How to sound more credible at meetings

Every leader-manager needs to sound credible – to their reports, their peers and their own manager. What do you sound like when you speak? When you speak too quickly or with a high pitch, you can sound overly excited, childish, nervous, or just plain inept.

There’s a good physiological reason for this: When you’re nervous, the flight-fight-freeze response kicks in and you tense up. You feel the need to rush as your muscles tense for battle or a quick getaway and your vocal cords follow suit. Tightened vocal cords (or vocal folds to be precise) raise your pitch. They can even cause you to squeak rather than speak!

A deeper voice sounds more confident and competent. Take your time, breathe deeply and relax your neck muscles. This opens up your diaphragm and relaxes your vocal cords, which lowers your pitch and slows you down. Don’t settle for a mechanical, low-pitched monotonous drone, though. That just puts people to sleep. Aim for an interesting mix of vocal pitch and speed.

Another way your voice can shatter your credibility is finishing sentences on an upward note, as if you’re asking a question. This can make you sound uncertain and immature. A 70 per cent falling inflection helps you sound confident and convincing.

When you have something to contribute to a meeting or discussion, gather your thoughts. Think about the two or three main points you want to make; you can even jot down as a few key words. When you’ve thought through how you can best contribute, you don’t need to worry about forgetting what you want to say or becoming tongue-tied.

Word your contributions clearly, objectively and positively, and  in a way that won’t create argument or antagonism. Clearly means replacing weasel words that diminish your points with powerful and specific words that strengthen your points: instead of ‘I think‘ say ‘I believe‘ or ‘I know’, for instance. Objectively means replacing emotionally-laden words and phrases with factual words and phrases: instead of ‘We were pathetic’ say ‘Our presentation let us down’. Positively means replacing negative points with positive ones: instead of saying what you want to avoid, say what you want to achieve.

In formal meetings, catch the eye of the person chairing the meeting and wait for acknowledgement before speaking. In informal meetings and discussions, wait for a lull, sit up straight and speak up in a clear voice that everyone can hear. Keep the floor by prefacing your contribution with a short goal: ‘I have three points to make that I believe can help us here’.

Don’t deny people the benefit of your point of view, your ideas and your knowledge. Speak up in a way that can make them sit up and listen!


How to hide your nerves

If you get nervous speaking to your boss, making a presentation or speaking up in a meeting, you are most definitely not alone. How can you prevent your jelly legs, sweaty hands, stammering voice or mushy brain from spoiling the great impression you want to make? Here are some ideas:

Remember that your body language is a dead give-away of nervousness. To look cool, calm and self-possessed, try to remain still without being stiff. Avoid shifting around or constantly moving your weight from one foot to the other when you’re standing or jiggling your leg or twisting your chair from side to side when you’re sitting.

Avoid fiddling with a pen and constantly grooming your hair. Keep your hand movements open and relaxed, not extreme, jerky, sudden or quick. Sit or stand straight and hold your head up, and look people in the eye when you’re speaking to them.

When nerves strike, you’ll probably start breathing quickly and shallowly, and high up in your chest or even in your throat. That works against you because it stops oxygen reaching your brain and your brain needs oxygen to think clearly. It also weakens your voice and causes your words to come in awkward fits and starts. Relax by taking three deep breaths. This calms you and delivers oxygen to your brain so you can say something sharp and interesting. It also strengthens your voice, making you sound confident.

Speaking of your voice, relax your throat to lower your pitch to sound more credible. A high-pitched voice makes you sound nervous, overly excited, immature and/or unconfident, not to mention shrill, while deeper voices sound more confident and competent. And avoid the upward inflections. Statements that sounds like questions lessen your believability.

Take care to speak clearly so that people don’t have to strain to hear you–most won’t bother. Speak from deep in your diaphragm rather than high in your throat so that your voice has volume and richness.

And smile. A sincere smile, as distinct from a nervous grimace, releases endorphins, the ‘feel-good’ chemicals, that can raise your confidence. Plus, smiles are catching, so you might set up a ‘virtuous circle’.  Plus, a smile makes you look more interesting and approachable. Plus, when you’re smiling, more people want to listen to you.  All of which puts your nerves on the back seat.

Anyone can hide their nerves. You may need to concentrate to do so at first, and keep reminding yourself what to do, but after a while, cool, calm and confident body language soon becomes second nature.

Put your best foot forward

Has anyone ever pulled that trick on you where they say ‘Oh, there’s something on your chin’ while they rub their cheek with their hand? Naturally, your hand goes to your cheek, not your chin. What people do is far more powerful than what they say.

In fact, 93 per cent of what you communicate comes from your body language and your voice, while only seven per cent comes from the actual words you use. You’re constantly sending messages without speaking a single word. The fact is, everything you do communicates. Whenever you move or change your posture, your seating position or your facial expression, you’re communicating something about your attitudes and feelings. So does the way you dress.

This powerful wordless language can build you up or let you down so that you either put your best foot forward, or trip over it. For example, research shows that:

  • People who make more eye contact are viewed as more intelligent (unless you lock onto their eyes with yours–then they think you’re a psycho!) while people who avoid eye contact are seen as insincere and lacking in conscientiousness.
  • People who speak faster are thought to be more competent while slow speakers are assumed to be less truthful and are less persuasive; people who uhm and ah a lot appear not to know what they’re talking about.
  • Dressing well makes you seem successful and wearing expensive clothes adds to your ability to influence people.
  • When you wear practical and ‘affordable’ shoes, people think you’re agreeable while expensive shoes and pointed toes make them think you’re not very agreeable at all!
  • People assume if you have multiple facial piercings, you’re less intelligent.
  • If you’re a woman and you have a tatoo, people jump to the conclusion that you’re promiscuous.

So it pays to pay attention to the way you sit, stand, and carry yourself. It pays to pay attention to the way you dress, the jewellery you wear and the accessories you carry, because they send clear messages, too. They tell people how you view yourself and how you want others to view you. So it’s worth taking care to dress appropriately and make sure your posture is poised and self-possessed. The more you fiddle, shuffle, shift or sprawl, the more you signal ‘I’m nervous and ill at ease.’

Paying attention to the silent messages you send helps you put your best foot forward. Paying attention may feel awkward at first but when you stick with it. it becomes automatic in about three weeks. You won’t even need to remind yourself to put your best foot forward.

Are you a good meeting participant?

Meetings can waste enormous amounts of time, often with nothing to show for them except a roomful of warm, stale air. But they need not be that way. The more meetings you attend, the more you need to know how to make them work.

First, do any preparation work you need to do. This might be a bit of pre-reading of documents or thinking your way through the agenda and what contributions you can make on the various items. Or it might be making sure you’ve done any assigned tasks from the previous meeting. Whatever it is, don’t blow your credibility by turning up unprepared.

Or by turning up late. Always be on time for meetings because when you hold up the meeting, you’re wasting everyone else’s valuable – and expensive – time, and that’s thoughtless and rude.

Speak up when you have something to contribute but don’t take up more than your fair share of the speaking time or waste time with personal stories, jokes or anecdotes unless they make a point. Look around the table as you speak, making a few seconds eye contact with each person, and when you want to disagree with or build on something someone else has said, quickly re-cap it first. If people have a habit of talking over you, you can pre-empt this by saying something like ‘I have two points I’d like to make about this.’ Or if they do interrupt, you can keep the floor by saying something like ‘I haven’t quite finished, Sam, and continue with what you were saying.

And here are two don’ts: Don’t hold side conversations. And don’t disagree with something unless you have an alternative to offer.

Discussion questions

What do meeting participants do that you appreciate? What do they do that annoys you? Are you polishing or tarnishing your reputation and personal brand by your meeting behaviour?

The importance of being on time for meetings

Two recent studies by a team of US researchers highlight the importance of being on time for meetings. The first study surveyed 195 employees in South-east USA and the second study surveyed 665 international participants. The researchers found that 37% of meetings start late, often due to waiting for latecomers. Who was late most often? Less conscientious, less satisfied, and younger employees as well as those who dislike meetings.

And what’s the big deal? Tardiness reflects badly on both the latecomer, who is judged to be rude, and negatively impacts the rest of the meeting members by producing feelings of frustration and being disrespected and feeling generally upset. That, of course, impacts their performance and the meeting’s outcomes.

The researchers speculate (and make a good case for their speculations) that decision-making, employee wellbeing, interpersonal relationships among meeting members and organisational effectiveness (given the high cost of meetings), all suffer from lateness. They also speculate that tardiness can say something about the power motive and deviance of latecomers and their withdrawal from their job, the organisation or their peers.

If you’ve read Section 3 of Chapter 25 (pages 807 – 813), you know that not all cultures regard timeliness as important as the white, European culture which dominates many Australian workplaces. But like they say, ‘When in Rome, do as the Romans do’; being on time for meetings is important, particularly when you take into account the high cost of meetings — just multiply the hourly pay of the attendees by the number of hours the meeting calls them away from their other duties and you’ll see what I mean!

Given their cost in terms of both time and money, it’s crazy not to optimise every meeting’s effectiveness and being on time so that the meeting can start on time is one way to do this.

Discussion questions

The sample sizes of these two studies were small and relied on self-reports by the participants, and so the conclusions are hardly definitive. Nevertheless, do you think the findings would be similar in Australian workplaces? What about at your workplace?

How managers communicate

In an interview with the Australian School of Business at the University of New South Wales, Peter Ryan, the regional learning and development manager for the John Holland Group, Australia’s largest contracting organisation in heavy industry, offers some good advice. Whether you’re making a formal presentation or having a quick chat in the corridor, the challenge, he says, is for managers to get their message across and to be inspirational and informative at the same time.

‘When I entered into management, I found I needed to be able to consciously structure communication in a way that met my goals of team motivation and engagement. I also found that, as a manager, I had to be a “filter”, because I didn’t want to damage team morale or team engagement. Harsh business realities and “raw feedback” is seldom what people need to motivate them’, Ryan says.

Ryan also discovered that he was used to relating to his managers in a formal way but to peers in an informal way. ‘When you become a manager, almost all communications are formal and business-related, and should have a business objective attached to them. The whole ball game changes.’

Discussion questions

How carefully do you filter your communications so that your messages — even the tough ones — also motivate and engage, as well as inform, your team members? How carefully do you craft your communications to achieve your objectives? How might spending a few extra minutes thinking about and planning your upward, downward and lateral communications help you achieve your objectives, build better working relationships, improve your image and engage your team members?

Beware of stuffy meeting rooms!

We all know that carbon dioxide (CO2) is a problem for the ozone layer and the greenhouse effect. But did you know that too much CO2 in your office or home impairs your ability to make sound decisions?

Outdoor CO2 levels are usually about 380 parts per million (ppm); in buildings, the level can reach several thousand ppm, particularly in meeting rooms, where people gather for extended periods of time. (Poorly ventilated classrooms are another concern in this regard.)

Scientists at The Berkeley Lab, part of the US Department of Energy, using a sophisticated test developed by the State University of New York Upstate Medical University, have found that even moderately high indoor concentrations of CO2 significantly reduce peoples’ decision-making performance.

Using nine scales of decision-making performance, test subjects showed significant reductions on six of the scales at CO2 levels of 1000 ppm and large reductions on seven of the scales at 2500 ppm. The abilities to take initiative and think strategically fared the worst.

Although the scientists studied only 24 people, they say the results are ‘unambiguous’. According to one of the scientists, William Fisk, the stronger the effect, the fewer subjects you need to see it; “our effect was so big, even with a small number of people, it was a very clear effect.”

The implication for decision-making is that the more people there are in a workspace, the more CO2 levels rise and the more careful you need to be to dose up with fresh air when making important decisions. Maybe the idea of ‘walking meetings’ outdoors is as good for decisions as it is for your health.

The implication for sustainable buildings is that we need to think carefully about making buildings ‘tighter’ to make them more energy-efficient and less expensive to run. Not thinking clearly is expensive, too.

Discussion questions

How is the air quality in your workspace? How much fresh air do you breath during an average work day? (“Smokos” outside definitely don’t count!) When you’re running a lengthy meeting, do you give people the opportunity to take short breaks in the fresh air and open windows in the meeting room when possible?