Help! I’ve been told to speak up more in meetings


Ah, yes. The old ‘you need to speak up more in meetings’ edict. A comment that is often casually tossed towards someone who has: asked for feedback on their performance, dared to discuss their promotion prospects, asked for advice, discussed their appraisal – or all four.

It’s not all that helpful is it?

  • You could speak up at the next meeting and be met with looks of disapproval – from your boss, their boss, other clients, or your client.
  • You could be interrupted the minute you speak up in a meeting – indeed, this happened so often it’s why you gave up trying.
  • You could speak up and go bright red.
  • You may be unsure what to say when you speak up in a meeting and be worried you’ll look an idiot.
  • You could speak up and your comments provoke awkward questions.

Tip: brainstorm all the scenarios that come to mind for you (rotten tomatoes, boos and outright ridicule have shown up when I’ve coached someone on this, so let rip), the better to prepare and deal with them head-on.

Here are some options to try – be selective and pick one or two that work best for your situation:

  1. First of all, the giver of your ‘speak up’ advice needs to be more specific, or you risk speaking up in the wrong way, at the wrong time, in the wrong meetings (no harm telling them this). So you could ask them, “Where’s a good place to start; which meetings in particular?
  2. It’s also important to get more specific on what sort of things they expect you to say – are they about a particular area of your expertise, or something in which you’re much more involved than your manager and are therefore better qualified to comment?
  3. You will probably need to agree some ground rules with your manager if they have the habit of talking over you or of leaping in before you can comment. Give them some clear and specific feedback about this whenever it happens – they may be blissfully unaware – as this could be the main reason you’ve not been speaking up. You can try keeping on talking, rather than stopping when interrupted, and be sure to make eye contact with your interlocutor so they know you’re on to them – or simply say, “Stop interrupting me” (if you’re female, the chances are you’re being interrupted more often than your male colleagues, so don’t put up with this form of silencing).
  4. Discuss and agree what your role is in meetings – in general and specific terms. Are you the note-taker, presenter, time-keeper, facilitator or some other role? Too many meetings are just a bunch of people all talking (often at the same time) with no specific roles allocated, which usually conclude… inconclusively. So you’ll be doing everyone a favour by asking for clarity on this. Being the note-taker gives you a great ‘get out of jail’ card for speaking up in meetings, as you can ask questions like, “Can I just check you agree with budget option A (or proposal 3, etc)?”, “so that’s by next Tuesday then?”, “for the notes, are we saying X (who’s in the room) will need to have this done by end-January?” Don’t be surprised if there’s some debate as your valid questions innocently remove wriggle room for your fellow attendees (accustomed as they are to fudge and drift).
  5. Ask questions to explore options, deepen the discussion and get broader contribution. OK, your role and experience relative to others at the meeting will be your guide here; if you’re the most junior bod in the room, asking, “What are the risks we need to weigh up?” might not earn you too many brownie points (even if it’s painfully pertinent). But no harm in asking questions like, “What do the rest of you think?”, “what other options are there?”, “who needs to be involved?
  6. Listen. No point in tuning out of the discussion whilst you mentally rehearse your brilliant point – things will have moved on and you won’t seem all that smart when you finally make it. Our brains can easily be diverted in meetings – ‘Why is he wearing that?’, ‘hmmm… what do I fancy for dinner?’ something in the corridor / on the smartphone / out of the window, etc – and we need to harness that attention to the meeting we’re in. Really listen to what people are saying and how they’re saying it and you’ll gain insights that others might miss.
  7. Observe people who do speak up in meetings. How do they do it – quietly, loudly, or with a statement or question? How attentively do others listen to what they say? What do they actually say and how do they say it? Pay attention to what works and what doesn’t with your colleagues.

You may also find this blog post useful: Ask a coach: “Help! I’ve been told to raise my profile”.


Dawn is the author of ‘The Feedback Book’, available now at bookstores and on Amazon.

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