How to kill it in a meeting when you'd rather be anywhere else

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If you’ve ever felt like your days are being eaten alive by meetings, you’re in good company. While some meetings are absolutely essential, others tend to feel like a big, fat waste of time. And let’s be honest, we’ve all been pulled into at least one meeting where we really weren’t needed. Don’t even get us started on those last-minute ordeals that somehow always pop up at the worst possible time. In these instances, it can be incredibly hard to stay focused—lucky for you, we’ve got some insider advice on how to conquer the worst of it. We spoke with CEO of JibberJobber.com and Pluralsight author Jason Alba on the subject. Here’s what he had to say.

Meetings can be dreadfully boring, especially when we're not directly involved. In these instances, what are some tips for staying engaged from start to finish?

First, if you can, come as prepared as you can. Even if it's not your direct responsibility, if you have been invited to the meeting you are likely there for a reason. If you have prepared, you will be able to follow the issues more closely, and you might be able to contribute to the meeting. As a manager, I don't want to waste your time, and if I've invited you to the meeting I either (a) want you to contribute, (b) want you to come up to speed on the issues, and maybe (c) want to hear what you think about the topic and discussion after the meeting.

The second thing I would recommend is to make sure you are positioned physically so that you are less likely to zone out. This might mean you sit in different way than you normally do (perhaps on the edge of your seat). Finally, take detailed notes. You might not ever go back to, or need, them, but if you take notes and practice active listening, with the idea that you might report on the meeting to someone later, you should be more mentally engaged.

We've talked before about things that folks should do to prepare for meetings. Specifically, what can be done to get into the right frame of mind ahead of time? How can we tap into our creativity when we're really not feeling it?

Get comfortable with any topics or reading that you've been given before the meeting. This might mean reading in depth, or it might mean skimming the readings. Also, before the meeting, prepare a few questions that you hope to have answered during the meeting. You might ask the questions in the meeting, or just listen to the dialog and try to pick out answers from that dialog.

When you're the one presenting, how can you make dull topics interesting?

The answer to this is what separates good presenters from excellent presenters. I would suggest having interesting and engaging visuals (which might mean on your PowerPoint, or it might mean some kind of physical visual aid). You might attack the problem head on with humor and say something like "I know some of you think this is a really boring topic... I do too!" Perhaps you make the presentation more interactive, engaging audience members as much as possible. Or, make your boring topic only 20 percent of your total presentation, and spend the other 80 percent on engaging stories and examples.

In what ways can you add to a meeting when you feel like you really have nothing to contribute?

If you have absolutely nothing to contribute, I suggest you be kind, patient, and wear a smile. Contrast that to being disgruntled because you have to be there... being kind and having a smile is a gracious way to sit through a meeting where you feel you don't belong.

We know that listening in meetings is vital, but we all have those mind-wandering moments when we tune out for a minute or two. That said, what's the best response to give when you haven't been listening?

I've seen this before. I've heard people say "I'm sorry, I was thinking about something else, can you please repeat that last part?" That is very honest response, and while it might seem uncomfortable, the honesty of it can diminish the tension. Or, you could say "I was thinking of another issue... can you repeat the question?"

On the other hand, some people don't know when to stop talking. What level of engagement is too much; is there a point when we risk moving from participating to dominating?

Yes, definitely. We need to be aware of the time allotted for the meeting, and the main objectives, and not dominate the conversation to the point where we don't get to finish the important conversation. If you know you have a tendency to think out loud, or whatever you do to talk more than you should, let someone know, and ask them to cut you off or stop you if you go too far down a path that is irrelevant or distracting.

Is it possible to respond with solutions/ideas after you've had a chance to process everything that went down in the meeting, or is it better to come up with something on the spot even when you know it's not your best?

I would rather have you give me your first impression, and tell me that you want to think about it and will get back to me later with a more comprehensive and well-thought-out answer than give me a quick answer that is not very good. You could simply say "Right off the top of my head I would say this: ______. But I think I might be missing something. Let me think about it and I'll get back to you in a day or two.” They key, then, is that you get back to them, even if it's just to affirm your original response.

If you're truly not needed in a meeting, is there a graceful way to bow out?

Personally, I would quietly just duck out the door, and then follow up with whoever I need to afterwards. That follow-up can be an apology, or it could be a short explanation about not needing to be in the meeting. I've seen people ask to be excused, or announce they needed to leave, which disrupts the flow of the meeting and makes others question how they could get out of the meeting also.

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Contributor

Jason Alba

Jason Alba is founder and creator of JibberJobber.com. He is a Pluralsight author of multiple courses on job search, career management and personal branding. You can find all his courses on his Pluralsight author page.