How to shine in a meeting

First of all you’d be surprised how many meetings I attend given that I live on a farm and I hate to leave. And, to be honest, every time I’ve written advice about how to handle yourself in a meeting, I’ve actually written about how not to handle yourself.

Like, how to gross out investors. How to disrupt a board meeting by tweeting about a miscarriage. How to look crazy in a parent-teacher conference.

For me, each meeting begins with trying on every outfit I have and sending Melissa a picture to ask if it is okay for a meeting. The pinnacle of each meeting is when I wow people with my ideas, which is immediately mitigated by my insanely terrible social skills.

Speaking of my brilliant ideas, I am great at identifying my weaknesses.

Did I ever tell you the secret to writing a good sex scene? Or did I ever tell you that I got into a top creative writing program because the head of the program said I am the best sex writer he’s ever read?

The secret is to write about bad sex. So for example, you don’t want to write about giving the perfect blow job. You want to write about the blow job you start and then in the middle you decide you’re having a fat day and you can’t finish. The guy will tell you he doesn’t care that you’re fat. And you will say, “See? Even you admit that I’m fat.”

This is all to say that people are way more interested in what is going wrong in your life than what you’re great at. Which is why it’s really important to know your weaknesses. Because that’s what’s most interesting about you.

This also means, though, that at some point this blog is going to have to be a little more useful about how to shine in a meeting. So someone else is going to have to write the post, instead of me.

And that someone is Geoffrey James, author of Business Without the Bullsh*t.

I got his book in the mail along with the ten other career books that I get every week. It’s insane, really, how many career books I get. I want to tell you just forget it, don’t ever send me another. But now I am going to curse myself to receive more terrible career books when I tell you that his is the most useful, snappy career book I have seen in maybe five years.

So I am publishing an excerpt of one of Geoffrey’s chapters because now there will be something online that links competent meeting skills to Penelope Trunk. And also, now there will be something online that links how to do great sex writing to Geoffrey James, which I know he will appreciate.

So here’s the excerpt, and you should buy his book. Seriously, I don’t even know this guy. So it’s not like I did him a favor because he was nice to me at a conference or something. (Well, it’s not like I’d even go to a conference because probably conference skills stem from meeting skills. Which means, actually, that you should keep reading because you will shine at a conference as well.) So anyway, I have no obligation to say I love this book.  But you should buy this book. It’s good. And here’s what he says about meetings:

1. Know your agenda.
A business meeting consumes time, and since you have a limited amount of time, you want to attend only those business meetings that move you closer to your goals. Therefore, when confronted with the opportunity to attend a meeting, first review your personal and career goals so you can assess whether it will be time well spent, and how you’ll spend the time if you attend.

2. Know why the meeting was called.
People call business meetings for seven reasons, so plan accordingly:

  1. To get you to decide something. (Probably useful to you.)
  2. To hone their own ideas. (Maybe useful to you.)
  3. To convey information. (Probably not useful; ask for a document instead)
  4. To test out a presentation. (Probably not useful unless it’s your boss.)
  5. To accomplish group writing. (Never useful to anybody.)
  6. To prove their own importance. (Never useful to anybody.)
  7. To fulfill a process step. (Never useful to anybody.)

3. Limit your meeting attendance.
If there’s any question as to whether your presence is required, compare your own goals to the meeting’s reason and decide whether the benefit of attending is greater than the benefit of doing something else. To make this decision, ask yourself two questions: “What’s in it for me?” and “What bad thing would happen if I pass on it?”

If the answer is close to “nothing” and “nothing,” find a reason not to attend.  Skip the next steps; you’re done.

4. Prepare yourself well.
Since you’ve decided to attend the meeting, your goal is contribute to the meeting in a way that reinforces your own agenda. Research the background of the topics that will be discussed. Ask whoever called the meeting what will be discussed and how you should best prepare.

5. Gather your ideas.
As the meeting progresses, take notes about what’s said. Look for areas of discussion where you might be able to either add value, burnish your reputation, or push your own agenda.  When you do say something, prepare to express it as a complete thought, rather than a half-prepared remark that peters out in the middle.

6. Read the room, then contribute.
The trick to contributing to a meeting (and looking good in the process) is to make your remarks toward the end of that part of the discussion. When you express your own view, speak confidently and in complete sentences. Then, if appropriate, ask a question that you feel will move the discussion in a direction in which you’d like to see the meeting go.

So that’s the excerpt, and at the end of each chapter Geoffrey has these snippets at the end of each chapter that are little summaries. Check this out.


  • TREAT meetings as a possible way to advance your agenda.
  • SOME types of meetings can be useful; others are usually not.
  • DECIDE whether each meeting will be useful or useless.
  • EITHER decline to attend or prepare well; no in‑between.
  • TAKE notes so you can speak coherently when it’s your turn.
  • SPEAK confidently and, when appropriate, segue into your agenda.

I like that summary. Don’t you? Which makes me think the real advice should be to pay someone to summarize everything for you all the time. Then you don’t have to go to any meetings.

32 replies
  1. Grace Miles
    Grace Miles says:

    I like that summary as well. It’s great for business-type meetings. But most of my meetings are design-type meetings… we scratch our heads for 36 hours and finally, 8 hours before the pitch, we come up with a brilliant idea.

    But we don’t know if it’s really brilliant or if it’s the sugar and Redbull ringing, so we always pitch on the edge of our toes, and that’s when this post comes in useful. I think.

    I just got my first bottle of photo-finish foundation (I’m not a makeup person)– I think that means you can splat it your face and it’ll be so close to skin-looking that no one will notice unless they study closely. Ah, confidence.

    P.S. Penelope– I think this post will encourage people to send you more stuff. But you’ll probably pay more attention now, right? Studies show that people are most (intrinsically) motivated when they’re rewarded irregularly (i.e. they don’t know when the reward will come), versus expected reward and no reward. :)

  2. Jim Grey
    Jim Grey says:

    Penelope, you need meeting uniforms. I have this – a set of clothes that have been prejudged as meeting worthy, and you just put one of the outfits on in the morning and go. Because the last thing I need is clothing hassle the morning of something important.

    • karelys
      karelys says:

      That’s a great idea. I’ve been working on that for some time and still haven’t hit the right notes (to my liking).

      Even though this is just details I think it’s an important thing for everyone to have. Just have uniforms for different kinds of meetings and uniforms for different kinds of casual and formal events. Then be done.
      And if you like a shirt always buy multiples because I’ll guarantee they’ll stop making it past this season and you’ll kick yourself in the butt for not having bought like 5 of the same.

  3. Marcus
    Marcus says:

    I knew before I googled James he wouldn’t be a young guy, simply because I’m not a young guy and I agree with what he’d like meetings to be. Problem is, Gen Y (whom a lot of us X’s manage) benefit more from collaboration and like to know what’s going on, which means update meetings do serve a purpose. (And James is kidding himself if he thinks people will simply “read” update documents.) I think the point about stopping and checking the necessity of the meeting is an excellent one, and it’s saved me from more than a few meetings, but if you’re working with a team, update meetings (done correctly) serve a purpose.

    • karelys
      karelys says:

      That’s a great point!

      I think that maybe the meeting can be less time consuming. So for example, if this is a meeting in a setting where everyone is more or less together then you can call a lunch meeting. It’s more relaxed and people need to eat anyway. They will take lunch, might as well pair lunch with an update. Just keep it light and make the food free so people will actually come.

      • Geoffrey James
        Geoffrey James says:

        In the book, I go through the 12 types of managers. One is the Social Director who is always seeking consensus. My best advice for dealing with this type is to be the person who brings the donuts.

    • Geoffrey James
      Geoffrey James says:

      Just as the world in Mad Men reflected the sensibility of managers who grew up in the depression (like respect for authority), today’s business world reflects the sensibility of the baby boomers (individualism that lapses into selfishness). Millennials who want to get ahead will need to play by boomer rules until such time as they create their own behavior norms. I see myself as a guide to navigating that world. In 30 years, nobody will read my book because things will be entirely different.

  4. Lindsay
    Lindsay says:

    This post is great Penelope! You’re witty writing style mixed with the streamlined excerpt from Geoffrey’s book was the perfect kick-off to my Friday morning.

    The advice is extremely relevant to me and I would assume many people in a corporate setting. Half of my work is usually taken up by meetings that don’t move my projects and career forward. Previously, I attended almost every meeting I was invited to, like a good corporate soldier, even if there was no benefit to me and I had nothing to contribute. Approaching each meeting as a means to my end is great advice and something I had never thought of before. Going forward, this approach could free up time in my schedule to work on the projects that can contribute to the corporate agenda and my own.

  5. MichaelG
    MichaelG says:

    Could we get a higher resolution version of that picture so we can read all the stuff written around the frame of your mirror?

  6. meetMe
    meetMe says:


    I think this advice is great and the points raised about design/brainstorming and update meetings are totally valid.

    Does anyone cover or have any ideas on how to do a great design/brainstorming meeting (which sounds like it could go under having a workshop) and an update meeting?


    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      Yeah, I have an idea for an update meeting. Don’t go. Everyone can just email their updates.

      But, in a nod to an earlier comment about generational impulses. No one hates a meeting more than a Gen Xer. A baby boomer needs to go to a meeting to assert authority in person. A Gen Yer wants to go to a meeting to have that warm, fulfilling feeling of collaboration. A Gen Xer never wants to go to a meeting.

      I think this is what draws me to Geoffrey’s book: I need to hear over and over again that I should go to a meeting to manage what people think of me. That is a very good reason to go to a meeting and I like how he writes about that topic.


  7. Kathy Donchak
    Kathy Donchak says:

    #6 is my favorite and something I have been doing for years without knowing it until a client pointed out how well I can survey people.

    This is an important skill as people transition into different careers. If you can take a breath, you can see how your past experiences can lead to new insight with your current role, and is a much more productive addition to any meeting.

    Will check out the book.

  8. Emily
    Emily says:

    Half the meetings I go to are about facetime. I have a job that’s considered an influencer role in my company. Nobody has to listen to me, but for me to be successful my work has to influence product decisions throughout the company. Because I’m not part of the Engineering team’s process flow, they need reminders that I exist and can help. Sometimes the purpose of me showing up at a meeting is to get someone in particular to look across the room, see me, and have a lightbulb go off in their head that says, “oh yeah, Emily sent me data last week on customer engagement frameworks. I should use that for that thing I’m working on that has nothing to do with this meeting I’m in.” I work for a really large company where it’s easy to get lost in a crowd of desks. There’s a strategy to using meetings to inserting your work into new places and making connections with the people you should be working with.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      My memoir has a lot of sex in it. It’s published by University of Colorado under the name Adrienne Eisen. You can buy it on Amazon.


  9. Srini
    Srini says:

    Sorry, did not enjoy this one. Not the story which I am usually a fan of and not the excerpt. Agree with another commentor that there is a very valid need for update meetings. SCRUM meetings are an example. Kickoffs, brainstorming, Etc are the same way.
    The excerpt seems to be addresses more to writers than professionals and engineers etc. The full bj story would have been great :)

  10. Geoffrey James
    Geoffrey James says:

    All right, I’ll explain why update meetings are a waste of time.

    Let’s imagine that you’re in a team of 10 people. If everyone in a meeting gives a 15 minute update, you’ve consumed 150 minutes per person for a total of 1500 person-minutes. (I.e. A 2.5 hour meeting with 10 people in attendance.)

    By contrast, if everyone spends 15 minutes writing a summary, you consume 150 minutes in writing time but, because most people can read (or skim) 10 times faster than they can listen, you’re only adding 15 minutes per person (i.e. 10×1.5) for a total reading time of 150 person-minutes. The grand total is therefore 300 person-minutes.

    Thus, writing summaries is 5 times more efficient than having an update meeting. Q.E.D.

    But let’s suppose that everyone on the team is a slow writer and takes 30 minutes to write the summary. That’s 300 minutes in writing. And let’s suppose that everyone on the team is a slow reader and takes 3 minutes to skim over each summary. That’s 300 minutes in reading time for a grand total 600 person-minutes.

    Which is still 2.5 times more efficient than having an update meeting.

    But wait, there’s more. In order to have a meeting, you must coordinate everyone’s schedule so that all 10 people are available at the same time. This means travel-time, set-up time, futz with the equipment time, and so forth, while all the while the clock is ticking.

    By contrast, writing and reading summaries takes place at the convenience of both writer and reader.

    But wait, there’s more. Writing a summary forces everyone on the team to concentrate their attention what’s really important about their projects. By contrast, update meetings are prone to meander or go down rat-holes.

    What’s a rat-hole, you ask? It’s a topic that spawns a discussion about something that you can’t do anything about (like the economy) or which is fun but inherent stupid (like “does our product conform to Web 3.0?”)

    I have *many* times seen attendees knowingly propel an update meeting down a rat-hole. Why? Because they didn’t want to give bad news in their update and were running out the clock while the team discussed whatever was in the rat-hole.

    Which is usually some kind of rat-shit.

    That tactic doesn’t work when everything’s written down.

    But wait, there’s more. Doing the prep work beforehand (i.e. writing an update) means that when the team actually *does* meet, the team can concentrate on what to do next (the future) rather than reviewing what’s already happened (the past).

    Which was the REAL reason for having the update meeting in the first place.

    Or should be. However, that’s often not the case.

    In my experience, most update meetings are held as the result of the following train of thought: “Hey, you don’t want to work today, either? Let’s have a meeting!”

    • Natalie
      Natalie says:

      Completely agree that doing the prep work beforehand results in meetings that focus on next steps.

      Too many times I have been in “update meetings” where the resulting action items at the close of the meeting are “to get an update” on something or other that we were there to discuss in the first place. Total waste of everyone’s time.

  11. David Phelan
    David Phelan says:

    Great photograph. (Magritte would approve.)I love the writing on the mirror frame molding. Same width as door frame?

  12. Tracey
    Tracey says:

    I hate meetings. I’ve had dreams where I’m stuck in a meeting that never ends and then i die. I’ve decided to call them conversations to help my aversion to them.

  13. Tom
    Tom says:

    First of all my thanx to Geoffrey James for pointing me to your blog. I appreciate you refreshing and somewhat unorthodox point of view. That said, I agree with your point wholeheartedly. When I am in a position of conducting a meeting I aim to keep the agenda focused and get people out early ‘return to you fifteen minutes of your life.”

  14. jenifer
    jenifer says:

    Meeting means we got agenda,we got issues and we have resolve it through economically.Before the meeting has started we have finalize some issues like why this meeting is for,who are listener and what is the presentation topic and what is the ceiling for us to negotiate.And dressing sense will means a lot and i mean it. You can have some knowledge about the culture of the peoples you are going to meet.Like with Japaneses you may bow down to say hello.

  15. pusat
    pusat says:

    Half of my work is usually taken up by meetings that don’t move my projects and career forward. Previously, I attended almost every meeting I was invited to, like a good corporate soldier, even if there was no benefit to me and I had nothing to contribute.

  16. Christine
    Christine says:

    Darn, I hate that I came to this post so late because I’d really like to engage in this conversation.

    I am a Gen Yer and I had a reaction to this very typical of my generation, I suppose – it seems like a very self-serving, cold approach to collaboration. I work in a start up of other Gen Yers and we all meet regularly to brainstorm, check in on projects, raise issues we’re having to “fresh eyes”, and think about how we can all be better at what we’re doing. I feel very lucky in that I’m surrounded by people whose opinions I regard very highly, and I appreciate the opportunity to talk to them about my projects and how to do them better.

    How can we make these meetings more productive though? Is the boomer or Gen X way “right”, and we’re wrong, or is there a way we can do things the way we like, just better?

    One of my favorite books is the Idea Lab about Bell Laboratories. The building was literally designed in a way that forced people to walk down hallways past other departments, to encourage people to always be talking to new people about their jobs. This is the model that I see a lot of Gen Y companies taking – the open office space, team structure vs function structure, etc. What do you think about that style and how meetings fit into it?

  17. M
    M says:

    After reading through this post and the comments I was surprised that no one mentioned workplaces and work teams that actively discuss what works and what doesn’t work, and what is valuable and what isn’t. I’ve done this with a few work groups. In small groups it was great (as long as all members were comfortable to openly share their thoughts) and after a few times it is interesting to see patterns emerge. Introverts tend to love email and hate meetings. For extroverts, it is the opposite. As an introvert myself, it was interesting to hear from colleagues that they hate getting an email from someone who works on the same floor as they do – they figure, why not drop by and discuss and find the email medium to be too impersonal. Unfortunately, I have never seen a large group discussion about what works and what doesn’t be fruitful – too much disagreement, everyone has a different opinion and it is hard to find workable compromises in large groups. Perhaps with good leadership it would pan out, but I have yet to see it. Anyway, those are my thoughts. Love your blog, Penelope, I am a long time reader, but new to commenting.

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