Outshine all at next meeting

London :

In the days when Chairman Mao still bothered with meetings, he arranged for his supporters to sink into comfortable armchairs placed close to him, and his opponents to perch on hard, unyielding chairs further away. That way, he figured, by the time it got to a vote, any dissenters would have long since left the room.

For the millions of workers who spend great swaths of their life silently sweating behind empty notepads, it may appear that all the key decisions are made ‘upstairs’ long before the custard creams are laid out. But whether your organisation genuinely calls meetings to thrash things out, or uses them as a rubber stamp, being ‘good at meetings’ is a crucial weapon in the careers game.

Play your managers (and colleagues) correctly, and promotion could be yours.

With so much depending on your meeting prowess, it’s little wonder that meetings can make you feel a bit worried. Overcome your nerves with the old public speaker’s trick of imagining members of the ‘audience’ sitting on the toilet. Remember to keep your speaking tone low — no one listens to people with high-pitched voices even if they’re David Beckham.

Keep your standards up. According to Professor Nigel Nicholson, head of organisational behaviour at the London Business School, the form of meeting is irrelevant. His first tip is to adapt to the meetings culture you are in.

While US meetings can be very blood, sweat and tears affairs, the Japanese keep their body language in check and only interrupt each other to point out that the bin has

spontaneously combusted. In the UK, Brits traditionally pride ourselves on being icily polite. But, beneath the Formica, fists and bottoms are invariably clenched.

“On the surface, meetings here are very civil, but once you decode the behaviour, it is clear that there is very tough negotiation going on,” Prof Nicholson says. “It’s the stiletto, rather than the broadsword approach.’’

If you get a choice of where to sit in a meeting, find a central position so you can be seen and heard. Don’t be tempted to park yourself at the front — that’s for toadies — or the very back; a position reserved for rebels.

But being seen carries with it responsibility: keep your body language in check and your sneer under control. Look interested even when the agenda moves to ‘change of vending machine supplier’ — a derisive snort when any-other-business includes 37 separate points will not impress your boss.

Which is, of course, the whole point. Meetings were invented so that you could show not only how clever you are but could demolish the career prospects of your rivals: with that in mind, go for the jugular.

If a colleague in line for the same job has had a late night, draw attention to the rumpled suit and the baggy eyes by putting them on the spot; perhaps asking for clarification namely a project you know they have fallen behind with.

If you can take control when they stumble and blush — with something like “I think what Peter is trying to say is ...” — so much the better. And think about timing.

Forget the showy extroverts — the modest, the introverted, even the terminally inadequate can trump everybody else simply by waiting. A really strong opinion offered at the very end of a long meeting can, at a swipe, negate all the stuff that has gone before.

And next time you’re invited to a meeting to discuss the annual lightbulb budget, consider carefully your answers to the following questions. Is this meeting really necessary? Is my presence really necessary? OK, but is the person I’ve earmarked as my next boss, plus

my biggest rival going to be there? Will my long-term career suffer if I don’t turn up?

At least you’ll get a coffee for your trouble.