used to let others dictate the agenda. Thus, I failed to maximise what I wanted out of those meetings. Formal presentations which required prior preparation were relatively easier for me to handle. While I was comfortable in my own skin when presenting, I used to tell people what I wanted to say, not what they needed to hear. Thus, often, my presentations did not have the intended effect and left the audience unimpressed or even confused.

As one of the senior managers in a large tech organisation, today, my role literally centres around my ability to communicate with people. I spend my entire day in meetings. I often give presentations without any preparation. I am frequently put on the spot with tricky questions from my teams or stakeholders. As the breadth of my role has expanded, I often need to talk about ideas for which I am not a subject matter expert. Over the last twenty years of my career, through trial and error, by talking with my mentors and by reading books on the topic of communication, I have picked up a few techniques that have helped me get better at speaking up and apply them successfully to have impact and grow in career. If I have been able to overcome my challenges in speaking up, you can too.

For early to middle stages of your career, I believe that three forums of communication are critical: Team meetings, presentations and 1:1 meetings. In this three part series, I will dive deep into each of these forums and share simple techniques that you can apply too for speaking up more effectively.

Communication is a very broad area and a lot of research is constantly done in this field. There are experts with PhDs, hundreds of courses, thousands of books and millions of videos on this topic. And yet, speaking up continues to be a struggle for so many of us. My hope is, that by sharing the techniques that I have learnt over the last two decades, in less than thirty minutes, I will be able to help you accelerate your career growth journey at least by a few years.

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In this part, we will focus on the topic of speaking up in group discussions and team meetings. In today’s corporate world, a lot of work happens in groups — Brainstorming of ideas, status updates, review of plans, approval of proposals to name a few.

For the first few years of my career, I used to stay quiet through most meetings that I needed to attend. Even if a thought or an idea came to my mind, I would keep processing it internally. I used worry about being judged. I used to feel that everyone else in the meeting knows more than I do.

If you are just starting out in your career, it is very likely that your contributions outside of meetings matter more than what you do in meetings. For example, as a software developer, I was primarily expected to write designs and code. Thus, even if you struggle to speak up like I used to, don’t worry. You can’t change the past, but you don’t need to let your past hold you back either. By applying the techniques that I have shared in this post, you will get better.

I once asked my manager what he thinks about my inability to speak in meetings. To my surprise, he said, “You don’t speak in meetings? I did not notice that.” While we are the centre of our own universe, we are not the centre of anyone else’s universe. In a group setting, no one is really judging us more than we are judging ourselves. In fact, speaking less is always better than saying useless things just for the sake of visibility. Most leaders that I have worked with spend less time speaking and more time listening. When they speak, their words typically carry substance.

While it is OK to speak less, you don’t need to wait to speak only when you have the perfect idea. If you have an idea that you think might be relevant, trust your instinct and just speak up. You are in that meeting room because you belong there — people hired you and are paying you good money to be in that meeting room. There is a very good chance that what you are thinking makes sense. In most cases, it will. Sometimes, it won’t — and that is OK. Don’t let the fear of failing sometimes prevent you from trying every time.

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As I took on a technical leadership role in my organisation, the need for speaking up became more important. Thus, one day, I decided to talk to one of my mentors about my handicap. I told him that I struggle to speak in meetings.

He asked me, “How do you manage to do well in job interviews?”

My answer was that I put a lot of time to prepare for interviews and sort of expect the kind of questions that are going to be asked.

“Life is an interview.” He said.

Since I am an introvert, I need a lot of time to organise my thoughts before I am ready to articulate them. Thus, based on the advice from my mentor, I started preparing ahead of time for important meetings. This really works. I contribute a lot more in meetings when I am prepared than in meetings where I do not prepare.

Most leaders that I have worked with do a lot of homework ahead of meetings that matter to them. You should do it too. I have seen that many effective leaders spend a lot of time ahead of a meeting to get everyone’s inputs and to create a mindshare. They do this by spending time in small groups or one on one educating key stakeholders and collecting their feedback way ahead of group meetings.

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Often, good ideas come to me after the meeting is over. One day, in my 1 on 1 meeting, my manager asked me for my thoughts on a meeting we had earlier in the week. I shared with him all the ideas that had come to me after the meeting was over. He was impressed. Literally jumping in his char, he asked met to follow up with the team and share these ideas with them. If my manager had not asked for my input, all the ideas that came to me after the meeting would have stayed with me.

Things are very rarely set in stone at the end of a meeting. Decisions can be reversed. Peoples’ minds can be changed. End of meeting does not need to be the end of conversation. If you get an idea after the meeting is over, send an email or set a follow up meeting.

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Sometimes, a small set of people end up doing most of the talking in meetings. Often, meetings stray off the agenda. It is also not uncommon for human emotions like aggression and ego to surface in meetings as well. When the meeting is with a group of people we don’t know very well, it can be uncomfortable to speak up, especially in an emotionally charged up environment with a few highly vocal individuals. Next time you find yourself in such a scenario, try to do this experiment. Imagine that the people in the room are not strangers — Imagine that they are your school friends or members of your family. Will you hold yourself back if you are having a discussion with your friends or family?

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If you are the one organising a meeting, please try to run an inclusive meeting. Share the agenda and the intended outcome in advance. Share reading material well ahead of the meeting to give the participants a chance to prepare. Wait for everyone to settle into the meeting before starting. If there are people who don’t know each other, encourage them to introduce themselves. Start the meeting with a warmup activity before jumping to talk business.

While running the meeting, ensure that you go around the room to give everyone a chance to speak up. Be especially mindful of being inclusive of people who may be joining the meeting remotely over video calls. The goal of meetings is not to see who contributes the most — the goal is to get the best out of the collective to help solve problems. As the organiser of the meeting, do everything you can to make the best use of the collective skills.

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In the next part of this series, we will look at how to give great presentations.

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I work @Google leading teams on hard data problems. In personal life, I am an armchair philosopher. This blog shares my thoughts and experiences — Ashish Gupta

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I work @Google leading teams on hard data problems. In personal life, I am an armchair philosopher. This blog shares my thoughts and experiences — Ashish Gupta

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