There are four physical presence principles governing participation at a meeting.
First—Sit forward on the chair, back straight.
Why do we say this? Because your job is to be interested and committed to both the subject-at-hand and the audience in the room. And you should look the part. You may think you should appear unfazed and comfortable. But comfort is not the point here.
You can look comfortable for the entire rest of the day—after the meeting is over. On a scale of one to ten, with ten being the highest, looking comfortable registers a value of one in this setting. Looking interested registers a ten. Being involved registers a ten. Your job is to look, and to be, interested and involved.
Assume the president was asked for his or her impression of you after the meeting was over. Here are two comments the president could make. You pick the one that feels better: “Barbara looked comfortable in her chair, didn’t she?” Or, “Barbara was eager to contribute, wasn’t she?”
Second—Keep your hands above the table.
The only gestures the listeners can see are the ones when your hands are in sight. Gestures are important. They are as natural to the speaking process as words are. Whenever we speak one to one on a casual basis, we gesture without being aware of it.
Gestures will happen no matter where your hands are. They help make the speaker more interesting, more real. They show that you care. So be easy on yourself and good to your audience; let the hands do what they want to do, but don’t hide them from view.
Another point: When our hands are folded in our laps, we tend to slouch our shoulders and hunch our backs. Weak impression.
Third—Focus your eyes on one person.
Focus your eyes on one person at a time when you speak. When you come to a natural break in your comment, pause and take a breath while moving to another person. That way you look much more confident and you will be able to read your audience as you share your thinking with them. If you have to consult your notes, do so in silence, then look up. Focus once more on a pair of eyes and begin speaking again.
Many people get in the habit of constantly looking down at their notes. They don’t really read them. But it becomes a way to avoid eye contact. Not good. You look unsure, less credible. There is an old saying about how to handle yourself when speaking at a meeting, “Don’t talk to your notes or the tabletop. Neither will respond.”
Forget being conversational. Conversations take place in bars or diners or at the luncheon table. You are speaking to a group. Your volume must be strong. On a scale of one to ten, ten being bell-ringing loud, you should be at a six. Strong voice, strong gestures, strong message, strong performance.
We sometimes think that a soft voice will convey intelligence or confidence. We think back to a time when we saw a senior person, perhaps the president or the chairman, remain silent for most of a meeting. Then the senior person gave his or her opinion in a soft voice, and everyone leaned forward to hear. We were impressed. The natural conclusion to draw is that a soft voice makes an impact. And it does, as long as you are the most important person in the room. The reason is that title and power create highly motivated listeners. The audience strains to hear, because of the importance of the speaker. But, if you don’t have the big title, forget it. A soft voice works against you.
Think of yourself as giving a stand-up talk, sitting down. As a matter of fact, if you can stand, without violating the setting, you should opt to do so. In either case you need to speak with energy if you are to capture and hold your listeners’ attention.