In most languages, the word “meetings” loosely translates to “death by a thousand cuts.”
The reality of corporate life is that most meetings fall somewhere between “this is a waste of time” and “we could have easily done this over email.” And yet, if there is an important meeting and you’re not invited, you get very mad and demand to be invited. Then you get there and you’re like, This stinks. Why am I here?
However, since there is a direct correlation between looking smart in meetings and bosses noticing your management potential, your goal is to look like a real leader, while doing as little as possible. As author Sarah Cooper explains in her new book, 100 Tricks to Appear Smart in Meetings, “No one pays attention in meetings. So, to get ahead, you need to not pay attention better than everyone else.”
Cooper currently runs the The Cooper Review, a satirical corporate humor site. Prior to that she worked as a UX Manager at Google where she accumulated a trove of strategies to help people rise in their career without ever having to actually apply themselves. How? By looking damn smart in meetings.
So the next time you find yourself in a meeting that you have no idea why you’re in, what people are talking about, or have nothing worthwhile to say, take a page from Cooper’s book. Here are 10 techniques of her favorite methods to get you started.
Like how a Swiss Army is good for many things, you need an awe-inspiring universal tool you can whip out no matter what the occasion or topic. “My favorite one is turn percentage metrics into fractions,” says Cooper. “People are impressed by quick math skills.” So when that guy from the marketing team goes down the rabbit hole of business speak that you don’t understand, don’t worry. Listen for the moment when he mentions that there was 25 percent user engagement on the last project, then cut him off and pipe up! Slowly say, “So, that’s about one in four…” and nod your head knowingly. Then, as he continues, celebrate a quiet victory for blowing your colleagues minds.
White boards are confusing. What is their purpose in a digital age? To help you look intelligent, obviously. “I knew someone who would sit near the white board and, while people were brainstorming, he would just write down key words that he was hearing,” says Cooper. “At one point, someone asked, ‘What are you writing over there?’ He was like, ‘Oh, I am keeping track of things I think are important.’ I don't even know if the words he wrote down were that useful, but it just made him look like he was really engaged.”
The best thing you can possibly say in a meeting is to repeat whatever the smartest person in the room just said, followed by some kind of obvious platitude. Cooper likes “We’ve got to be smart about this” and “We’ve got to make the right choices.” “Just really, really obvious statements where your coworkers have no choice but to just nod along and agree with you,” says Cooper. “If you have a cache of these phrases, you can pretty much phone in the entire conversation, which I do a lot.”
When you’re on a conference call where you know there is absolutely no reason for you to speak up – like the first time you’re on the phone with lots of important people from the corporate office who will be doing the talking and making the decisions – that doesn’t mean you should sit there idly. You want to be the person who makes sure everyone is in on the call. “It will make you really seem like you want to have all the stakeholders available before you get started,” says Cooper. “And it also doesn't take any intelligence whatsoever.” Really, it’s as simple as: “Bob, are you there? Good. Susan, have you dialed in? Ok, great. Now that we’ve got everyone, who wants to get us started?”
After you’ve spent the duration of the call not saying anything else, your next chance to shine comes towards the end of the meeting when you ask someone else on the call for a time check. “People think you’re being cognizant of everyone’s time and that you want to be sure the meeting covers all the ground it is supposed to,” says Cooper.
“Sitting next to the person who's leading the meeting kind of makes you look like you're also leading the meeting and, as people are presenting their updates, it looks like they're presenting them to you as well,” says Cooper.
Remember, the worst thing you can do when presenting your idea in a meeting is to simply present your idea. Because, if you do, you risk the chance of it sounding as lame as it could be. Instead, properly frame and contextualize your idea. “Pick some successful things from history and compare whatever it is you're talking about to them,” says Cooper. This could include, but isn’t limited to, the wheel, the combustion engine, and the iPhone. “This makes it seem like your project is following in the footsteps of these amazing things.”
Ah, the “ideas” meeting. It’s the place where half-baked ideas are bounced around, then everyone leaves excited, and then the ideas lie dormant for six months until the next brainstorming meeting. These, in particular, are sessions you absolutely, positively do not want to prepare for. But, of course, you want it to seem like your attendance is vital, for you could be sitting on an idea for The Next Big Thing.
Cooper recommends exhibiting an eccentric creative habit. “This kind of was inspired by Steve Jobs,” she says. “You read that he would walk around barefoot or he would do quirky things and it would make people think, Oh, that is just him being his creative genius self.” The pro move? Bring in drumsticks and start air drumming. Your colleagues will think that you have all of this creative energy, and, if you don’t actually come up with an idea, they still see you as a creative force who just couldn’t reach your “creative place” this time around.
The sole meeting that everyone wants to take is one that tries to reduce the number of meetings the department is holding. “I just love it because it just makes no sense,” says Cooper. Yet the premise is great – you’re attempting to solve the big question everyone really wants to answer.
In her corporate life, Cooper was on a team that actually did this. “We talked about how can we be more efficient with our time blah blah blah,” says Cooper. Do note, that there is only one way these meetings end: Your team won’t actually reach a solution and you’ll be forced to schedule a follow up meeting to further discuss how to decrease the number of meetings.
Once you’re returned to your desk following your meeting, your job is not done. “Definitely thank everyone for the productive meeting,” says Cooper. “Any time you thank people or give kudos to people, it kind of takes the attention away from the fact that you didn’t really do anything.” Also, immediately request the meeting notes and key takeaways. Why? “The first person to do the follow-up email definitely looks like they're in charge,” says Cooper.
Matt McCue is the former editor of 99U. He lives in New York City, but he is willing to travel long distances for a good meal. Find him on Twitter at @mattmccuewriter.