How to Dazzle at a Meeting (Book Excerpt)

How to Dazzle at Meetings || CorporetteToday we have a rare treat: a book excerpt from Kate White’s new book, I Shouldn’t Be Telling You This.  Kate White’s been on my radar since my magazine junkie days — I vividly remember sneaking into the Family Circle library to read her older book, Why Good Girls Don’t Get Ahead…But Gutsy Girls Do, and I’ve followed her career (former editor in chief of Cosmo, mystery writer, author of multiple best-selling career books) ever since.  It’s an honor to have an excerpt here today! – Kat

Not long after you start a job, you will probably be asked to attend your first meeting there.  Meetings are a great opportunity for you to impress your boss and peers. But if you aren’t prepared, you can also come across as a boob. I’ve probably held way over a thousand meetings in my career, and I’ve loved watching some of my staffers really strut their stuff in them. They’ve also been a perfect way to get a closer look at those on staff who don’t report directly to me. Yet unfortunately, for every person who’s dazzled me at a meeting, there have been many more who have never volunteered a single solitary idea and have sat there with their jaws totally slack, as if I were up at the head of the table reading the instructions for installing a plasma-screen TV. Never miss the chance to shine at a meeting. Meetings may sometimes seem very casual, and you may not even be called on to participate, but your boss is paying attention to how you perform. If you contribute and look engrossed, it will raise his opinion of you and may even lead to new assignments. If you do poorly, you will lose ground—and you may not be invited back. Here are ten fail-proof strategies:

1. Be sure you know what the meeting’s about. Reread the e-mail. If you are new, ask around to see what’s generally expected, and come prepared.

2. Never be late—and get there early enough to grab a good seat. If you’re not one of your boss’s top people, don’t sit right next to her like a big brownnose, but find a spot close enough to show you’re delighted to be one of the participants.

3. Arrive with a game-on attitude. Seem enthused, excited about the agenda. This really sends a good message. When a promoted Cosmo staffer was suddenly included in a monthly meeting, I loved that she came in full makeup.

4. Always bring something to take notes with—your iPad or a pad and pencil. Turn your cell phone off. And I wouldn’t think I’d have to say not to use your iPhone or BlackBerry during a meeting, but I’ve often seen people make that dumb mistake.

5. Lean in. Women sometimes come across as tentative at meetings. One reason for this: they don’t belly up to the table. If you hang back, other participants may not hear you when you speak—or may even ignore your remarks because you don’t seem fully engaged. The body language expert Janine Driver recommends that you sit on the first third of your chair during a meeting and lean in when you speak, indicating that you have something important you want to get across.

6. When you do have something to contribute, don’t just blurt it out. Instead, lead into it with some kind of introductory statement. That helps grab people’s attention. Pause a moment before continuing—you want to make sure people are looking your way and know you are about to speak. Otherwise, someone may trample over your idea verbally and you’ll have to start again— awkwardly.

What kind of introductory comment works? If you’re established in your job and feel comfortable with your boss, I think it’s fine to gain the floor with a gutsy statement—such as “I have an idea that I think could save us at least twenty five thousand dollars a year in shipping costs.” But Andrea Kaplan, the head of Andrea Kaplan Public Relations and one of the most brilliant people I know at idea pitching, cautions about being that bold when you are first starting out. “Early in your career, part of what you’re doing when you’re first pitching ideas is gaining a confidence level,” she says. “So you want to do everything possible to get a good response. If you announce, ‘I have a great idea,’ it puts too big a spotlight on you, and if everyone turns up their noses, you can feel deflated.” Instead, she suggests making your intro statement a bit subtler, such as “Here’s a thought. What if we were to . . . ?”

7.       Avoid a lot of warm-up with your actual idea. I’ve noticed that women often have a tendency to explain their thinking first (“I came across a study that said . . .”) rather than get right to the point. By the time they describe the actual idea, they’ve lost people’s attention despite how good the concept may be. Then some guy brings the same idea up succinctly two minutes later, and everyone gushes over it.

When you speak, also be careful not to use fillers such as “um” (practice delivering your ideas ahead of time), or end statements so they sound like a question. “We could do it in California?” Studies show that women are particularly guilty of these habits. And lock your hands to the table so they don’t flail around or touch your hair.

8.       If you were asked to come to a meeting with ideas, do not, under any circumstances, arrive empty-handed and try to blend into the surroundings. Your boss will notice if you don’t volunteer anything. And don’t think of your ideas ten minutes before you dash in the door. I can always spot those lame-ass ideas, as well as the ones made up on the spot based on what someone else just said. The best time to begin thinking of your ideas is as soon as you receive a notice about the meeting. Rather than putting off the task until you “have more time,” tell yourself you’re going to take thirty minutes ASAP to come up with some initial ideas. This will actually save you time in the long run because over the next few days your subconscious will be on the lookout for ways to flesh out and add to what you’ve come up with. It also allows you the chance to polish the good ideas and dump the stupid ones.

9.       Get a sense of your meeting face. I can’t tell you how many people look bored at meetings or even kind of sad. I had a staffer at one magazine who never sat at a meeting without looking as though her kitty cat had just been crushed by a Mack truck. I’m sure that most people have no idea that they appear that way, but though they may be blameless, the damage is still done. They come across as unengaged, and they can even end up sucking the energy out of the room, which bosses hate. So try to catch your reflection in the window or the flat-screen monitor during the meeting—or, when you’re alone later, reassume the expression you think you were wearing and check it out in a mirror. Do you seem invested, interested, enthusiastic? If not, fix it!

10.   Compliment your colleagues’ winning ideas. It spreads goodwill. Don’t, however, go overboard complimenting your boss’s ideas. You’ll seem like a major butt kisser in front of your coworkers. You should, however, nod at her good comments, really taking them in, and smile when appropriate. Later, you can shoot your boss an e-mail and comment positively on the new strategy or ideas she suggested and say you are eager to implement them. She’ll appreciate any additional thoughts you have.

Readers, what are your top tips for dazzling at meetings? 


  1. Interesting… And somewhat depressing to me, for some reason. Can you imagine everyone coming to a meeting with a full face of makeup on, leaning in, teetering on the edge of their chair, and prefacing every statement with a long, dramatic pause? All to impress “the boss.” Aaarrrghhh. Many effective meetings aren’t about generating the winning “idea,” but synthesizing what others are saying and moving the discussion forward into concrete action items. Also, why is oral communication elevated over written? In many fields of law, I’d say it’s the opposite.

    At the end of the day, maybe, just maybe, maybe I’m just being contrarian. No disrespect to Ms. White, but these strategies typify everything that I HATE about Corporate America – gunning for attention, preening, grandstanding, trying to outshine your peers, always trying to impress your boss to get promoted over someone else, having to prove yourself, etc etc.

    • +1

    • Killer Kitten Heels :

      Interesting perspective – I hadn’t thought of her advice in that context, but I definitely see what you’re saying and agree. I’m in law, and I think the extreme competition that arises even within law firms prevents the “best” ideas from coming out, because everyone’s focused on “presenting” themselves, and no one’s thinking collaboratively. That said, focusing on collaboration over presentation seems to get you nowhere in a lot of meetings . . .

      I’m not really sure what I’m trying to say here, except that I think this is one of those instances where some woman is trying to tell other women how to maximize their opportunities for success within the system as it already exists, instead of thinking critically about whether the system makes sense in the first place, and that kind of troubles me. (Caveat: I haven’t read the book, so I’m going solely off of this excerpt here.)

      • I agree with these thought’s and have to post them in my office b/c they apply to a certain EXTENT to the depo’s that I do. I recently posted about some special thing’s I learned about how to handel the plaintiff’s and their council, and these are even better! YAY! I like the one about looking awake, and my rule is even better. Put them on edge so that they get distracted. It is alot like when you are giveing a speech, to think that every one in the room is actueally NAKED (even tho they are NOT).

        The manageing partner is giveing another CLE on the Antitrust Law, and he asked me to dust off my PowerPoint Slide’s from last year. I made the corection’s but NOW need to update them for the Supreme Court cases decided in DC since last year on Antitrust. I will GOOGLE them but if anyone in the HIVE is an antitrust EXPERT, let me know so I do NOT miss any case’s! YAY!

        SAM, of all peeople called. I think Myrna put him up to it b/c she thought Willem was tryeing to get a cheap shot in with me. I was very cordial, but am VERY hesiteant to start anything up with him again, b/c he can be VERY posessive. FOOEY! I have to give WILLEM a shot, and if he strike’s out, fine, then Sam can try again, but not yet…..Doubel Fooey! I can only handel one banker at a time. YAY!!!!!!

    • I disagree about written communication being more important than oral communications in the field of law. If you can’t orally articulate something, your attempt to write it will be crap. That’s why there are so many poorly written briefs.

      • Killer Kitten Heels :

        I think this depends on which “branch” of law you’re in – if you’re, say, my trusts-and-estates or M&A person or similar, I don’t actually care if you can string two sentences together out loud, I care that you can draft me a clear, bullet-proof contract that’s going to protect my interests as much as is legally possible under the law. For some people, oral articulation goes hand-in-hand with comprehension (and comprehension, of course, is necessary for clear writing), but there are some folks who are wired differently, and who could happily write you hundreds of (clear, understandable, useful) pages on something they couldn’t explain out loud if you gave them 10 years to prepare.

    • Wildkitten :

      I suspect wearing makeup matters at Cosmo in a way that other things would matter at other companies.

      • Yes to Wildkitten — Anna Wintour and Kate White are trailblazers in their field of fashion publishing, but not all the lessons they learned are transferable to conservative old fashioned professions like law and finance. Wall Street firms are their own ball of wax.

    • I had a similar (slightly negative/contrarian) reaction. My main thought was that this advice may be appropriate for particular kinds of workplaces or situations, but is by no means universal. It’s very important to understand what your role in a meeting is, and sometimes it really is just to listen and learn (particularly for entry-level and junior people). If you don’t have a relevant question or comment, it’s often better not to say anything. Truly. There will be other meetings, and personally, I’ve never worked somewhere where everyone was expected to say something at every meeting or risk being excluded from future ones. I would advise young women to focus their efforts on making sure they do speak up in meetings where they actually do have something to contribute. If you need to say something, and are uncertain how to break in and say it among all the senior people, these tips could help you do that. But the competitive tone is a bit of a turn-off.

    • Stephanie :

      I’ve noticed meetings in the corporate/business setting are so different than law firm meetings. There’s more of this posturing stuff. I feel like my all lawyer meetings were more straightforward.

    • this. I read the excerpt, and thought it sounded exhausting. And time-consuming. I HATE when people talk at a meeting for the sake of talking and feeling important, and waste my time. Meetings should be short and sweet- discuss/solve the issue at hand, and go back to work.

  2. Blonde Lawyer :

    Haven’t had time to read the post but I was so excited to see this here because I’m currently reading the book and wanted to have a “this site” discussion over it. I had a hard time initially getting into it because I’m not really a fan of Cosmo and found it hard to believe that what works to get ahead at Cosmo would work to get ahead elsewhere. I will admit to initially hate reading it. However, there are actually a ton of really good tips and thought provoking chapters in the book. Some stuff was good enough that I took out my journal to mark it down and think about later. I just had to skip over some of the stuff that annoyed me or just do an internal eye roll and move on. I think it is worth the read.

  3. Blonde Lawyer :

    Follow up to add – I’m not a fan of the title, unless I am misunderstanding it. I read it as “I figured out the secret to success and I shouldn’t be telling you, lest you become awesome and become my competition.” My husband actually commented on the title and said “isn’t that one of the big issues holding women back?” I realized there is a potential second meaning – I shouldn’t be telling you this because you should already know it. If that was the case though, why take the time to write a book about it? I think it is the former and I’m not a fan of that attitude – though still a fan of most of the advice in the book. I also love that a lot of the advice is in list format. I’m a sucker for a good list. Don’t ask me how much time I have spent on Buzz Feed reading one more “top ten” this or thats.

    • Interesting point.

    • Miz Swizz :

      I really enjoyed this book and I’m excited to see someone else wants to talk about it. As Lawgirl pointed out, her advice seems a little over the top but recently I noticed someone in an interim director position has stepped up her wardrobe and it reflects that she knows that she’s doing a higher profile role and is presenting herself accordingly. I also like all this advice simply because I work with people who do the opposite of what she suggests and they seem completely checked out.

    • I am a fan of your comment!

    • Wildkitten :

      That’s a very interesting point. I wonder if it’s a Cosmo thing. Cosmo has to pretend everything is a secret tip so that you’ll buy the magazine instead of just reading the cover. To Kate White the title might be so formulaic she didn’t give it a second thought.

    • Traditionalist :

      Hadn’t considered your second thought: “I shouldn’t be telling you this because you should already know it.” But if that’s the author’s attitude, shouldn’t the title be “I Shouldn’t Have to Tell You This”? I think it IS more about some sort of secret tips for getting ahead of others, which is, as your husband points out, the exact kind of problem women already seem to have. But it does seem to be in line with the competitiveness which obviously underlies her tips.

  4. I think the most important point here is within #1 — make sure you know what’s expected. Especially as the new person, you don’t want to stand out as that-girl-who-messed-up.

  5. 99% of my meetings are conference calls. First, make sure you are on mute when not talking. Second, try to stay focused on the subject of the meeting/agenda and don’t veer off into speculation, what ifs, etc.

    I work in software development, so if the meeting is about a specific system issue, it’s annoying when the conversation goes off track with items that are not critical.

    If you are moderating/hosting a meeting, please try to reign in the people who go off topic. Make a note to answer their question later via email or schedule a follow up meeting.

  6. I laughed out loud at #9. So true.

    I think 6 and 7 are a bit contradictory, but I guess she’s saying there is a balance. I really can’t stand it when people have self-defeating intros “this might be a dumb idea…this is a dumb question….”

  7. Does she realise that not all meeting rooms have windows? let alone a computer monitor to catch a glance of the so-called meeting face? Should I pull out my compact?

  8. I’m curious about #4, bringing something to take notes. I’m not sure it works as advice for younger females.
    I deliberately stopped bringing notepads (although I usually have my closed laptop with me) when I was younger, because I somehow always became the default note-taker/secretary, which felt a little sexist to me. None of my male colleagues got the same treatment, but then I noticed they never had anything with them. I asked a friend and he said he just wrote down his to-dos later, but didn’t want to give the impression he was an intern or gopher.

    • I honestly don’t get the concerns about how bringing a notepad is somehow s3xist.

      I think it is very important to bring something to make notes on/with, especially if you are junior. It has nothing to do with being male or female. It has a lot more to do with being prepared, and showing you are participating and fully involved. You may have questions you want to ask someone later, or there may be details you simply can’t remember. Why risk forgetting them simply because you are worried about the optics of taking notes? It is nothing to be ashamed of. If I saw a junior coming to a meeting without a notepad, I would think they aren’t interested in what is going on.

      Furthermore, if I am taking a junior lawyer or a student to a meeting, I will often ask them to keep track of the to-do list for everyone, so we can send out the list by e-mail later. It doesn’t matter to me whether they are a man or a woman. It is part of their job as a junior, and part of the process of learning how to manage a transaction.

      • 100% agree. There are so many details hammered out at meetings, I couldn’t possibly remember them all. Plus when my boss is trying to remember or articulate something from a meeting, I always have a record to remind her!

      • I hear you, Nonny. But can I voice a respectful dissent? I built my professional career in Silicon Valley and that may explain my abhorrence of hierachy and status-checking. Everyone should take notes, in my opinion, and my expectation increases with the level of seniority. I dislike it when a Senior Person leans over to me (or anyone else) and says: “Take that down… Make sure you make a note of that…” Um, take your own notes and don’t depend on a scribe, no matter how Junior they are. And in full disclosure, I’m A Senior Person. LOL.

        • Oh yes, I take my own notes too. But I also find it useful to have one person at the meeting totally focussed on keeping track of what the follow-ups are. As well, I found when I was junior that it was actually really helpful for me – sometimes the concepts were so complex or the way forward was so complicated that it really helped me to be able to focus on something as simple as, “write down who needs to do what”. That in itself often helped me figure out what was actually happening.

      • Abby Lockhart :

        I agree this is what a junior should do. In fact, I agree that it is what everyone at a meeting should do. However, I have found myself pegged as the “doer” on my team, with the others (all male) pegged as the “idea guys” in part because the others just perceive themselves that way and project it by doing things like not bringing a notepad and turning to me to take the notes. It has really spilled over into every area and become a problem. In fact, it was suggested to me (in a roundabout way) that the external perception is that I’m not even in idea meetings, I’m just tasked with stuff and amazing at putting the plan that others conceive into action. I attend every idea meeting. I come prepared and participate fully, often driving the meeting (esp. since I’m the best prepared). But it seems nothing actually constitutes an idea until one of the men says it, even if I’ve said it once, twice, or three times before that. And it is true that I am the one who follows through, but that is an AND — not an OR. I never ever thought I would be one to feel like I was suffering because of my sex, but I really do. I’m trying to do a self-eval to figure out how to change my presentation and how to change how I’m perceived, but I’m afraid I’m stuck and the male egos I deal with are so large there may be no way to get through them.

        • CapHillAnon :

          How frustrating! I recall that NGDGCO had a bit on this, but I can’t recall specifically what her advice was. It sounds like youre on the right track in fixing this ridiculousness. Good luck.

    • Wildkitten :

      I take notes for myself, not for other people, and I think bringing a notepad is really important. I think being the default note-taker is a separate issue. Who are these folks coming to meetings without notepads? Only our C-suite can get away with that.

    • I was trained to always bring a legal pad into a meeting. In most law firms, it is expected that you take notes, regardless of seniority. It’s not being the default note-taker, but rather keeping track of complicated assignments and concepts. At one firm, I stocked a drawer in a partner’s office end table with pads and pens because he would forever be pulling us in without a chance to grab something to write with.

    • Killer Kitten Heels :

      I think there’s a difference between taking notes for the senior people in the room (expected, understandable, and, unless there’s other behavior to go with it that confirms your suspicions, not s3xist), and taking notes for everyone in the entire room including your peers. My personal practice is to only share my notes “up,” unless explicitly instructed otherwise. In the event a peer wants my notes, I try to make clear that, while I don’t mind sharing *this time,* I will not be acting as peer dude’s (yes, it is always a dude) personal note-taker. I’ve gone so far as to hand certain peer dudes (who I no longer work with, thank goodness) paper and a spare pen to make my point.

      • Abby Lockhart :

        “I’ve gone so far as to hand certain peer dudes paper and a spare pen to make my point.”
        +1, only I prefaced it with “F#(K You”. (We’re a very close team)

        • Killer Kitten Heels :

          I kept the “Eff You” in my head, and went with an “Oh hey, I happen to have an extra pen! And let me give you some paper from my legal pad! Here you go!” in my most innocent, aren’t-I-so-super-helpful-but-really-I’m-making-sure-to-talk-loud-enough-so-that-everyone-will-notice-your-lack-of-preparation-you-s3xist-loser voice (this particular dude was (is? probably still is, I just don’t work with him anymore) actually a s3xist loser).

    • As an associate at our firm, if you show up to a meeting without a notepad or iPad, it’s guaranteed that one of the partners will make a negative comment about it. It’s just like when a waiter or waitress takes my order without writing it down – I spend the next several minutes wondering if they will get it right, especially if I’m in a larger group. I agree with Wildkitten and Nonny – I take notes for myself, not others.

  9. Body language question, somewhat related to leaning in… should I stand up or not?

    Recently I was in a meeting with the big shots of a customer company. I was presenting the results of a study we did for one division of the company to corporate Health, Security & Environment leaders…

    The meeting was about 12 people, all men but me, all older than me but one. The two people who opened the meeting (one guy from the customer division, one guy from HSE) delivered their presentations while seated.

    My presentation was meant to be the longer, more technical part of the meeting… I delivered it while standing up… was this a mistake?

    I have been wondering for the last 6 weeks! What do you think?

    PS: I enjoy more speaking in front of a group while standing and pacing than when seated… also the guy to my right was very tall, and I don’t think everyone round the table would have been able to see me if I weren’t standing.

    • Killer Kitten Heels :

      It sounds like your presentation was “the main event,” so I think you were fine to stand (especially given the practical reasons – i.e., Mr. Tall Dude to your right) for doing so. I’ve been in plenty of meetings where the “intro” speaker sits while the “main event”person stands, and it’s never looked weird to me. Plus, since it sounds like you’re more comfortable presenting while standing, I’d guess overall your presentation was better than it would’ve been had you stayed seated, and to me, quality/clarity is more important than sitting vs. standing.

    • I don’t think it was a mistake at all. I would have stood up, too.

      • WorkingMom :

        Agreed. I always stand to present if it’s more than a couple of slides. It just feels more natural to me – that’s my “zone!”

    • Sounds right to me.

      And can I just add that there is nothing worse than folks who hate standing up so will deliver seated ,and you’re caught in a room either having a lot of trouble hearing or getting their attention. I know a lot of folks have a fear of public speaking. But often due to layout and logistics, the front of the room truly is best. I’ve seen far more instances where staying seated looks odd (and somewhat lazy).

    • Wildkitten :

      I agree that standing up is appropriate here. As a younger/female sometimes we have to take up more physical space to assert the same authority as a senior/man.

      • That is my concern… if by standing up I was transmitting less authority, not the same than the other attendees.

        Anyway, they are senior management and I am (becoming an) senior specialist engineer… so they do have more authority than I do

        • … but *you* gave the presentation, so you were the one with authority in that situation, right? You were right to stand up.

  10. Aqualover :

    And another thing, why does “your boss” have to be male?

    • Wildkitten :

      She doesn’t. Where does it say she is?

    • Blonde Lawyer :

      In the book she switches between he and she pronouns throughout. This was probably just a “he” chapter.

      • Wildkitten :

        Except that it’s a “she” chapter.

        • Aqualover :

          “If you contribute and look engrossed, it will raise his opinion of you and may even lead to new assignments.”

          • Wildkitten :

            Ah, when I cntrl-F’d I only found this use of gender with “your boss”: If you’re not one of your boss’s top people, don’t sit right next to her like a big brownnose

            So, she uses both, and “your boss” does not have to be male.

        • Blonde Lawyer :

          I meant that she switches between he and she for the boss. The whole book is directed as advice to women. I’ll have to check my copy later to see if the rest of the chapter uses he or she for the boss.

  11. Anonymous :

    This is good advice for everyone. I’m not sure why you have to make is gender specific.

  12. Granted that I’m probably, uhm, not the target audience, but the meetings implied here seem… odd. Like some sort of stage for the Up-And-Coming Young Person who is so honored at being invited to a meeting (!) that they wear full makeup and then must consider how best to Present Their Big Ideas. It seems like a TV show or something.

    Most of the meetings I’ve been to have been for fairly prosaic purposes (Q: What is the status of the Xyzzy Project? A: It is 53% less horribly broken than yesterday.), and I can only hope that all participants had their entire bodies covered by clothing of some sort. I know of, though I did not witness, a case where this hope was proven by a change of camera angle to be… only half true.

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