Speak up! How to Take Your Seat at the Virtual Table and Jump-Start Your Career

By Sara Singla

Picture this: You are in a virtual meeting (aren’t they all these days?).

After everyone logs on, the organizers dive right into content. As topics are discussed and people are jumping in right and left to get their ideas out, you have one of your own, an answer to the question at hand. But everyone is taking up so much space and vying for airtime that you sit back and decide instead to listen.

You will tell your boss later in a more limited setting. Then a person on the screen gives your exact answer. What a good idea! There is consensus around it. The meeting continues as a riff off your idea that was shared by someone other than you.

Been there? I have, and for a time, it stalled my career. In work meetings, just as in my personal life, I tended to be informal, conversational and highly deferential, applying my knowledge of my coworkers’ strengths to put them in positions to shine.

But that approach was not seen as strategic in meetings. In fact, an old-school former colleague once mused that I was “too cutesy” to be promoted to the director of the program I had successfully been running for two years.

I was showing up in meetings the way I show up in real life, and as a result, I lost clout and the opportunity to be seen as a leader.

The lesson, I hope, is clear to you. Meetings matter. They mattered before, when they were in-person, and they certainly matter now that COVID-19 has taken almost all business operations online.

Meetings are the way we connect to our colleagues and move work forward. Meetings inform the culture of our organizations. Behavior is noticed and reputations are created. How you show up and how you are perceived have career implications.

The public speaker and author Allison Shapira, writing for the Harvard Business Review, observes that “In many organizations, our leadership readiness is measured in part by our willingness to speak up in meetings. How we speak off the cuff can have a bigger impact on our career trajectory than our presentations or speeches, because every single day we have an opportunity to make an impact.”

Understanding this, I have learned to change the way I show up in meetings. As a result, I was able to create a new leadership position for myself in my organization, which I have held for the past two years.

I did so by practicing what I call the 3 Ps: Push yourself, Prepare, Pause. Utilizing this approach will help you be perceived differently in meetings (virtual or otherwise) and aid your upward mobility.

To ensure you speak up in meetings and advance your career:

Push Yourself: Challenge yourself to speak up at least once in every meeting. The more that you get used to contributing in work conversations, the easier it becomes. Eliminating the option to be silent forces you to find something authentic to say that adds value to the conversation.

Prepare: Come to the meeting with an understanding of what will be accomplished in the meeting. If the invitation is not clear, email the organizer and find out. Knowing the context will help you think in advance, so are you ready to contribute. Once in the meeting, type what you want to say in a blank document or email, so you do not forget your points.

Pause: Now that you know what you want to say, breathe. You want your voice to come out confidently. Plant your feet on the ground, sit up straight and look over your typed points.

Still feeling daunted? Remember, you are in the meeting for a reason. Your organization wants to hear your thoughts and suggestions, or they would have invited someone else to the call. Take your seat at the table and your space in the virtual room and watch your career take off.

Sara Singla is the director of organizational development at Hillel International.