I’m required to speak in meetings and I don’t know what to say

A reader writes:

My new manager expects for me to ask a question at every group meeting and to contribute something. I don’t always have a question about the material covered, nor do I always have something meaningful to add. If I don’t, I will be looked at poorly. I don’t know why this scares me so much but I can’t come up with stuff on the fly. I need time to process things. And I don’t always have a brilliant idea or thought.

The directive is to ask a question at every meeting and contribute something meaningful or else you have no place there. Any advice?

With some meetings, the idea that you must contribute or you have no place there would be silly. Some meetings are just for information sharing, and not everyone will have something worthwhile to contribute. And god knows that anyone who’s sat through an overly long meeting shouldn’t want people speaking just for the sake of speaking.

In other meetings, though, there can be some truth to that idea, even though it sounds harsh: Some meetings really do exist in order to have meaningful discussion with everyone who’s there. And while your manager’s rule is overly rigid, it’s possible it’s a response to a lack of engagement/participation. (If so, there’s a deeper issue to address and I’m skeptical this will solve it, but who knows.)

Anyway, if you know the meeting topic in advance, the best thing you can do is to spend some time reflecting on it beforehand and prepare some thoughts and questions in advance since you find it tough to do that the fly. (Just make sure to prepare more than one question in case the thing you planned to ask about is covered.)

But if you don’t know much about the topic ahead of time, it might help to have couple of go-to’s always ready to use. For example:

* Build on something someone else said: “I liked Jane’s point about X — especially her insights into Y, because ___.”

* Clarify next steps: “To make sure I’m clear on next steps for X, am I right in thinking we’ll do Y and Z to move this forward?”

* Ask about timelines or priorities: “Is there a timeline when you expect X done by?” or “How should we be prioritizing this relative to Z?”

* Seek insights from history: “Is there anything we learned when we did X last summer that we should incorporate this time?”

Also, as people are talking, take notes about anything that feels particularly important to you, or anything that seems unclear. Those can lend themselves to questions too, even if it’s just something like, “You had mentioned X and I wasn’t clear on the plan for how we’ll implement that — can you say more about what you’re thinking there?”

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