How to wow at your next business meeting

Bill Gates presenting a TED talk before releasing mosquitos into the audience.
Bill Gates presenting a TED talk before releasing mosquitos into the audience.

Havas Worldwide's global CEO says meetings should be intense, collaborative opportunities

A number of years ago at the start of his TED Talk on malaria, Bill Gates released a swarm of mosquitos into the audience, proclaiming, "Not only poor people should experience this." I imagine he got the conference-goers’ full attention.

Not many people would get away with that tactic, but I do think it’s a great example of the energy and creativity with which we all should be approaching our business meetings. Too many of us regard meetings as a necessary nuisance or welcome break from "real work" rather than as what they actually should be: an opportunity to focus intensively and collaboratively on solving a problem. If you want to dazzle your colleagues and superiors at your next meeting, you’d do well to incorporate these behaviors into your game plan.

Come primed for action. Few things drive me crazier than when I sit down for a meeting and discover that the other people in the room haven’t come prepared to advance whatever issue we’re there to talk about. Typically, it means the organizers haven’t communicated a detailed agenda, and so the meeting becomes a preliminary get-together during which to discuss the "real" meeting they’ll schedule for later in the week. As soon as you’re invited to a meeting, find out its overall purpose and what’s expected of you. And then show up prepared with a well-developed point of view, ideas for next steps, and any other supporting information that might help move the team along.

Turn off and tune in. I’m as guilty as the next person when it comes to checking my phone during large events, but it’s inappropriate in smaller settings and especially when you’re not the most senior person in the room. Checking your devices while someone is talking doesn’t make you seem busy and in demand; it makes you seem rude and disinterested. Turn them off.

Don’t speak just to hear your own voice. We’ve all attended meetings dominated by a person who drones on without adding anything of substance. Don’t be that person. If you’re sufficiently prepared for the meeting, you won’t need to rack your brain for something relevant to say.

The flipside: Don’t be afraid of your own voice. Mellody Hobson, president of Ariel Investments and current chairman of the board for DreamWorks Animation, once told me how disheartening she finds the lack of bravery in so many meetings. "People fear speaking their minds," she said. "There is nothing worse than when after a meeting, there is all this water-cooler chatter, and I think, ‘Why didn’t you say that in the room where it really mattered?’" It’s great to send a follow-up message when something occurs to you after a meeting, but don’t sit on a comment because you’re afraid to speak up or want to score points by communicating it in private.

Challenge us. Celebrated astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson was on NPR’s "Wait Wait … Don’t Tell Me!" recently, and he correctly answered only one of three quiz questions. He said he was happy with the outcome because he now knew two more things than he had at the start of the show. If you want to make a good impression at a meeting, don’t agree with everyone unless that’s genuinely how you feel. I’d much rather have someone teach me something or make me look at a problem in a different light. That’s how you add real value.

Pair problems with solutions. I’ve always liked the sound of Spiro Agnew’s phrase "nattering nabobs of negativism." I don’t, however, like to run into such people at meetings. Rather than simply dismiss other people’s ideas or point out all the things that won’t work, offer an alternative solution or at least indicate a willingness to look for one.

Don’t make the mistake of looking at meetings as a way to kill time. You’ll go a lot farther if you use them to make a killer impression instead.

Andrew Benett is global chief executive officer of Havas Worldwide and Havas Creative Group. For more insights, follow him on Twitter @andrewbbenett.