Give every man thy ear, but few thy voice.
May 14, 2012 8:26 PM   Subscribe

I am moving from behind the computer to in front of the computer, how do I learn to speak up during meetings?

I am a programmer for a university. As we take on more and different work with outside collaborators I find myself being more in front of the computer than behind it where I feel comfortable. I am being asked to attend meetings with other universities, colleges and partner facilities. My role in these meetings is as a technical adviser to Dean's, CIO's, and Security Officer types. While I am confident in my abilities, it's my speaking up that is the issue.

During meetings I often sit and listen. I may be consulted on a technical issue, but generally I keep silent. It's not like I have nothing to say, I have tons of ideas, thoughts and suggestions, it's just opening my mouth and letting the words out that is real difficult.

I get anxious and nervous. Unsettled. I often let the conversation finish without speaking up only to send a post meeting email saying "hey I thought of this really cool thing after the meeting" while in fact I never spoke up during said meeting.

Personally, I am very shy. I am not fond of being the center of attention. However, when I do finally get talking the anxiety diminishes rapidly. Once that barrier is broken, I am good.

Help me find tools and techniques that will help me overcome this anxiety and allow me to better express myself in meetings.
posted by alfanut to Human Relations (9 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Does the university you work for have a computer science or IT program?

I would have to say that working at a university gives you a unique advantage for someone trying to work on their public speaking comfort and skills, because if you can find classes where it would be appropriate and the professor would be willing to let you present the occasional lesson and Q & A session, you have the opportunity to practice presentation in an environment that would be less stressful, or at least less critical to your own job.
posted by XMLicious at 8:32 PM on May 14, 2012

Where you can, use the meeting agenda to figure out what you're likely to want to say, and dotpoint out your thoughts in advance. Being prepared for a meeting makes it much easier to break that barrier.

The more you attend these meetings, and the more often you speak up, the easier it gets. It might never be easy for you, but it does get better.
posted by gingerest at 8:55 PM on May 14, 2012

Is there a person you trust who is usually with you at these meetings? If so, you could ask them to prompt you--if getting started is half the problem, sometimes getting called out skirts the issue of working up the courage to say something and then the topic has passed. Maybe something like, "Hey, sometimes I get thinking about solving problem x and I forget to speak up in meetings. Remind me?" My dean is notorious for putting people on the spot like this in meetings, and I actually really like it because then I don't have a chance to get all worked up; I just answer the question.

Another thing that might help is to spend ten minutes or so pre-meeting going over the agenda (I'm hoping there's a loose agenda so you know the talking points of the meeting?). I find that if I can think about the potential discussions and questions or problems that may come up, then I'm more comfortable verbalizing my opinions/suggestions, because I've already had some quiet time to think about them and articulate them in my head before speaking out. On preview, chiming with gingerest.

Good luck--this is a hard thing and one that will definitely get better with time and practice!
posted by stellaluna at 8:58 PM on May 14, 2012

I so went through this. Yes have a few points prepared. Yes it just gets easier over time. The more you speak up the easier it gets. One thing that helped me also was realizing that no one really pays attention. No one judges you nearly as harshly as you do. Those moments you think you really made a fool of yourself? No-one thought so but you. So, give yourself license to mess up a little and just jump in when you have something to say. Sometimes you will be the hero of the meeting. Sometimes it will fall flat. Mostly no-one will much care. It's all okay.
posted by Cocodrillo at 10:35 PM on May 14, 2012

Gut reaction: it's okay to send that follow up e-mail. If your ideas after the meeting are trenchant and interesting, people will understand you as a guy who is a bit shy but nonetheless very smart and worth listening to.

If you feel you must speak up, keep that same notion in mind: the ideas matter, not how you express them. If your ideas are solid--and I imagine they are since you have a domain of knowledge these other people don't (and you're answering questions astutely on here)--then people will listen. I have a good colleague who is shy as hell, but very, very smart and I treat his words like diamonds. So just be clear. If you need a second to figure out how to be clear take that second.

At the risk of repeating myself: If you're a valuable member of the team and you believe people want to hear from you, trust that faith and express yourself whenever. If you don't believe that, deal with that belief, because that's the underlying issue. Good luck!
posted by vecchio at 12:38 AM on May 15, 2012

I have this problem because I *hate* interrupting people, but there never seems to be a moment to speak without interrupting someone. So, sometimes, I will just raise my hand, then everyone knows I want to speak next. Maybe this would help?
posted by Lobster Garden at 5:39 AM on May 15, 2012

I think that if you're a good technical advisor, being the guy that listens quietly and only interrupts to say something really important is probably a good thing. If you just CC everyone with your notes on the meeting afterwards, I'd say you're doing your job well.

Talking for the sake of talking is something that managers do -- just let them do it.
posted by empath at 5:56 AM on May 15, 2012

Is there an agenda for the meeting? Could you try to submit an idea to the person organizing the meeting beforehand?
posted by mskyle at 6:29 AM on May 15, 2012

I find it easier if I know what role I am supposed to play. If I am the technical guy who is just there to listen to the ideas and then say yea/nay because of "these technical reasons", then I can do that. If I am the subject matter expert and I have ideas about how I think the project should be directed and therefore how the meeting should go, then I can take a more active role. If that is the case, I usually know about it beforehand and I talk about it with another principle person in the meeting - sort of a pregame "this is what we both want to happen by the end of this meeting" deal.

Maybe this was made easier for me because of the meeting culture that developed at my last job. There was always an agenda with a purpose statement, so everyone knew what we were hoping to accomplish. Usually at the previous meeting for this project, we would discuss the purpose of the next meeting and give names of people who should attend and for what reason. Once you have that reason, I find it very easy to play the assigned role, even if I would rather be behind the computer.

If your meetings are just random gatherings to give face-time in front of executives, then think about that as your role. Make a personal goal, like "speak up at least once per meeting, and always speak up if you disagree" or whatever.
posted by CathyG at 8:03 AM on May 15, 2012

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