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Winning Rhetoric: How To Speak Productively In Meetings

You want your meeting to run without a hitch. So how do you make it happen?
by Johanne Schwensen | Mar 30 2015
Alan Palmer tells us it’s all in the wording.


The day is finally here. You’re set to lead a meeting at the office—one that you called after you noticed some issues with productivity among employees. You’re a little nervous about it going smoothly. You’ve rehearsed your talking points in your head, but when you finally get in there and start your presentation, all the points you easily outlined the day before evaporate into thin air. Tactful recommendations turn into bumbling sentences and awkward body language.

You’re not alone in thinking it’s tough to communicate ideas clearly and effectively in the workplace. But what are some presentation tips you can use to make sure your ideas come across in meaningful ways?

Author Alan Palmer points to rhetoric as the important starting point for business communication, especially during meetings. In Talk Lean, he describes an ideal way of speaking in a meeting, one that’s direct, but courteous.

For effective communication, tweak your rhetoric to strike the right balance between making others feel comfortable and expressing your own needs. The easiest way to do this is by being mindful of your sentence structure.

Now, let’s look at some productive rhetoric in common meeting scenarios.

Kicking off the meeting

Before the meeting, start by doing some good old-fashioned preparation. Think about what you want to achieve by the meeting’s end, and work your way backwards to make it happen.

You might ask yourself, “What do I hope will happen at the end of the meeting?” The answer will help define your opening statement. Then you’ll be able to lead the conversation in a way that invites desirable responses from everyone taking part.

Asking for clarity

If you don’t understand someone’s response, your best bet is to use the past tense + the pronoun you. For example, “What did you mean by your last comment?” or “What made you choose that option?”

Respectfully disagreeing

The key with your response here is to not make anyone feel ashamed for offering up their opinions. You can ensure that doesn’t happen by speaking from your own point of view. Begin sentences with I instead of you. “I disagree with you” sounds much less inhibiting for the listener than “You’re wrong.”

Speaking from your own point of view keeps participants feeling comfortable, and it eliminates any possible feelings of inferiority.

Getting others to listen

When you really want to be forceful and get people to listen up, use verbs in present tense + I. “I need,” “I want,” and “I like” are attention-grabbers in any context.

Solving problems

When you’re tackling an issue, craft the kind of rhetoric that invites feedback from others in the meeting. The more possible solutions, the better the odds of solving the problem as a team.

Move the meeting forward by using future tense + we, as in “What should we do from here?” or “What will this plan achieve for us?”

Above all, it’s important to remember that as long as you’re choosing your words carefully in a way that helps instead of alienates, you’re on a good track to productivity!

Pick up a copy of Talk Lean by Alan Palmer for more information about speaking tactfully in the workplace. Or, read the key insights from the book on Blinkist. You’ll find out:

  • every situation in which you should start a sentence with “You” vs. “I”;
  • why rhetorical questions can kill a meeting; and
  • how to make sure what you say gets heard and remembered.
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