I was a public speaking coach – but I can’t speak up in meetings

It’s the Thursday “ask the readers” question. A reader writes:

I’m hoping that you can offer some advice on how to speak up in meetings or other large groups. This is something I’ve struggled with for a long time – but I feel like I’ve hit a point where it’s starting to hold me back in my career, and I’m at a loss for what else to do.

For context, I (she/her) work at a boutique client-services firm in a niche field. Client meetings are the hardest for me to speak up in – like interviewing a new client about their goals for a particular project, or freewheeling brainstormings. But I find internal brainstorms (and sometimes even regular check-ins) difficult to navigate, too.

To be clear, I’m not talking about a fear of public speaking. I was actually a speech and debate champion in high school, and later a public speaking coach! A lot of the advice I’ve found online groups them together, but I’d compare it to acting in a play versus joining an improv troupe: two distinct skills. My problem is the unscripted stuff, where you’re limited in how much you can prepare in advance.

Though believe me, I have tried to prepare! Before big meetings, I’ll do lots of research and try to think of ideas or questions. But then I actually get there and … can’t bring myself to do it. Sometimes I just can’t find the right window in the conversation to share my idea, sometimes I’m so focused on trying to find a way to say something that I have a hard time even processing what everyone is saying. And – most recently – sometimes I just draw a blank entirely.

I’ve also tried preparing less, to see if I was getting in my head by over-preparing, but I feel like that made things worse.

Up until this point, this hasn’t really had major consequences. I was always the most junior person on the team, and it felt like more of a nice-to-have than a must-have. But now I’m senior enough that the expectations have shifted, and I really need to contribute more.

This has all come to a head recently: my team lead (a partner at my firm) brought me to a meeting with Big Client in-person for the first time. Speaking up is something we’ve talked about before and, when we were preparing, he nudged me that it would be good to contribute something. But still, once again, I choked on the spot and didn’t say anything (beyond pleasantries) in this multi-hour meeting. Big Client definitely noticed, partner definitely noticed – and I found out later that partner raised it with my manager.

My manager has said that this isn’t a huge deal in the grand scheme of things. But I know that it will limit my opportunities. And, mostly, I’m just sick of feeling like I’ve failed again and again and again.

Another woman on my team has offered to tee me up if I have an idea to share – which I’ve done in the past, and plan to take her up on – but it doesn’t feel like it will be enough. I feel like I’ve tried so many things that help for a little bit, for a little while, but haven’t really made a lasting difference.

It feels like something more fundamental needs to change, but I just don’t know how. Everyone I work with is kind and supportive, and I’m perfectly capable of talking to all of these people one-on-one! But still, I feel like I’m at the end of my rope.

Readers, what’s your advice?

{ 258 comments… read them below }

  1. Hills to Die on*

    Start with some small contributions – once you get going it becomes easier. Sometimes it’s a matter of doing it even if you feel silly or uncomfortable. You just have to jump in anyway regardless of how you feel.
    Maybe also some therapy and/or an evaluation for anxiety meds if there’s something going on?

    1. ee*

      Do you have similar difficulties with group conversation in a social setting, or is it just work?

      I ask because this sounds a lot like the social difficulties I was having at work that prompted me to begin the process of getting diagnosed as being on the autism spectrum. I made it to adulthood undiagnosed because my social difficulties were relatively minor, my special interests were compatible with academic success, and my sensory issues were misdiagnosed as generalized anxiety and specific phobias.

      I have issues with group communication similar to what you describe – I often feel like I missed my chance to bring something up, or that I’m processing things slower than others. I find group conversation much harder to follow than one-on-one, and I often find myself either saying nothing or interrupting people because I just can’t get the timing right. I’m sort of necessarily friends with people who don’t mind this very much, but when I entered the work world, it became a much bigger problem because I would spend meetings either entirely silent and failing to contribute or I would be interrupting people who minded more than my friends and family do.

      Getting an autism diagnosis and approaching this as a disability issue helped me in several ways.

      First, it helped me to be less frustrated about the issue, because I had validation that this really was harder for me than it is for most people, and that made it easier to be kind to myself and forgive mistakes.

      Second, it gave me the confidence and the language to ask other people to help me. When I am in a group conversation with people I trust, I often just raise my hand like I’m in school. That probably wouldn’t work for client-facing meetings, but for internal meetings, it has been a very effective accomodation. In client-facing meetings, you might be able to ask a coworker to be your ally, and use verbal/non-verbal communication to give you space in the conversation and ask for your opinions.

      1. starfox*

        Wow… this is so similar to my experience with ADHD. In my case, my social deficits aren’t directly caused by my ADHD symptoms… but I developed social anxiety as a result of bullying due to my symptoms and I would totally freeze in social situations–which also translated to work situations.

        I’ve managed to improve this, basically by slowly building up my confidence. But I still struggle with speaking up in group settings like meetings (or class, when I was in school). Even if I have the perfect thing to say, I can’t ever manage to get a word in. When I go to speak when there’s finally a pause, it seems like someone else always “gets in there” before I can… and then inevitably, the conversation moves onto something else and I never get to say what I wanted to say. I’m not sure if there’s just something about the rhythm of natural conversations that I don’t pick up on or what….

      2. ReallyDislikeSpiders*

        Lots of great advice here – but one new idea: Maybe instead of putting pressure on yourself to come up with a poignant comment or statement, how about asking a question? Either ask for clarification on something you don’t understand, or ask how people feel about an idea, or ask for ideas. You can prepare it in advance, and the pressure is off of you.

        1. boo bot*

          This is good advice, and I would add that it might also help to try to vocally agree when someone makes a point you think is good; you can say stuff like “That’s a great idea,” or “I think that’s a really good point,” and it will (a) help you get into the habit of speaking in a meeting and (b) show that you’re interested and paying attention.

          There is real value in backing up other people’s ideas, and it might be enough to get people to stop thinking of you as someone who doesn’t speak up in meetings, as well—if they’re hearing your voice and seeing you engage, it might not be so important that you’re not bringing a brand-new idea. And if you can also ask questions from time to time as ReallyDislikeSpiders suggests, that will be another genuinely valuable contribution.

          I also think working with the woman who offered to help tee you up is a great idea!

    2. Fieldpoppy*

      I agree with this one. If I were coaching you I might also encourage you to try to remember what it felt like to be the debater you once were, and try to tease out how you see your role differently now than you did then. What is playing out around this reluctance — what specifically are the fears? What was different about that when you were more confident? What could confidence in your voice feel like now? I might even get you to name the version of yourself you aspire to be at work — like I have clients who have a nickname from high school, or a nickname someone has given you, or a speaker you admire? What if you imagined being that person speaking in the meeting, not you-junior-consultant. Name that person. What would that person wear? Change up your shoes or your scarf or the colours you’re wearing. Be a bit playful with it. It’s in you — you just have to find it again. Your voice deserves to be heard ;-).

      1. GlitterIsEverything*

        One point here: as a fellow high school debater, I’m not sure that attempting to channel that would be helpful.

        In Lincoln-Douglas and team debate, when you speak is predetermined. Each person involved has a specific point when they are allowed to speak, and a certain amount of time to speak.

        I’m wondering if her debate history might have actually hindered her here a bit, specifically because it’s so structured in terms of who speaks when.

    3. Snow Globe*

      I agree with something small-if you are thinking you need to contribute a great idea, it’s easy to get stuck. As an example, maybe just ask some clarifying questions about other ideas. Just something to become part of the conversation.

      1. Splendid Colors*

        Although I’m typically in discussions in a volunteer group context (or public meetings), not the workplace, I have noticed that asking a good question can be at least as valuable as making a statement of fact or giving an opinion. One of the most experienced participants has a knack for asking the kind of questions that cut through empty rhetoric. I’ve asked some valuable questions too, and people will thank me for asking when they are afraid to look ignorant by asking.

        Recently I was attending a County Board of Supervisors meeting and one of the newer members of the Board asked the County Executive (who prepares the annual budget) why there isn’t really an opportunity for the public OR the Board to discuss or amend the budget–the Board just receives a final budget with pressure to approve everything by the fiscal year deadline.

    4. ursula*

      When I was junior and nervous in big meetings, one thing that helped me was making my contributions probing questions instead of comments/ideas. You can actually direct the flow of conversation a lot with questions, and it’s an effective way of flagging potential issues and kind of gently providing your own insight. It’s also something you can think about in advance, but then decide which questions to ask in the moment – for example, in your prep if you identify a few factors that you know the client/group will need to consider, you could go into the meeting knowing that you could ask, “How will that work with [A]?”, “How does [B] fit in?”, “I was wondering about [C]. Any thoughts?”, or “Should we talk about [D] at this point?”

      I found it created good openings for other kinds of comments, if you want to proceed. I felt a little less intimidated by breaking into the conversation to ask a question than to insert my ideas.

      1. ursula*

        Also, you can be more engaged in the conversation by giving small, short responses to other people’s comments, if it’s the kind of meeting where everyone is talking (as opposed to a single presenter) – “True,” “Right,” “I agree,” “Good point,” etc. It might help you to not get to a point where you haven’t used your voice at all for 40 minutes (or 90 minutes) and suddenly feel the pressure for whatever you say to be super valuable.

        1. FisherCat*

          I think this might be key for LW in general, too. Its fairly noticeable in a small group if one party does not speak at all. Its far less noticeable whether one party says something substantive versus agreements/filler. LW may find it easier to make agreement or “piggybacking” type comments and that will make her less noticeably quiet.

          Obviously it would be best to get to the root of the issue and solve it but this might be a good start in the meantime.

    5. OhGee*

      I second talking with a medical professional about anxiety. Medication &/or therapy could be exactly what is needed here.

    6. RDC*

      I’ve found once I say *something* in a group, then I’m comfortable speaking up and am able to come up with more thoughtful, substantive contributions. So the earlier I speak up in a meeting, the easier it is for me to focus and contribute later on, without worrying about how I’m coming across. I try to focus myself to chime in early, whether it’s with a question or a small comment, even if I’m worried that it’s a stupid question, just to get over the hurdle of saying something. That leaves time for me to say something insightful later on.

      1. Lizard on a Chair*

        Yes, I completely relate to LW’s problem, and this is great advice. The first comment is always the hardest and most anxiety-inducing! And the longer I wait to speak the first time, the harder it becomes, because I keep building it up in my head, rehearsing what to say, waiting for an opportunity, etc. But if I can jump in once, it breaks the ice for my brain, and it becomes easier to chime in again and again.

        1. Kate Brown*

          This helped me, too, even when my fear of public-speaking was so serious that my throat could lock or my mind go blank — but only when it was a regular meeting (like a class). For high stakes and irregularmeetings, the best solution for me has been anti-anxiety medication. I know many people prefer not to go that route, but I think of it as a way to move from treading water (or drowning) to having a floor to stand on. It is terrible to have good things to say and not be able to say them. And successful experiences tend to build on themselves. I need medication very rarely now.

  2. amateur improviser*

    You mention improv — I wonder if you’ve ever thought of taking an actual improv class for beginners. It’s fun and really good practice for speaking up/being in the moment/listening and reacting. You can google your city + improv class and I’m sure there are people offering it. If you feel like you’ll be the oldest/out of place — you won’t be!

    1. Spencer Hastings*

      I’m a little skeptical of whether this will help with her actual problem. As I understand it, improv theatre is all about going with the other actors and keeping the scene going (the famous “yes, and”) — all you have to do is say or do *something* that builds on their contributions and moves the scene forward. In a business meeting, where you’re more concerned with what’s true and what’s possible, the process of considering what you’re going to say or do is necessarily different. The way I read the letter, that’s the crux of her problem.

      1. Eldritch Office Worker*

        “Yes, and” is actually a really common phrase in business meetings too though. It means “I am acknowledging your contribution and you are correct but I either want to build on it or take the narrative in a slightly different direction”. The skill improv gives is that it helps you learn to think on your feet. As you get better at it, you learn to think on your feet in ways that are relevant to the context that you’re in. That might be a fundamental part of improv that you’re missing – it’s not about shouting random things, as you gain skills you become better at building a collaborative narrative. That’s highly relevant to what the OP is working through.

        1. Ally McBeal*

          Agreed, “yes and” is a very easy way to start contributing, and it’s even better when deployed to help someone who might be disadvantaged in that meeting (e.g. a woman or person of color).

          I also wonder if Toastmasters might be good for OP? I know she already has the public speaking part down but I believe they work on other speaking skills too.

          1. tangerineRose*

            Toastmasters has a table topics section that helps a lot with “speaking off the cuff”.

        2. Hannah Lee*

          I also imagine that doing it in improv, where everyone else is expected to listen to and incorporate what YOU’VE said would be very helpful if someone is mastering the “how to jump in and contribute” skills. You get a sense of the interactive rhythm and positive feedback of success “Joe just “yes and” my contribution, and now I’m volleying a “yes and back at him and adding my riffs”

          Real people in the real world are not always good conversationalists or good meeting participants, so having a “safe” space to practice where the office bully or nit-picker or cranky (or just differently minded) client or the guy who always talks over you but then winds up saying the thing you just said and getting all the “Great Idea, Bob!” kudos for aren’t the people you’re trying to learn conversational volleying in with would be helpful.

      2. Rona Necessity*

        But I think it might be helpful to start getting comfortable saying ANYTHING at first, and then combining that with OP’s business knowledge and understanding of the problem.

      3. Filosofickle*

        Where I live there are applied improv classes — improv for business is one. Yes And is still part of it, but it’s less about building comedic stories and more about being getting unstuck in the moment and learning to adapt. While you don’t just want to blurt anything out in meetings, she does need to get past whatever is causing this choke point — practicing faster reactions in a controlled setting should help.

      4. Hlao-roo*

        As I understand it, improv theatre is all about going with the other actors and keeping the scene going (the famous “yes, and”) — all you have to do is say or do *something* that builds on their contributions and moves the scene forward.

        That’s my understanding of improv too, but “just say or do *something*” isn’t always an easy ask in improv. By the nature of improv, the things you say and do will often be silly or embarrassing, so improv can help people be less afraid of saying the “wrong” thing or saying things in the “wrong” way.

        If part of the reason the LW is over-analyzing and not speaking up in meetings is fear, specifically fear of embarrassment, improv could help with that.

      5. OP*

        Not opposed to improv! I think that will get to one part of the problem – the listening and reacting on the fly. But, in reflecting since I originally wrote the letter, I think the OTHER part of the problem is the power dynamics in the room. Speaking in a room of my peers (or stranger in an improv class) isn’t so terrible – but with partners/clients in the room it’s a lot harder.

        1. Eldritch Office Worker*

          Can you reframe the power dynamics in your head a little? With clients, typically you are a content expert of some kind. They are coming to you for expertise, you have power.

          I know that’s harder with higher-ups, but it sounds like they want your contributions! In which case I would think of them more as peers in that situation.

          That might take some work but starting with changing the scenario in your head might be a step.

          1. we're all friends here*

            Yes, this! I was conditioned early – perhaps because I know a lot of nice people, or just out of sheer stupidity – that people are people, no matter how much power (real or assumed) they have. Do you have trouble speaking up outside of the professional context? If not – and this may be a weird suggestion – I find myself imagining my coworkers/clients/external partners outside of work – with their families, with their friends – and it helps level out the imbalance.

        2. Actuarial Octogon*

          OP, I don’t know what your relationships with the partners are like, but I’m in a similar field and have recently moved up from the junior role to the partner role. One thing that was helpful to me early on was to talk to the partner that would be in the meeting ahead of time and find some places where they thought I could add valuable insight. So then in the meeting they could throw it to me with something like “Actuarial Octogon dealt with something like this previously, Actuarial, what do you think about [business problem]?”

          1. Hannah Lee*

            Or do you have in your midst an unintentional underminer or even an intentional one?
            If the power dynamics are tipped towards someone whose style or personal intents aren’t aligned with you coming across as knowledgeable or an significant contributor because their behavior may nudge you conversationally off balance just as you were finding your footing.

            I used to work at a company where the CFO liked to poke at junior contributors in meetings, sometimes because he wanted to ‘toughen them up’ and other times it seems, just because he could. Which sometimes might be okay, but if you have someone who is otherwise good at their job who is specifically working on improving their “contribute something useful in meetings” skills, having the CFO launch into performative nitpicking and/or bullying pushback on their first few contributions is NOT going to help the situation. It’s like hip-checking a new ice skater who is just learning how to move on ice so they can join a hockey team … yeah, they may need to know how to withstand those checks when they are actually playing hockey, but let them learn how to stand and move on skates first, okay? Unless your goal is for them to quit even trying.

        3. CatLady*

          As a woman this can be even harder to overcome due societal conditioning and I know I had to fight against some of that and my own internal issues. What I did was identify what was holding me back and then embraced it. I figured out that the worst that can happen to me was looking like a fool and then I imagined it happening. I mean I dove in deep. I went to the most absurd end of the “worst” spectrum for me and lived it. I act out all the scenarios and felt all the feelings. I did this enough times that I found the fear lessened and I felt like I could handle it…or maybe I just got numb to it.

          Then absolutely take your friend up on her “tee up” offer and start getting the real world practice. Eventually they won’t be able to shut you up. ;-)

          1. Joielle*

            Totally agreed! I had such a lightbulb moment about this in law school when I was in class one day and realized that men of extremely average intelligence were just saying whatever came to mind, regardless of whether it was insightful (or even correct) – while some of the most brilliant women I’ve ever met were staying silent for fear of saying something not quite right. We had been taught to not speak up unless we were 100% sure, but the men were jumping in to the discussion with like 20% certainty at best, and it had no ill effect on any of their reputations or career trajectories.

            After that, I decided that my contributions were at LEAST as valuable as those dudes’ and forced myself to share my opinions more often, and challenge opinions I disagreed with. It’s hard at first but it gets much easier over time as you learn to trust your instincts.

        4. Carol the happy elf*

          Improv classes would be a good idea, BUT you have to realize that a good improv troupe is not what it looks like at all.
          An improv group I watched at university had so much knowlede of each other it was almost creepy. They each knew how to throw ideas and set up scenarios, and catch the idea to run with it. There was so much trust there, and so much experience that a look would let the others know what was coming.
          Improv is like a well-coached athletic team. Another thing is that everything is rehearsed repeatedly, and the possible ends to each skit are obvious to them. It’s more like circus trapeze work than like a Toastmasters club.
          What looked like hysterically funny chaos was anything but. (They really can’t risk making each other laugh or get confused.)
          So watch a well-oiled improv team with that understanding, and the structure becomes obvious.

          You can do this. You already do your homework, but you may feel more confident when you really feel competent. Start by asking questions, especially about how the client envisions the end result.
          A good question makes your caring apparent, and you can learn what makes the other person tick. Then, you won’t be afraid, because your job can be to steer the client over the bumps.
          Good luck with all of this; it doesn’t really come as easily as you may think, and practicing with your trusted coworkers can smooth it out.

        5. Just Your Everyday Crone*

          OP, this is not unusual. I am a manager of attorneys (so people who are used to talking about issues) and I find that when I say anything in a meeting, they tend to clam up permanently, including the one I’ve worked with for 15 years, is my most experienced employee, and is completely willing to address things one on one with me, even if they are sensitive. I try to give verbal cues to let them know they have “permission” to speak (“Fergus, do you have any thoughts on that,” or, better “I’ll let Fergus answer that one.”) So at least let go of the part of this knot that is you chastising yourself for feeling this way.

          If the partners want to hear from you, they really should be referring back to you. However, if they’re not, maybe a good place to start is with agreeing with and riffing off what someone more senior said. E.g., “LaTonya’s point about reaching Gen Z got me thinking that one way to do that might be…”

        6. Former Gifted Kid*

          Is there a client you have a good report with? I think you need to practice with the power dynamics. If there is a client that you know likes you/ your work, I would go into the next meeting with them with the mindset that you are going to try speaking up and it probably won’t go well, but that’s ok. You will speak over people. You will say something that doesn’t come out the way you want it to. You might even say something that’s not relevant. Get yourself good with those possibilities ahead of time and try to trust that the client won’t really care. Also, remember that no one is paying as much attention to you as you are.

          I have this problem sometimes in social situations. I have a lot of my identity wrapped up in being smart, so I am afraid of saying something dumb. I also had a lot of adults in my life that told me be quiet in adult social situations or praised me for being quiet. Sometimes it feels really impossible to get any words out of my mouth. For me, therapy is the only way to unravel all of that. Maybe I’m biased, but since the problem is power dynamics, I am guessing there might be some childhood trauma contributing to the problem.

          1. Kay*

            I’m going to second the need to practice. Even if you can’t get a client to do it – can you get a co-worker, friends, find a group near you that focuses on business speaking/Toastmasters-esq/Meetups for this and do some role playing?

            Practice running through the meeting out loud, think of a few things ahead of the meeting that are either questions you want answered or information you want to get across and think of what the conversation might look like when you could bring those things up.

            Are you being completely silent or are you adding general comments of agreement during the meeting? Perhaps start small like saying “I was wondering about that/was going to ask about that/I’ll make note of that/we will need to incorporate that when we get to X state/whatever makes sense for your client meeting” whenever one of those questions you could have asked gets answered. Even an “Oh nice/very interesting/mmm/okay” is better than complete silence.

        7. Nesprin*

          I think its worth considering why you’re in these meetings and what your role should be.

          There are some meetings where you’re supposed to listen, take notes, or otherwise be a passive contributor- if so, great, no need to speak up other than minor clarification type questions. Judging by the fact that partners/clients are a stumbling block for you, is it possible that your input should be minor?

          There are other meetings where you’re expected to be an authority on thing X, and when thing X comes up, that’s your moment to shine. You may need to cut down on the number of distractions from thing X in that case- it’s hard to both keep track of the flow of conversation and also take notes for example.

          1. Splendid Colors*

            If the partners want OP to contribute as a subject matter expert on X, it would be helpful if they invited her to contribute where they want her input instead of expecting her to know when to jump in. That’s a combination of expecting mind-reading AND navigating the conversational flow.

        8. PickleFish*

          I have trouble with interjecting when others have a flow of conversation. My direct supervisor retired. For 6 months, I attended weekly video meetings for those at the level above me with the Assistant Director (2 levels above). The AD could tell by my face if I had a thought and would call on me. Perhaps develop a signal with your boss that you have a contribution. Also, you may have to say, “going back to….” if the conversation moved on. After a few months, I got more comfortable interjecting. Another suggestion is if your discussion covers 5 topics, having your boss/partner ask if there’s any more discussion before moving on. It gives you a window to speak up.

          1. As per Elaine*

            If the interjecting specifically is hard, it may be useful to practice a few phrases that aren’t especially meaningful but are easy for you to say and signal that you wish to contribute. “Going back to…” could be one, as could “About XYZ” or “Regarding Sharon’s point about…”

            I’m personally socialized to wait for longer silences between speakers (and potentially longer pauses when a single person is still speaking), which can make it difficult to get my foot in the door of the conversation, as it were, especially among people socialized to a much more rapid-fire conversational style, or a big group. Layering on the pressure of saying the right thing in the very short gap, or worse, having to jump in at the tail end of someone else speaking, ups the pressure in a way that can make it very difficult indeed. Having this stable of starter responses that will hold the floor for me for a few seconds and give me time to say the longer and more complicated thing takes some of the pressure off of the first thing you say, lowering the barrier to entry into the conversation.

        9. NotAnotherManager!*

          I can totally identify with this – I was the silent one in the room for a good part of my early career. I started out in legal (at a time where it was almost exclusively wealth white men running the show, so there was classism and sexism at play, plus BigLaw attorneys generally thinking anyone who doesn’t have a JD is a lesser being). Raging, undiagnosed/untreated anxiety didn’t help.

          A few things that helped:
          1) I had a great boss who planned with me to take on a specific part of a meeting or would give me a prepared set of questions/responses that they could pitch to me. Once I realized I wasn’t going to be swallowed up by the floor on the small stuff, it got easier to stretch a little more.

          1a) I had another wonderful boss who included me in individual coaching sessions with a consultant who’d been hired to work with higher-level people on the sly. They asked me to speak extemporaneously, recorded me, and played it back to review together (all of these are my worst nightmare). Turns out that, even being my worst critic, I didn’t look like the total idiot I assumed I would in my head, and their feedback was very focused on subtle improvement.

          2) I didn’t solve for X, I made incremental changes. It was a process and not an overnight fix.

          3) TL;DR, I am now able to self-talk myself off the ledge after not not experiencing major negative consequences even when I make a mistake. (I have a raging case of generalized anxiety disorder that went undiagnosed until my 30s. I had learned to manage that by basically teaching myself CBT principles of anxiety management even though I didn’t know what it was at the time. I am a world class catastrophizer, and I basically self-talk myself through worst-case scenarios v. actual experiences I’ve had. Turns out, the worst thing that ever happened when I spoke up was mild embarrassment at missing a point, and I was able to start talking myself out of the idea of being fired dramatically on the spot like an 80s movie villain or having the client ask to have me removed from the matter.)

          4) I prep for anything I can (which it sounds like you already do). If I’m going into a meeting, I know the client’s business, who we’re meeting with, and my understanding of what we’re being engaged to consult on. I have a list of questions and follow-ups. Sometimes, I even make small-talk notes and challenge myself to engage with people I don’t know during breaks.

          5) Now, over a decade later, I know that I know my shit and I’m bringing something valuable to the table. It’s always possible that my contributions won’t be the ultimate solution for any number of reasons, many of which have nothing to do with me or my value, but I bring my A game and keep getting invited back.

    2. Smithy*

      I do think that part of the benefit of an improv class is that it’s a way to ‘low stakes practice’ , and ultimately do think something like that would be beneficial.

      Where I feel improv itself might not be the best fit is that for beginner style classes, it’s not usually looking for you to incorporate a lot of information that you’ve learned over time and then integrate that into a conversation. With that in mind, I wonder if there’s a any kind of related professional or alumni networking group the OP could join with regular events to attend? Those are spaces with lots of opportunities to interject yourself and talk about yourself professionally but often in a more low stakes way. And if the group is relevant but not critical to your industry, it would still have that benefit of being lower stakes and place to set personal goals like “today, I will talk to two new people and say two things about myself – next event, 4 people, 4 things”.

    3. Person Of Interest*

      That’s exactly what I came here to say! Every skill takes practice – learning to ad lib in a fun environment may give you the skills to transfer to work.

    4. Migraine Month*

      In addition to scenes, every improv class I’ve taken incorporates some speed-of-reaction games that have let me practice being “on the spot” or “anxious and trying to respond quickly” with the lowest possible stakes. If you’re not up for a class, maybe you could convince a friend to play some of those games with you. (I like “Zip-Zap-Zop”.)

    5. Paige*

      Came here to say the same! I had a similar issue when I first started working, not helped by a boss who would jump on me for speaking up any time I spoke in a meeting. I’m also nuerodivergent, so part of what I was running into was speaking at the wrong moment – interrupting someone, or using a pre planned statement when it didn’t quite fit the situation.

      When I started my second office job, I joined an improv class, then the troupe. 18 months of improv classes and practice made it sooo much easier to speak up in meetings, and to see how to approach finding an opening. It also really honed my listening skills – improv teaches you to listen and respond in the moment, and to actively listen to your teammates.

      Pretty sure it taught me other things I don’t remember offhand, too. Can’t recommend it enough!

  3. Oriana*

    Ouch – I get it. No fun.

    Honestly, I think the nugget of your next step is already buried in your question. You should try improv. Doing this sort of interjecting (maybe you have trouble having been socialized to “not interrupt”?) is intimidating and can feel rude. But doing it in a place where there’s a lot less pressure (like an improv troupe) can be both fun and help you find your groove and power.

    This sounds like a habit that will be hard to break – and probably has some underlying values or conditioning – but I am sure that it is possible, and could even be fun in the process!

  4. Less Bread More Taxes*

    Are other people asking for feedback or questions or are they expecting you to interrupt? Frankly, I think it’s unfair to task someone with interrupting the flow of conversation in any context. Your manager or whoever else invites you to meetings should pause at some point and ask if you have anything to contribute. If you’re an important member of the group, then someone needs to invite you in.

    Other than that, do you have problems in meetings where you are the one leading? I bet you would feel much more comfortable contributing to a group conversation when it’s on you to guide the discussion in the first place.

    I really don’t think this is a you problem. It feels to me like people aren’t inviting you in and you are generally a polite person who doesn’t want to force herself into the discussion.

    1. Calliope*

      That’s not my experience with this type of meeting (which sounds very similar to my field). It’s not a conversation where everyone has proscribed roles and people are invited to speak. It’s more free flowing and everyone contributes thoughts and expertise and answers questions as they can. Junior people in client service professions are expected to become more adept with that over time.

      1. Less Bread More Taxes*

        That’s not really what I’m talking about. I’m talking about a casual “Jane just completed a project like this one; Jane, any thoughts?”

        1. Calliope*

          That would be great if it’s organic. But in my experience as a junior lawyer, there’s not necessarily an opportunity for that in a lot of meetings because the senior person will have been in on the same things as the junior person. But that does get to my advice further down which is for the junior person to try to own a lot of the details the senior people don’t have time for and then can be the person to weigh in on those, which can then segue into more “opinion/judgment call” participation. I think if those substantive areas are hammered out it’s great to have the senior person throw to the junior person. But it can be tricky because you also don’t want to be put on the spot if you don’t have a particular thing to add in a given instance.

          1. Calliope*

            But I think my bigger point here is that I think the “this is your boss’s fault” framing is not helpful. I’m not saying it’s the OP’s fault or that the boss is perfect. It’s a totally normal thing to work through and senior people can help. But I think OP needs to work on strategies that can be implemented without a senior person too.

    2. Actuarial Octogon*

      Agreed completely. It sounds like you’re being failed by the partners that have included you in these meetings. If they think your input is valuable enough to bring you to a meeting, they should make room for you to contribute. It benefits them to get you involved.

      1. OrdinaryJoe*

        Yes! I’d agree with this … your partners/manager seems willing to help with the problem so maybe ask for their help. I use to do this with new employees to get them use to speaking with our key volunteers at meetings. We’d literally plan an ‘impromptu’ question that I’d throw out when I felt it fit with the flow. I had no problem speaking up and could then, once I got control, soft ball my staff a prepared segway for them.

        “Oh! Great idea, Volunteer. New Staff person, weren’t you telling me something about a project you worked on that did something similar?” They were prepared so could speak confidentially about it.

      2. Anon all day*

        At least in my experience, though, this isn’t how these meetings work, and expecting to be provided such an opening would be seen as what should be unnecessary hand-holding.

        1. Actuarial Octogon*

          Perhaps it varies by industry, but in my experience it is super common for the more senior person to throw questions to the more junior person. Especially if they’re trying to give the junior person more opportunities to speak in front of clients. I’ve been on both sides and it is so common we talk about this technique in training and meeting prep.

          If this isn’t how OP’s office works, or if her senior colleagues won’t play ball then there are lots of other good recommendations in the thread that may help.

    3. Miss Muffet*

      If it’s a multi-hour meeting, I would think at least part of it is some kind of presentation, or at least a deck that has the agenda and some pieces to just keep the meeting flowing/give people something to look at… in that case, couldn’t you be in charge of certain sections of the meeting so that you are kinda forced to talk and interact? It would also help set you up as the ‘expert’ in that part – the one to answer questions or give guidance. It, at a minimum, can give you some entry point to use your voice.

    4. starfox*

      I disagree… it says in the letter that her partner did give her opportunities to contribute, and she still “blanked.”

  5. Hen in a Windstorm*

    Do you have an internal monologue going? Are you telling yourself you can’t, or that you shouldn’t, or that what you have to say isn’t important enough?

    I’m assuming you’re centering this on yourself, so maybe if you centered it on the client you could shift your mindset. Like telling yourself, “I need to find out X from the client for their project to succeed” or “It’s important *to the client* that I ask for clarification” or “The client needs a 4th option and I can help them with that.”

    1. Thistle Pie*

      I think this is an important question. What is the fear/emotion behind the block for LW? In the moment what are the thoughts and physical feelings they are experiencing? Is it all work conversations (LW says even regular check ins are hard)? Does LW have a history of being shamed for speaking their mind or speaking at all (children should be seen and not heard)?

      This seems like something a therapist could help with, especially since it’s getting to the point where others are noticing and it’s causing LW distress.

    2. Van Wilder*

      This is smart. It reminds me of advice we always get about just asking the client what their concerns are, instead of coming to the meeting with nothing but ideas about what we want to do for them/sell them.

      What if, as a starting point, you just tried to ask one or two meaningful questions during the meeting? That would keep you focused on what others are saying and (I’m guessing) give the impression of your having contributed a lot. It would also give the client a chance to talk about their concerns, which people love to do.

    3. Florp*

      This is great advice. I find when I am anxious about contributing to a conversation, I spend more time thinking about what I’m going to say next than actually listening to other people in the room. Which means I miss information and ideas, which gives me less to talk about. Then I beat myself up for missing an opportunity. It’s a vicious circle.

      I have hyperattentive ADHD, so I have to force myself to choose a rabbit hole–focus intensely on not knowing what to say and beating myself up, or focus intensely on other people in the room and find an interesting kernel in something they’ve said to talk about. It’s all about controlling my internal monologue.

      I will also say that I have a relative who is so egregiously wrapped up in what she is going to say and what she wants everyone to know about her that she will completely lose the thread of a conversation. Aside from the general impression she gives of not being interested in you at all, this has resulted in some total non-sequiturs coming out of her mouth. Some of them are funny, but some have been downright insensitive or offensive. It was the fear of being perceived like her that got me to really work on this. If you can think of this as less of a constant test to see if you measure up and more as you are doing someone a kindness with a small relevant response to something they have said, it might help reframe it!

  6. Been there done that*

    Have you tried arranging with the partner to give you a topic or a portion of the meeting to own. Not to prepare, but to facilitate. That gives you a specific opening since they will give you the microphone so to say, and once you break the ice it will be easier to contribute on that topic.

    1. Rich*

      I second this. Working with your partner to have a pre-planned part of the meeting as yours to facilitate is a good idea. Similarly, plan a couple of topics that are likely to come up where your partner can ask for your input. “OP, haven’t you been working on left handed teapot design?” “Don’t you know something about teapot glazing process?”

      By having a couple of subject areas teed up, it gives you an area to focus on rather than “something in the meeting”, and by working with them to frame it as a question, it may be easier for your to construct a response, rather than raising a fresh point organically.

    2. AY*

      Better yet, see if you can run entire meetings yourself! Obviously it doesn’t need to be the Big Meeting with the Big Client or the First Meeting with the Big Client, at least not right off the bat.

      Right now, it sounds like you’re locked into a trap where you feel can’t contribute at all unless you contribute perfectly at the perfect time. Running a meeting yourself will get you out of that trap simply by necessity.

    3. ferrina*

      +1. I find that I get tripped up by power dynamics and I don’t know who I can interrupt or for how long. I’m hesitant to speak up if I’m supposed to support on the meeting, and my boss tells me I’m too quiet. If I’m leading the meeting, it is not an issue. When I’m responsible for the flow and the outcome, I excel (to the point that other teams have asked me to get involved in their projects so I can run meetings).

      What happens when you’re leading meetings? Try leading a meeting with your boss or colleagues and see if that makes things easier. If that works, try having your boss be support in a client meeting and you own the meeting

    4. Quinalla*

      I think this would help a lot, you could prep on it some and they could invite you to speak about it when it comes up. Bring notes, there is no problem with that. But I also would try not to overprep, expectations should be here are some potential points to bring up, but I need to listen to the client and tailor it to what makes sense for them.

      Also, I find it much easier to interject into these free-flowing conversations with questions or reflect and build. So if client X brings up problem Y, ask something like “You brought up issue Y a minute ago, can we go back to that? Can you expand on it a little more? OR **Insert relevant specific question here**” Again, no worries if you want to take some notes while people are talking to have things to call back to. I also like the reflect and build like, “Jane, you mentioned using Y to solve Z, that sounds like a great application, but what if we also do X?”

      I know these are generic, but I find these types of interjections easier than just something like “Well I think we should do X!!” it feels extra rude and interrupting to me.

      And again, notes are your friend. If you are drawing a blank, having some pre-prepared and also some notes during the meeting can be something to glance at quickly if you are drawing a blank to help your brain. It sounds like you might be more of a deep processor potentially, I am myself, and I too struggle with meetings like this sometimes because processing on the spot is not how I’m wired. So give yourself some grace there too if that is true for you, but even if you only speak up once or twice vs. none, that will go a long way and get you more used to doing it.

      How are you in like a big friend group conversation? If you struggle there, maybe try and practice interjecting there where it is low stakes. If you don’t struggle there, try and reframe a meeting like this as just a bit more formal type of gathering. You (maybe) can’t swear, can’t discuss certain topics, but otherwise it can be very similar.

    5. logicbutton*

      I saw myself in this letter (aside from the part about having been a public speaker professionally) and this is exactly what I’d recommend. Not only does it break the ice in that meeting, but even if you don’t do any facilitating in a future meeting, speaking up will feel like less of a hurdle and you’ll be more quick on your feet.

    6. Katie*

      I also second this point. If it’s my team + clients, whoever is the most senior has the tendency to just “run” the meeting, and the others don’t speak up. Where we need to we break up that dynamic, we’ll segue in other team members by saying something like “okay, on the point of teapot manufacture, Jim has good visibility on this, do you have any observations on this Jim?” which gives Jim a great platform to say what he needs to.

  7. TongueTiedMS*

    This letter really resonates with me. I also really struggle to speak up in meetings. Some of my strategies the LW has already tried — preparing with a list of questions, having someone tee you up. Some other ideas are to try to open the discussion, so you at least got one comment or question in before those windows seem to close back up. It would also be worthwhile to dig in to what your fears are. Personally, I know that I feel more tongue tied in situations where I don’t feel like the expert. So it might be helpful to think before the meeting on why you’re in the room–what skills or knowledge do you have to contribute? Why was your presence specifically requested? Sometimes just thinking about your own skill set can hype you up enough to give you the confidence to speak. Another thing is that I know I have a hard time speaking up when I don’t know the group well–so can you meet 1:1 with the client for a few minutes before the meeting, either by arriving early or through other pre-meeting tasks? Good luck to LW!

  8. Web Crawler*

    Speaking up in a meeting is a combination of a lot of skills and steps, and different things will have different solutions. A quick list might be:
    – thinking of an idea when other people are talking
    – turning that idea into words, or organizing the idea into a form that can be shared
    – seeing a conversational opening
    – letting the words come out of your mouth

    Which parts do you think you have a problem with?

    1. Myrin*

      This is an excellent breakdown and I think it would greatly benefit OP (or anyone else reading!) to really think about this first and foremost.

    2. WellRed*

      This. Can you think of it as a conversation with back and forth rather than needing to be prepared for every eventuality?

    3. Web Crawler*

      It’s worth mentioning that for a lot of people, these are trainable and you can overcome them with practice. But for some people, our brains are just wired different in a way that it’s always gonna be hard. (This goes for people with adhd or autism but you don’t have to have either diagnosis for it to be hard for your particular brain.)

      Like- I have to put so much energy into auditory processing and following what’s happening in a group conversation, that I’m never gonna be able to come up with an idea and talk about it on the spot. And also because of this, my reaction time is slow and finding the right spot to jump in borders on impossible.

      My tricks:
      – sharing my list of ideas ahead of time, if possible
      – being the one taking notes, so I’m involved without talking
      – having an ally who knows what I want to say, and can prompt me with questions bc my mind blanks when I have to produce words
      – having a visible list of ideas or an agenda at the meeting, via screensharing or a piece of paper that can be shown to others

      1. NotAnotherManager!*

        This is my older kid. He has a processing delay, and he really needs some time to process an respond – noticeably more than people without this issue. He is very smart, but you’re going to wait 30 seconds longer for his good idea than someone who does not have that particular brain makeup.

    4. OP*

      Thank you, Web Crawler – I like this framing of different problems/solutions! Mine are definitely #3 and #4.

      1. Not a regular*

        One thing I’ve found helpful with 3 is making sure that without disrupting someone who is speaking, I convey non verbally that I’m looking to speak. It might be worth trying to see how others look when they contribute, if there are signals you pick up on.

        1. Kes*

          Agreed with this and also, sometimes you do have to make your own window – look for the indicators that the current speaker is winding down and jump in when they stop. Pay attention to who else looks like they might speak next and try to and give out those signals yourself, but don’t wait to see if someone else is going to speak first because they probably will, and even if they don’t if you wait too long it may feel too awkward in the other direction.
          This is something that may take some practice to get comfortable with but is worth pushing through because it’s an important skill in settings like yours. If you have internal planning meetings I would recommend starting by practicing in those or even in other meetings not related to your client work, or social events as a ‘lower stakes’ setting and then build up to the settings that intimidate you more. But also, I wouldn’t set a goal of ‘I will speak up once’ because that might mean you fixate on it; simply, when you’re listening to others and you think of a point that you think is important, resolve that you will bring it up and prepare yourself to jump in with it.

      2. River Otter*

        #3 is a common problem for people on the spectrum. Look for conversational tips geared at that population.
        I addressed it by learning to be ok with interrupting people, but I don’t think that’s a good strategy :)

      3. A in Houston*

        With #3, a good faciliator will pick up on when someone wants to talk. Othertimes, you simply need to raise your hand. If these are virtual meetings, use the hand raise and emojis. If an in-person, lean in and start the convo with “yes and…”

      4. Ope!*

        For number three, I’d recommend memorizing some version of this phrase:

        “Wakeen, I’d like to quickly jump back to (Point A) for a moment.” Literally practice saying it outloud, so that you can pull it out without having to think about it in a meeting. In my field at least, it’s super common for idea meetings to bob and weave as people think of things. This phrase is permission to get your idea in without the pressure of finding the “perfect interjection moment” (which rarely exists tbh!)

        1. Global Cat Herder*

          THIS! I just got out of a meeting where I said “I know we’ve moved on a bit, but I’d like to back up to what Joe said about , which was a terrific idea, “. It happens a lot in these brainstorming meetings! It’s totally normal!

          And sometimes when you do this, it gets a little more weight because it looks like you thought it out a little more, instead of just blurting it out in the moment. So don’t wait for the right moment, because that might never come … make this the moment. Back the conversation up.

      5. Fluffy Initiative*

        I sometimes have problems with #3, especially in a room of people who dominate conversations and don’t ask for others’ input. I’ve found it helpful to jot down what I want to say, and then when there’s a natural pause in the conversation (or even near the end when someone does the “Anything else before we wrap up?” niceties, I raise my hand and say something like “It occurred to me when you said X, that we should also think about Y/I have a question about Z/etc.” Then you can get your comments out there, and even if the meeting is out of time it flags that you had a contribution and can send a follow-up email or whatever.

      6. Wolfie*

        I’m glad you saw Web Crawler’s comment OP, as it’s the essence of what I wanted to say too (but phrased much better!). I think this is unlikely to be an option, but I’m going to throw it out there anyway: do you ever have virtual meetings and do you have the option to attend in that medium if so? I ask because some neurodivergent people (ie those more likely to struggle with #3 and #4 too) have reported finding virtual meetings MUCH easier to navigate, ie the ability to raise your hand when you have something to say – *and the meeting coordinator can find that opening for you* (it’s amazing). Or alternatively, putting ideas into the chat helps with #4.

    5. Web Crawler*

      I thought of a few more steps to consider:
      – remembering what you wanted to say while still following the conversation
      – continuing to talk without getting interrupted
      – battling the voice inside you that says you shouldn’t speak
      – remembering *everything* you wanted to say, instead of just the overview or first sentence

      (I also added some things that work for me, but that comment’s in the moderation queue.)

      1. Madeleine Matilda*

        To add to Web Crawlers excellent advice, I recommend when others are talking and you have something you want to say in response or in addition to their remarks, write down a few words or notes to remind yourself when the conversational opening occurs.

      2. Elsie*

        Addressing 3 can be as simple as raising a finger or hand lightly to indicate you would like to be the speaker after this one. Even in an unchaired meeting, this can be effective. It also commits you which means you won’t let the moment pass repeatedly.
        Addressing 4 might be to give yourself a tiny filler strategy to deal with the shock of speaking before you get to your own idea or question. So plan to kick off your contribution with some non urgent words:
        “Building on what Sue said,”
        “I was wondering as I listened…”
        “Lots of interesting ideas already. I wanted to add…”
        “Thanks for that, Bob. Perhaps…”
        In stressful meetings I have often written bulleted key words to structure my point. It might help to remember that you are in the room as a person who brings value to the piece of work. But the main thing that will help is taking the pressure off yourself to be perfect in your contribution – practice the skill of sharing any “good enough” contribution. That will help any especially good ones be better shared and better received.

    6. Zippy*

      I would also add knowing how to wrap up to your list. I went to a college with 100% discussion-based classes, and it is extremely common that someone doesn’t know how to wrap up their point so they just repeat the whole thing over again. Knowing when to stop talking is an important communication tool too.

  9. Elle*

    I also have trouble being present in meetings and take myself out of the conversation by worrying about what is being discussed and how to contribute. I’m working on mindfulness- trying to be more present in the moment instead of in my head. It’s hard but when those thoughts enter my head I remind myself to focus, sit up straight, look at the person speaking. That clears my head and I’m in a better spot to offer my thoughts.

  10. ADHSquirrelWhat*

    Do you have written notes you can refer to? If not, I’d suggest bringing something on paper/screen/whatnot that you can reference – something so you’re not trying to hold all of it in your head. Bullet point list type thing or fully written out ideas.

    If improv doesn’t work, take as much of the improv OUT as possible. “For llama grooming, I believe we should start with the head and work back” written down means if it’s relevant, you don’t need to come up with the words. It’s /right there/.

    It’s not cheating to check your notes. :D

    1. Resident Catholicville, USA*

      I’ve literally always taken a notebook and pencil into every meeting I’ve attended- whether or not I’ve contributed anything. 1) It’s good to have notes to refer back to at a later date; 2) it shows you’re engaged and interested in what’s being said; and 3) you can scribble down your own thoughts to bring up then or later.

      It’s tough speaking up though, I know- I feel for the OP. I have that problem too- a manager once commented that I was like the frog in the cartoon. When I was in a meeting, I was really reserved and quiet, but one on one? I was dancing and singing. It’s stuck with me. It didn’t necessarily make it easier to speak up, but at least it gave me a bit of confidence that someone WANTED to hear from me more, which I wasn’t always sure was the case.

  11. Wendy City*

    Oh boy, I feel this. I’m a fellow speech/public speaking nerd (and did impromptu speaking, so speaking off-the-cuff is fine!) who often feels adrift in larger conversations.

    One thing that was big for me was to get comfortable interrupting. With bigger group convos, that feeling of ‘talking over’ someone can keep me from speaking up at all–a problem when women are more likely to be interrupted themselves, and when men are more likely to not notice a woman trying to get a word in. Do your prep work, identify a couple of small contributions you want to make, and then do it–even if it means “interrupting” or “being rude.” Don’t wait for the window!

    (If you’re worried about stepping on people’s toes, maybe debrief with someone you trust afterwards to see how you came off. I promise it’s not as disruptive as you think!)

    Another way I’ve found to make a window where none exists is to keep notes. Because meetings can move quickly, being able to say “I’d like to go back to what Sansa said earlier and add that–” or “I know we’ve moved on, but can we talk more about Gregor’s idea for X? I think we could tweak and be in business.”

    If you’re drawing a blank on what to say at all, try focusing on 1. something you can cosign (especially if it’s an idea from a younger or more junior person that you want to put weight behind) 2. something you can provide more detail on, or 3. expressing a feeling/observation without focusing so much on Action Items. Keep those three in mind in meetings so you can get comfortable contributing!

    1. OP*

      Thank you, Wendy City! Your note about interrupting (and debriefing afterwards with someone else for a gut check) is really helpful!

      It’s also a relief to know that I’m not the only speech nerd struggling with this. (I was an orator, so scripting + perfecting is definitely my happy place here ha.)

      1. Grumpy Elder Millennial*

        Could that be part of the challenge? You’ve spent a lot of time in an environment where perfection is the goal and getting as close to perfection as possible is how you’re successful. That’s a lot of pressure. So if you’re putting similar levels of pressure/expectation on yourself in meetings, no wonder you’re having a hard time! I promise that people aren’t evaluating you closely to nitpick your every sentence in meetings like (I assume) they do in debate competitions.

    2. You've got this*

      1. I love the idea of co-signing. It feels like you’ve put a ton of pressure on yourself, so maybe you can take some of that pressure off by making smaller contributions?
      2. I feel like I’m in a similar boat to your in terms of seniority in client-facing discussions. One of the tactics that works for our team is to let me introduce a topic, then let the leader expound on what I say, then let someone junior co-sign (or not depending on their comfort) so that everyone can participate. It’s super hard sometimes to have sharp enough elbows to interject, but if I have a chance to lead an idea and then pass it off it’s so much easier.
      3. Lean into that colleague who offered to tee you up! Even just an “OP, what do you think?” every now and then can make it easier.
      Good luck!

      1. Remotely Working*

        I had this problem in university and in jobs. In school I reached a point where I made myself contribute one thing in a class discussion. If you speak up early in a meeting, maybe it’ll be easy to say more later.
        I think part of my nerves were about interrupting or seeming rude, but I was also worried about ‘sounding stupid.’ Then I heard enough other people speak that I decided that wasn’t worth worrying about. And it seems like people notice you not talking more than they notice what exactly you said. I would also leave meetings disappointed that someone hadn’t raised a point I had thought of — I think I thought someone else would have the same idea but that wasn’t always the case.
        If possible, ask a question of the client (as mentioned above) as soon as possible or chime onto what someone else was saying. Just yesterday I used the phrase, “sorry if I’m stepping on your toes but….” because I had something to say but wasn’t leading the meeting.

        1. Remotely Working*

          OP, I also meant to say set up a reward system if that works for you. Every time you contribute in a meeting you get a treat of some sort. Or if the alternate works, if you don’t contribute, you owe something.

    3. Frustration Nation*

      I think this is a great point. Interruptions in meetings where discussion is supposed to be happening are expected. One thing that’s worked for me in the past (as a fellow comfortable public speaker/uncomfortable meeting sharer) is to mention the elephant in the room. You can even write down a phrase you’re comfortable with and read it off your notes to get your brain going. “Oh, gosh, I want to jump in here, but I sometimes lose my train of thought, so I’m just going to refer to my notes. I really liked was X said about Y, and think we should…” I do it anytime I make a phone call or am in small meetings. Don’t write bullet points. Write the entire intro sentence down the way you want to say it, read it, and then move on to your bullets. For me, I find that once my brain is jogged into action, it keeps going, but getting it started is hard. So I don’t make it try. I read something, and then wing it, once it’s reminded we like talking.

  12. Widget*

    This is probably the most obvious suggestion, but have you tried improv-style practice with friends/family members? Find some slightly silly premise (Kenji Kawakami’s inventions or a funny hypothetical service) and roleplay it out.

    If your challenge is more like having discourse with strangers on the fly, would some more low-key, semi-structured activities help? A book club could work — you have a limited amount of prep you can do in advance and there’s structure to the discussion, but also some ebb and flow.

  13. Alton Brown's Evil Twin*

    To me, this sounds like an exercise/role-playing thing would be a lot of help. Get some coworkers to play the role of the customer, and have somebody break the 4th wall to prompt you if you’re not jumping in when appropriate.

    I’ve worked in companies where we made this kind of thing (a “red team”) a normal part of sales & proposals work.

  14. FloraPoste*

    I also have this issue, and really looking forward to reading the comments! I find it really hard to know when to jump in, or I get so focused on saying SOMETHING that I get too in my own head and miss openings. Even when I really have something I want to say or ask!

    This is very obvious, but my only advice is that the more you think about it the worse it gets, so try to come in early and ask a question – the more open-ended the better. (‘You mentioned that you consulted with partners (or whatever), can you expand a little on that?’ is one that has worked for me in the past.) Also think about your own expertise and what you are bringing to the meeting, and why they want you there. I find this particularly tricky, and one thing that oddly helps is thinking about what others will be expecting me to ask – ‘Flora works on this topic, so she will probably ask a question about this’. And then I think about what I want to know more relating to that specific topic. Once you have spoken up early, and have heard your own voice and been responded to, it really does get exponentially easier to come in with more questions and ideas.

    1. Questioner*

      You might find it easier to start speaking up if you switch the focus a bit away from “inserting my great ideas” to “asking questions to get more out of others.” The second allows you to stay in the moment and focused on what is happening in front of you – you can always politely interject to ask for clarification, acknowledge a good point, or just highlight an important issue that will need to be addressed later on. This is an excellent way to build trust and demonstrate your expertise without having to be “right” or insert your suggestions at the perfect moment. I’m not someone who can come into a meeting with a list of talking points to check off, but I’m excellent at noticing and exploring nuances in conversations that are almost always overlooked by others (who are more focused on delivering their talking points!). I’ve found it makes for more productive and dynamic meetings when someone is willing to ask the questions that everyone else is avoiding – you’d be surprised at how many people appreciate someone speaking up and often the result is a willingness to go “off script” to explore things in real time in a more conversational manner.

    2. Ranon*

      I was going to suggest questions rather than ideas as well- it encourages listening actively so you can decide what you’re curious about and it’s often more helpful than statements anyways!

  15. Angstrom*

    Toastmasters meetings have a segment called “table topics” which is for practicing unrehearsed speaking. You’re given a topic and have to immediately give a short (1 1/2 minute)response. It’s a fun, low-stakes way to practice in a supportive environment.

    1. Employee of the Bearimy*

      Yes, I was just coming in to suggest Toastmasters! There are segments for prepared speeches and segments for unrehearsed short topics. I’m pretty good with off-the-cuff speaking so joined to practice preparing speeches, but obviously the Table Topics section would be most helpful to you. The trick is to look for a smallish chapter so you get to speak regularly – we actually started one in my office building that only had about 20-25 people at each meeting.

    2. WillowSunstar*

      Thanks, I was going to suggest this also. Not all who join Toastmasters do so to conquer fear of being in front of groups (although a large % do). There’s a significant niche market for people who join to get better at their impromptu speaking. It really does help.

    3. Aspiring Chicken Lady*

      Just what I was thinking about. Definitely a range of types of speaking at Toastmasters.

  16. Jellyfish*

    Solidarity here, OP! I know this struggle well, including the oddity of being more comfortable making formal speeches than tossing a thought into a meeting. I always feel like I’m interrupting someone more important, don’t have the right words yet, or that surely someone else must have a better idea than I do.

    One thing that has helped is getting to a point in my career where I understand exactly why I’m in the meeting and focusing on my areas of strength. There are a couple places where I have the most experience or authority in the room on a given topic, so that’s where I focus my efforts. It’s easier to speak off the cuff when I know I *can* back up my thoughts, even if I don’t offer the background or evidence in the moment.

    It also helps to acknowledge that meetings where I’m supposed to contribute are weird and stressful for me. Conserving my energy to stick on the landing in my area of experience instead of thinking up a comment for every agenda item has worked out decently.

    Also, and this is an ongoing process, but occasionally I’ll throw out a thought that seems obvious to me and then be surprised when others act like it’s a new, great idea. It makes sense – other people have different perspectives and come up with things I’d never had thought of. It’s just a new realization that I can do that too. Others in the room aren’t all sharing my brain, and I might legitimately have a useful insight or experience.

  17. Sangamo Girl*

    I agree improv training might help. But I also think you also need to identify more deeply why this is so difficult. What is the internal dialog you are having when the meeting is going on? I think that will help identify what is holding you back. Is it self-doubt? Imposter syndrome? Can’t figure out how to find a natural break in conversation? Self-censoring words to make sure you don’t sound “stupid”? A past embarrassing situation that is triggering? I think figuring out what your brain is telling you can help you pinpoint where to turn to create a solution. Good luck OP!

  18. help*

    Wow, this could be me writing in. I’m good (and actively enjoy) presenting and speaking, but completely go blank in off the cuff meetings. It’s definitely also impacting my ability to build relationships as a remote worker. I’ll be reading with interest, sorry I have nothing to suggest!

  19. SeluciaMD*

    I’m sure this is hard to navigate! I have a couple of thoughts:

    1) I used to have this problem (and a problem with public speaking) and for me, at least in the beginning, I was so afraid of saying something wrong or something that sounded dumb, or I felt like I couldn’t possibly have something to offer to the conversation (thanks imposter syndrome!), that I’d stay quiet. This was only an issue for me professionally, never personally, and I really felt like my imposter syndrome was the thing inhibiting me. The first thing I started doing was just jotting down notes about my thoughts during the meeting, and then comparing them to points/discussion that happened in the meeting. Realizing that my instincts were often in line with my colleagues helped give me the confidence to start speaking up. Could you try that? Maybe just notes for the next meeting for comparison, then the meeting after that, challenge yourself to make ONE comment. Just one. Then build. The second thing I did:

    2) Therapy. I really needed someone to help me dig into why I felt so frozen in the moment and why I thought my contributions wouldn’t be good enough in the moment. It’s how I identified my imposter syndrome (didn’t know that was a thing at that point) and work through it so I could be confident and trust my knowledge and abilities, and trust that I could put my thoughts out there and even if they didn’t always land or resonate, it was totally OK. I would be OK. And I was! It took time and practice and now I don’t even think about it.

    And hey, YMMV. Maybe this isn’t exactly what you are feeling or dealing with but whatever it is, talking to a therapist – even just a few sessions – could really help you get at the root of this behavior (whatever it may be!) and develop tools to work through it.

    Good luck!

    1. Elle*

      Thanks for mentioning therapy. I working with a cognitive behavioral therapist and this is one of the issues we work on. It’s been helpful.

      1. SeluciaMD*

        CBT can be SUCH a helpful tool! It was great for me too because it helped me re-frame and reorganize my thinking, adopt healthier thought patterns (that quieted the very self-critical part of my brain), and gave me concrete tools to actually USE when I was struggling. Three cheers for therapy!!! So glad it’s working for you too!

  20. Not Tom, Just Petty*

    I feel you. I want to contribute, but I don’t know how to break in. I’ve had success (bear with me, here) raising my hand. Not in an “ooh, ooh, Mr Kotter” (or insert your generation’s school centered sitcom student here), but in a subtle, “I have something to add” way.
    I put my elbow on the desk, make a small wave to the moderator or the speaker or even my manager and I’ve always gotten a “Not Tom, you have something to add?” or “Not Tom has something to add.” response.
    I see it like using a turn signal to get into traffic. Once I’ve merged in, I’m part of the conversation. I feel comfortable dialoging. It’s that first step that is the hardest.

    1. Hlao-roo*

      I have a coworker who does this! Sometimes it can be a little funny when their hand goes up during a casual chat between coworkers, but it is always effective (at least the times I’ve seen them do it). As Not Tom says, someone always says something along the lines of “yes, [colleague]” or “hey, [colleague] has something to say,” and then they share what’s on their mind.

    2. A Frayed Knot*

      Very much this. Find ways to use body language to indicate you have something to say. Sometimes just a raised finger (“excuse me” motion) or literally leaning into the table (remaining seated, but not leaning against the back of the chair) is enough to gain a small pause in the discussion to allow you to start speaking.

    3. Eye roll*

      Yes, this is a great way to start. I almost never shut up in meetings, but I hate to interrupt. I usually do a little one finger wave at the speaker and no matter who it is, it seems pretty universally understood that I have something to add on the topic when they’re ready to segue over. Eye contact with the speaker is good too if you just want to know when to break in; you can make contact, see then they *see* you, and manage to jump in pretty seamlessly if you’re not a handraiser.

      1. Not Tom, Just Petty*

        Reiterating EYE CONTACT.
        Yes, good team mates/meeting members will be looking around at people, looking for feedback. Let them know you have some.

    4. Critical Rolls*

      This is my go-to method as well. For some reason I often put my elbow on the table and extend my pen upwards — maybe it feels a little less like full-on arm raising but still has improved visibility over just a hand. And, like Eye Roll, I am the Person Who Always Talks in Meetings.

    5. Grumpy Elder Millennial*

      I do this, too. Though for me it’s more of a strategy to stop myself from interrupting. I don’t need to jump at what appears to be a conversational opening because they’ll come to me when ready. So I don’t forget what I was about to say, I’ll jot it down in my notebook.

  21. Keymaster of Gozer (she/her)*

    Additional: I find a big difference in speaking in front of people when they’ve specifically come to hear you talk (like doing a lecture, standup show, coaching others) as opposed to when they haven’t come specifically to hear you talk (meetings, most of my phone calls to others…). The first I find laughably easy, the second not so much.

  22. Genie*

    It might be worth it to shift your focus from “I need to contribute” to thinking of it like a debate (which you did in high school), where you take notes on points that other people are saying that you can add to or dispute, as well as your own prepared notes, and then listen for things that other people are saying, like “Okay, let’s move on”, or “Great, so that’s that settled”, to be your cue to say “Actually, I had a few points…”. If you focus on content communication rather than *speaking up*, that might help.

  23. Ilima*

    Have you considered therapy? I wonder if there’s a CBT or behavioral modification approach that would help here. There may also be underlying issues like perfectionism that contribute to the problem that could be addressed.

  24. mandatory anon*

    I try to come up with at least one relevant comment per topic in meetings, unless it’s really outside of my wheelhouse. Sometimes that clears logjams and I can get into the flow and speak more naturally, but even just an observation to show you’re engaged makes a diff in perception.

  25. Meep*

    I feel like two things are going on here.

    1. You have pressure on you to speak, therefore, that pressure makes it hard to speak.
    2. The female aspect. I hate it, but us women have been taught not to speak up in fear of speaking over a man. The “children are to be seen, not heard” idea comes to mind, because women are often treated like children.

    I have two pieces of advice –
    1. Speak to your boss or the person you already know in the room. It will make it easier and you won’t feel like you are speaking out of turn so much.
    2. I am assuming you are taking notes. If not start. Then ask follow-up questions based on the notes you’ve taken. It will help you engage in conversation while letting your brain process what is being said before going back later.

    I will often ask questions I don’t need the answers to right away because I understand it takes people time to process what they hear and form a solution. It is why looking over all the questions on a test is so useful. While you are answering the easy ones, your brain is thinking about how to solve the hard ones.

  26. sciencenerd*

    I really like the idea for your co-worker to provide an opening for you to voice your thoughts and ideas. This might make it feel like more of a natural opening for you to voice your ideas.I really like the idea for your co-worker to provide an opening for you to voice your thoughts and ideas. This might make it feel like more of a natural opening for you.

    I have found one different approach that helps that I’ve taken from more senior people where I work. If the client or a team member asks a specific question or makes a specific comment, I’ve found that I can usually get myself to say something along the lines of, “That is/will be an important point/question going forward! I’d like to take time to put more thought into that and maybe get input from so-and-so”. This usually loosens me up a bit because – Wow! I’ve actually said words out loud! It also demonstrates that I am actually thinking about the topic at hand. I found that I’m also more likely to continue contributing during the meeting once I’ve broken the loop in my head of being stressed into silence.

  27. JC*

    OP I empathize with you a lot! I am the same way, and I also have no trouble with public speaking. I went to a performing arts high school and people are always shocked to learn that because of how quiet I am on in groups.

    I personally find it helpful to set a goal in meetings to say one thing, and to jot down notes during the meeting of potential things to say. Sometimes my mind feels jumbled on the spot and so having something organized to say helps a lot. When I was in school I would do something similar for participating in class, when class participation was part of your grade.

    I’ve also been trying to work on my confidence. A lot of the times I catch myself not contributing an idea that I think might be dumb, and then someone else later says that exact thing that I was thinking. A book I have found very helpful is The Confident Mind by Nate Zinsser. It has a lot of specific tactics for increasing confidence.

  28. anonagoose*

    I’m seconding the improv suggestions–I used to struggle with the timing/assertiveness part of speaking up in work conversations (and also just classroom discussions at my undergrad) and so I took an acting class. It worked wonders for my sense of showmanship, for lack of a better word, in business discussions.

    I’ll also say that one thing I’ve found really helpful is to have a running list of ideas I found helpful or interesting and who said them, either on a notepad or on my computer, and if something pings at any point that might be related to one of them I’ll put it on a bullet beneath that idea. That way when I speak up I can call back to other relevant ideas if I want to, which I something I always try to do when I’m working with other women or people of color. It also just helps me to organize my thoughts before I speak up, and to make sure what I’m saying is relevant to the conversation at hand.

  29. Esmeralda*

    Been there. In college I was just like that in class. If I could force myself to say something, then it was smoother and I could say more.

    And then after class I would go to the restroom and throw up. (I don’t do that anymore thank goodness)

    I found having someone tee me up was really helpful to break the dam. In the classroom — a classmate, the teacher, the t.a. At work, a colleague or even your manager or team lead or whatever. Ask ahead of time if they will do that for you. Don’t make it a big thing — just, would you mind teeing me up when you know I have thought about the topic/have experience?

    A good response when you’re “called on”: Oh yes, I was thinking about that, let me check my notes. (You’re already doing the notes. Use them.)

  30. JSPA*

    How do you do in multi-person conversations outside of work?

    I find myself quickly overwhelmed tracking the non-verbal interpersonal interactions, the tone of voice, the connotations and the plain facts, all at the same time, with as few as two other people in the conversation, and it remains difficult up to whatever number instead feels like, “speaking to a crowd in public.”*

    My best answer, if that’s also a problem for you, is to…just cut a lot of that away.

    The equivalent of, “imagine them all in their underpants” (for public speaking) is, “imagine either nobody’s there, and you’re dictating to your phone to take notes, or imagine a crowd that doesn’t require you to interact.”

    Don’t track faces. Don’t worry about people’s nonverbals–they are adults, if they’re having a bad day, they can still choose to value your idea.

    Presume you will not be incredibly rude, if you launch an idea without a connecting thought. (“It just struck me” is a fine lead-in, if you are determined to avoid a non sequitur.)

    You can’t talk a lot using this strategy (as in, 3 or 4 times in every meeting) or you will get a reputation for mis-timing, or for cutting people off. But it’s FINE to do it once or twice per meeting.

    Another strategy is to mentally summarize briefly, notice if there is some gap or inconsistency that needs to be addressed, and define categories of solution for that gap or inconsistency, saying, “I have some half formed ideas for each of these, but wanted to make sure I’m not missing some fix that’s already in the works, but wasn’t mentioned today.”

    This doesn’t have to be the famous, “so where are the bathrooms” question (about the stadium designed without any).

    Example: “we’ve put a lot of energy into how we’re going to sub-categorize our respondants, but we have not mentioned any mechanism to find out how respondants differ from non-respondants. That could involve comparing respondants to past customer profiles, geographic mapping, comparing campaigns with and without a demographic-specific promo, or a limited, follow-up phone survey–but first, have we decided what level of non-response flags a potential problem? Or what demographic skew would be a red flag?”

    Or, “we’ve talked a lot about the wording, placement, color scheme and typeface of the email ad, but we have not checked how it will look if someone forwards it, and whether there is a way for them to easily copy or convert the key details for use in other media like a tweet or SMS or even them flashing their phone at another camera in a video short. Let’s see what we can do to make it easier to share in those ways.”

    You don’t have to have the fully formed solution in your head–that’s why you’re all in a room together (or all on a Zoom together). You only have to move the process forward.

    Think of volleyball–you’re not charging for goalposts or a basket, you’re moving the ball up and forward, while staying in your position.

    *(In my case, there are some spectrum-adjacent issues in play; but even people who don’t have that going on, presumably max out at some point, if they really try to track everything, consciously.)

  31. Invisible today*

    Let me ask you a question – do you have trouble with 1:1 conversations ? How about if it is a small group like 2 or 3 people ? If you were talking to only your supervisor about the same topic, would you be okay with replying / contributing spontaneously ? I get nervous speaking out to the “void”…. worse when there are dozens of pairs of eyes suddenly focused on me.

    One trick that has helped me is to convince myself that I’m speaking to only one person – ideally someone I’m familiar with / comfortable talking to. If someone else responds to my comment, I focus and am only talking to that new person. Etc. That plus using the turn-signal strategy that another poster recommended may help.

    1. OP*

      1:1 conversations are okay. Our internal brainstorms are me + 3 people, and those are hard. But I think part of what makes those hard is that one of the 3 people is the partner (and another is fairly senior as well).

      But I really like your “convince myself that I’m speaking to only one person” approach. In my public speaking coach days, we used to advise people to use a “3 friendly faces” strategy; if you’re afraid of speaking to a crowd, pick out 3 friendly faces in the audience and just focus on making eye contact with them. (It kind of gives the illusion that you’re making eye contact with everyone.) It’s similar – but I had never thought of applying it on a smaller scale. Thank you!

      1. Invisible today*

        So your meetings are still small enough that you can’t hide and say nothing. AND they’re with people who rank high enough that it’s easy to worry about their opinion of you.

        One thing I do – and it’s not a great habit, but helps me speak up contribute when I wouldn’t otherwise is to preface with a caveat. Something like “I’m sure this has been considered already, but….” or “at the risk of asking an obvious question”… etc. This is not ta great technique because you are undermining your hard-won knowledge and skills- something women notoriously do to themselves… but if the alternative is not saying anything at all, maybe it’s an imperfect stepping stone ?

        Also, if in person, coming to the meeting early and getting a few seconds of “hi, how are you” chatter with each person who joins can help make it feel less like a crowd of anonymous judgy people ?

      2. River Otter*

        Group brainstorming is not the be-all-and-end-all for problem solving that everyone makes it out to be. As another tactic in your toolbox, I recommend reading up on the ways individual reflection is superior to group brainstorming and develop a reputation for being brilliant at it. If you actively cultivate that reputation, eventually people will realize that while you may have had only one or two things to say during the meeting, you will have valuable insights after the meeting.

        1. Invisible today*

          That is very true and I know people who are masters at it. It seems like OP’s issue is that they are struggling to share even their one or two well prepped ideas. And that helps noone.

  32. Anony Mass*

    My husband had the opposite problem. Great at impromptu discussions, struggled with presentations. Toastmasters was a great tool for him. I think it could help with your situation as well. But consider visiting several clubs the find the right fit. Some clubs are great — others are a little intense.

  33. Butterfly Counter*

    I suspect that you’re actually internally talking yourself out of a lot of contributions. Like, “It would be rude or awkward to bring up X now because we’ve moved onto Y.” Or, “Wakeen already brought up a version of X that was shot down, so mine will sound stupid.” Or, “Now is not exactly the right time to broach X because we’ll be talking about it later in the meeting.”

    My advice for talking in meetings is the Nike slogan. Just do it. Be rude or awkward. Bring up a bad idea. Mess with the schedule and the agenda. Because none of what you are telling yourself would be as bad right now as staying quiet. Women often apologize in meetings for just sharing, and I think it’s because of this negative self-talk. However, if it makes you feel better and will actually get you talking, go ahead and apologize first! But talk!

    Once you just do it and get over what feels like a major social faux pas, you’ll get practice. And with practice, you’ll find better ways to interject or the rest of your coworkers and clients will find ways to make a spot in conversation that they know you’ll be likely to fill.

    1. anonagoose*

      Yeah, I second this. One of the best things my acting professor ever told me was “In a good collaborative space, people will appreciate your contribution more than they will resent your interjection.” I’ve tried to carry that with me ever since, and you know what? In my experience, it’s true. Cutting people off all the time is obviously not kosher, but cutting in occasionally with a brilliant thought, or redirecting the conversation, or otherwise making it awkward? They’ve all paid off, and over time gotten less awkward. Good collaborative spaces *do* reward contribution.

      1. OP*

        Thank you, both. Anonagoose, I really like that advice from your professor – I had never thought of it that way before.

        I was about to say something like, “though that might be tricky to remember in that split second window I have to break in to the conversation.” But maybe that’s part of what I need to do: not wait for the perfect two-second window to say something.

        1. anonagoose*

          There is no perfect two-second window! But when you are working collaboratively, part of the joy and burden of that is that you contribute, so you make your own window and go from there. Once you do it enough, your people will get a sense of your rhythm and start making spaces for your to interject on their own. Your coworkers and boss have already said they want you to contribute, so take that as the go-ahead to just forge ahead, and trust that they want to hear what you have to say more than they care about the brief awkwardness that hearing it might entail.

          And believe, I get the anxiety over this. I’m autistic and decently shy, though pretty good in debates/public speaking. But the discovery that there is no perfect timing was very freeing, as was the discovery that most people will remember what I say way more than how awkward I was cutting in to say it. It’s just a skill that takes work, but it’s worth doing!

          1. Butterfly Counter*

            Exactly! And I agree that people really do want to hear what you say.

            Interestingly, I have TERRIBLE stage fright. Anything scripted or performative, I am a stuttering mess covered in cold sweat. However, I am also a professor that can give a lecture to 400 students if I need to without a second thought. The difference is that when I’m lecturing, I am telling people something that I think is really cool and will make their lives better or more interesting! Of course they’re going to want to hear this! OP: take that attitude with you! As anonogoose says, they’ll appreciate it in some way, even if it just changes a perspective or gets another successful train of thought going.

        2. boo bot*

          Agreeing with others that you do not need a perfect two-second window! :) I find it helpful to say things like “I want to go back to the discussion about X for a minute” or “I just wanted to add something to what So-and-So said about Y.” If the discussion has already moved on to something else, it’s fine, you just need to reorient people a little so they know what you’re talking about.

          Also, people elsewhere have mentioned hand-raising and similar gestures; if you use the moment that feels like your two-second window just to indicate that you want to speak, it’s likely that other people will register that you have something to say, even if someone else starts talking first. You may need to do it again when the other person is done talking, but body language can help a lot; once people have noticed that you want to talk, they will often make room for you to do so. I usually raise my hand a couple of inches (sometimes holding a pen—it makes me feel like I’ve got a point to make!), but you can try out different things and see what feels natural.

          I’m eager to contribute here because I talk a LOT, and (1) a brazen willingness to drag the conversation back to whatever I want to talk about and (2) a physical indication that I want to talk are two of the most useful tools I have to achieve that end without interrupting people, which is a habit I had to break (I grew up in an interrupting family! I also try to use my brazen willingness to drag conversations around to make room for quieter people to speak up, so if you can enlist someone like me to help you out, I recommend doing so).

  34. EthelSamantha*

    Since you mentioned that your internal team has been helpful, is it possible to enlist the whole team to help? For instance, in your internal meetings could they always ask you to contribute so you can practice in a safe setting? That way you can get stronger at this for when you’re in meetings with clients and other external people. It does seem like this is something that you’ll be great at once you’ve had some practice.

    A thought that doesn’t explicitly address your problem, but perhaps a bigger issue. In some diversity/inclusion trainings I’ve attended we’ve covered making sure that meetings allow for all kinds of contributions since many people find themselves feeling the way that you do. Do you have any influence to make sure that these meetings are allowing for the best opportunity for the most people to contribute in different ways?

    1. OP*

      To your first question – yes, I think I could enlist others on the team. The partner asked me if it would be helpful to say, “[OP], what do you think?” if he noticed I wasn’t speaking much, and I initially told him no – that being put on the spot would probably make it worse. But maybe it would be helpful to let him do this in internal meetings, where the stakes are lower.

      And to the second – I 100% agree! This was something I really advocated for at my last job, but have done less of here. (I’ve only been in this position for about a year.) Maybe now is the time to start.

  35. Merci Dee*

    OP, when I read your letter, the things that popped out at me were where you said you have trouble finding the right window, or trying to find a way to say something. It almost sounds like you’re letting perfect become the enemy of the good. There might not be a right window to say some of the things you want to say, and you don’t always have to find the best way to say something in order to get it out there to go the group. As Wendy City said in her comment above, sometimes the conversation has moved on, and you’re able to find a lull where you can jump in and loop things back around to what you wanted to say with a quick “I had another thought about Topic X . . . “, and then you just lay it out there. The wording doesn’t have to be perfectly amazing — just get the idea out there in whatever form you can, and then you can pick and choose and refine after the fact if you need to. You probably won’t even need to most of the time, because most of the people at the meeting will probably be able to pick up what you’re laying down without too much difficulty. Preparing for the meetings is a good thing, of course it is. But preparing for the meeting might also be about realizing that there’s no perfect time to say things in the perfect way, and sometimes it’s just about getting your thoughts out there when you can and how you can, and then do any clarifying that’s needed only =if= it’s needed.

    You have a lot of good ideas, and you have a lot to contribute. Making your own openings and tossing out your ideas can be difficult at first, but it gets easier with practice. Good luck!

  36. I like hound dogs*

    I have no advice, but I commiserate. I don’t mind speaking if I have the floor, but I find it really hard to break into a flow of conversation in a big group or a multi-person Zoom call. I also really dislike when my manager asks me to do off-the-cuff brainstorming live on a call with him (in that scenario, I’m not afraid to speak up, but my brain just doesn’t work that way).

  37. Jenna Webster*

    What about sitting down with your manager before an upcoming meeting to talk about the way the meeting might go, what you’re trying to accomplish, what the client will want to hear about from you, and then maybe consider whether there is something you can plan to discuss, and maybe even talk about what your talking points will be. I know meetings can feel like anything can happen, but if there is clarity about the goal of the meeting, it does make it easier, and talking out a possible plan with your manager who can then discuss how things went afterwards and look for other opportunities to make it easier for you might really help.

  38. LondonLights*

    Note taking might be a good idea, but I’d be worried that it’ll be seen as you’re the ‘secretary’ in the meeting, just based on gender?

    One thing that might help as an interim step would be to arrange with your team lead and manager that you are given a specific slot in the meeting – towards the beginning – to give a small, more structured, presentation about something relevant, that then might spark questions from the clients? That way as a minimum you’ll leave feeling that you’ve contributed something (and also leave a better impression on the clients). Once you’ve had more experience of the Q&A arising from your presentation, it’ll perhaps be easier to contribute to the rest of the meeting? Might also help to establish your ‘expertise’ within the group/meeting?

  39. Putting the Dys in Dysfunction*

    OP, it might be helpful to you to think about why you are in the meeting to begin with. While there are meetings that are intended to introduce people and therefore put you on the spot, many meetings are for the purpose of getting something done or moving towards a decision.

    In the latter kind of meeting, take your focus away from yourself, and move it to advancing the purpose of the meeting, which is why you’re there. If you have relevant information or a useful opinion, feel comfortable expressing it, not because that’s how you want to be seen and appreciated, but because you’re doing your job. In doing so, the decision whether to speak transforms from something personal and threatening to a more neutral calculation of what can I do to help others. You will have the added benefit of concentrating on the meeting rather than on your anxieties. If you don’t have anything to add then don’t feel compelled to say something just to say something.

    I’m a shy person, but I feel empowered to express opinions or provide information (when useful) because that’s my role as part of the team.

    That perspective can be very liberating.

    1. Hapless Bureaucrat*

      Yes, I agree with this. OP, there’s a lot of good advice up-thread on how to get your team to help tee you up, find moments, and interject. You’ve mentioned you sometimes struggle with talking when senior partners are in the room, and I’ve found this kind of thought process helps me in those situations.

      It can help to think about goals for a meeting in terms of what needs to happen/ what do people need from me? Why have I been asked to be here? That’s also a question you can ask your manager, or whoever invited you! What kind of contribution from you would be useful to them?

      I am another shy person, and I had to learn to speak up in meetings because– literally– it was the only way to keep myself from falling asleep. Having an initial goal of “people just need me to be awake” really helped trump my fear of sounding dumb or redundant. Maybe I did, but I was awake! Even now that I’m both an SME and a manager, I sometimes struggle to speak up in new settings or with senior leadership. I take myself through the same exercise: what do people in the room need from my presence? If I don’t know, time to ask the person who invited me. You can even do it in the middle of the meeting, if it’s internal.

      The “what role do you need me to play in this meeting” question is also a very useful framing for your manager in that it helps them know how to invite you into the conversation. “OP, do you have anything to add” can be too vague a prompt. But “OP, what are your thoughts on whether what Client just described will be doable in our timeframe” or “interrupt us if we start getting too far into the weeds and forget X” might be much easier for you to handle– and more helpful for the meeting as a whole!

  40. CTT*

    For the new client interviews, I think you would benefit from having a checklist or other notes. Whenever I am on a kickoff call with a new client or existing client for a new project, I make sure I use a checklist my practice group has developed for different types of projects so I make sure I’m hitting the important points. I am usually comfortable in these situations, but being comfortable doesn’t mean you’re incapable of freezing up/getting distracted/forgetting to ask something important. I had a new client meeting yesterday and didn’t bring my list, and I completely forgot to ask the name of the company they want me to form for them (that was a fun follow-up email!)

  41. Muddlewitch*

    Oh goodness, lots of commentators with the same issue, and lots of good feedback.
    As the person in meetings who doesn’t have this issue I’d say:
    Interrupt – not multiple times but once is fine. If they stop you that’s okay, write it down and find a gap later.

    The gap you’re waiting for is smaller than you think, don’t hesitate concerned about interrupting, go for it (you can pull back if you need to).

    Openly engage the speaker you’re going to follow with your BODY LANGUAGE – make it clear you’re listening and if you use your arms too, they’ll see you’re planning on saying something – and you’ll have created a space to speak!

    Say short positive things about the conversation which START you speaking like “YES, YES I totally agree about the chocolate teapot handles issue, I think …” and you’re off!

    Ask the meeting chair if you can add your thoughts (feels like getting permission and stops the conversation to give you space)

    Try not to overthink it, your opinions and thoughts are valid in your role :)

  42. going anon this time*

    I feel this way in almost any social situation, which means that what I say may or may not speak to you; I thought I’d put it in anyway, because it’s just such a relief to find others who struggle with talking.

    In my case it comes from a childhood of pretty serious trauma. And not long ago I read trauma researcher Bessel van der Kolk talk about the Broca’s area of the brain. This is the part that translates raw emotions and experiences into words. When some people have been through trauma, van der Kolk said, what can happen is that anxiety shuts down the Broca’s area.

    I got chills when I read this; it’s like a scientific validation of my experience. There’s an image I like to use of a balcony:

    It’s as if my brain is a huge room that opens onto one small outdoor balcony. When I’m relaxed, I stand on the balcony communicating with the world, referencing all the stuff in my brain behind me. When I’m stressed, though, I’m on the balcony and walls slam shut behind me. My whole brain is still there, thinking, having feelings, being wise or even just interesting — and I cannot access it. I’m left standing on the balcony stammering what few words I can find. I want to shout “I’m here, really I am! I have things to say! I’m not this vapid fool just blurting out ‘Wow,’ ‘Really,’ ‘Huh’ — ! I have things to say, I just can’t reach them right now.”

    Only when I’m alone do the walls open back up and I regain access to my brain.

    Just knowing about this has helped me tremendously. It puts my experience on the spectrum of “experiences humans have,” rather than just my own private hell.

    1. Aspiring Chicken Lady*

      This is such a powerful description.

      Do you have strategies for finding the door? Or is your moment of success right now mostly about that awareness of seeing yourself on the balcony and knowing that it promises to open up eventually?

      1. going anon this time*

        The best I’ve come up with is to more or less “trick” my brain — if someone asks me a question, I can tell myself “Here is a real person who wants information that I have, I’m not being rude by speaking, in fact decency DEMANDS I answer this question.” It can calm my anxiety about taking conversational space away from “real people.” If an ally can ask me a specific question, it can be a big help: “Didn’t you say you have a friend at that company?”; “You spent a summer studying that, right?”; “How long did you work with your last client?” Et cetera. It’s silly, but living with my brain is like having a wild animal living inside my head, and answering questions has helped me.

  43. greenthumb*

    Would interest you and is there an opportunity to try facilitating a small-group meeting? Framing questions, reflecting back what people have said, and suggesting a next line of discussion might be low-stakes ways for you to overcome some of your hesitancy.

    Also, be kind to yourself–it sounds like there are heavy power dynamics here and a lot of pressure. The context of public speaking is very important and it might be that leaders in your organization have not helped lower the stakes for everyone to contribute, be heard, and have their input valued. When I hear that a peer is trying to help you find a way in, I do have to wonder why more senior people aren’t doing that. It isn’t that difficult, and helping more junior people contribute is an important part of leading teams.

  44. Trotwood*

    It seems like it could help if you had a specific area of responsibility in these client meetings, where maybe you’re responsible for teapot shape and your colleague is responsible for teapot colors? So then there are specific things you’re looking to accomplish or decide via these meetings? I can see it being difficult to know when to jump in if you and your more-senior colleague are sharing all the responsibilities and the other person could lead all of them if you weren’t there. But maybe if you go into the meeting knowing “I need to gather information about teapot shapes, because I’ll be responsible for that down the line”, it would be easier to know when to jump in and what to ask.

  45. CurrentlyBill*

    What I see in the anxiety of your letter is a concern about how it impacts you. And that’s completely fine. But it might help you too reframe that to thinking about how your can help in the meeting. You are in the room because you can provide value. They want you there. They want to hear from you. You are not inconveniencing them when you speak up. You are doing then a huge favor when you speak up

    It may be helpful to distract yourself from your anxiety by focusing on their needs at the moment.

  46. Purple Cat*

    Since it sounds like you’re having trouble saying anything at all, start with some really low-stakes stuff. Agreeing and amplifying what someone else has already said. “Agree Bob, Point X is something we really need to hone in on”. And then you can expand to adding your own thoughts. “Yes, Bob, Point X is important and that ties to Point Y”. And then you can build into offering Point Z all on your own without building off someone else first.

    Along with digging in deep to where this anxiety and insecurity is coming from (and considering therapy/medication as treatment options), there’s a “fake it til you make it”. Act like somebody who is comfortable contributing in meetings, and you’ll actually get there.

  47. Office Lobster DJ*

    Another one with this problem who will be reading these comments with interest! OP, your analogy makes perfect sense to me.

    For me, one part of the problem is feeling like I’ve had ample time to listen and digest before responding. I can get hung up on the listening of following the conversation in the moment, and digestion often happens later, when I’m alone with my thoughts. I’ve had some moderate success with things like “Can we circle back to…” or “I’ve given that some thought, and….” At the very least, knowing that it’s nearly always an option to return to the topic takes some of the pressure off, which can help in itself.

    1. OP*

      This! Not sure if this will resonate, but I’ve been rereading parts of Quiet by Susan Cain – and she talks about how this is a very common introvert experience. (She also has a part in there where she talks about how, when you’re in fight or flight – like a big meeting – it interferes with short-term memory and attention, and I felt very seen by that.)

      1. Office Lobster DJ*

        I will have to check that book out, because every part of that resonated. Thank you!

  48. Calliope*

    I dealt with this earlier in my career. One thing I would consider is making yourself very well versed in nitty gritty details beforehand – the kind of thing that more senior people don’t have the time to focus on or memorize. Then when someone says “I don’t know, those mountains we want to climb are probably only 10,000 feet, right?” You can say “yes, basically – three are 8,000 feet and the fourth is 14,000.” Then you’re making a measurable contribution that nobody else can make without having to stick your neck out immediately. From there it’s a lot easier to segue into stuff like “so we don’t need supplemental oxygen but we do need warm sleeping gear” over time as you get more and more comfortable.

  49. Student*

    You need to take some time to think this through and identify your specific problem before you can tackle it. What, exactly, is blocking you from speaking in these meetings?

    It sounds like fear of public speaking, but you’re insisting it isn’t because you can perform a very different type of public speaking. If it is fear, you are going to have to actually identify it as such before you can hope to get past it. If it’s a different fear than public speaking – fear of what other people will think of you, fear of imperfection, etc., you will need to figure that out.

    Are you fixating on how to “properly” introduce your idea/remark? Some of your letter hints at this. That might be anxiety, OCD, or an autism-spectrum type of issue with recognizing the unspoken social norms that apply in this situation. If you find yourself waiting for the perfect moment, or waiting until the “right” length of pause, or waiting for someone to ask you a direct question, then you may be projecting “social” rules of speaking onto “business” speaking inappropriately. The rules and etiquette we use in social situations, especially as women in social situations, does not apply to most business environments. Business environments have their own etiquette rules, which vary by field and region.

    It’s generally MUCH more acceptable to butt into a work conversation and to interrupt in a meeting if there’s a point you want to get across, compared to social situations. The etiquette for interrupting in a business meeting has a lot more to do with whether you’re a stakeholder or SME in the matter being discussed (in which case, you can probably jump in), or whether you are interrupting the head of the meeting and someone senior (depends on situation, but probably don’t interrupt) vs someone junior and a meeting attendee (easier to interrupt). It’s also considered reasonable to interrupt people who are getting off-track to chitchat, even if they are senior/leading the meeting, compared to interrupting people who are on-task in a meeting. There’s more to it, and if you think misunderstanding of business meeting etiquette is the core issue you’re having, then you should talk to your manager or a trusted colleague to help coach you into the right mindset.

    The other thing I can offer is this: are you treating meetings as a “special occasion” when you need to treat them as a time to get work done? I know this varies by field and seniority a LOT. In my early career, meetings were mostly a waste of time for my job duties – some important person announcing a policy change that had very little to do with me at a big all-hands meeting, or a bunch of people updating the boss on what they’d done that week with no real back-and-forth. In my later career, meetings are where we accomplish major work tasks instead. We go into a meeting with a specific agenda in mind, and try to work out some specific issue before the end of the meeting. If you look at a meeting as more of a work task where you need to help your team accomplish a specific goal before it ends, perhaps that will help change your mindset enough that you can speak. It’s just like collaborating with your colleagues in offices or cubicles or on the phone about a task, but it’s happening in a meeting room instead because you need more chairs.

  50. Emmy*

    Would your partner/manager/trusted friend be willing to roleplay a few meetings with you so you can practice speaking up in the moment? And/or let you join meetings with other clients to try it there with lower stakes?

    Also, can you partner with someone else in the room to help them speak up? I’ve been able to make myself enter a conversation when I know it is the only way another person (say, a community member at a town hall) will get a word in. For instance: “We know x and y about the minimum wage from our statistics, and also this thing. I think J over here has something to add.”

    Other commenters have mentioned looking at what makes you uncomfortable and at centering the client’s needs, both of which seem helpful to me too. Also, it may help to remember that it is ok not to know an answer and to see “let me get back to you on this” – as long as you get back to them.

    Finally, you may want to work with your supervisor and partners on the strengths you already bring to the table. Work on improving how you speak up, but remind folks that you are great at designing a test product, or writing copy, or whatever it might be, and think about how to play up each member’s best strengths in the meeting itself.

  51. Tinpantithesis*

    Hey, fellow speechie!

    One thing I do sometimes in meetings if I don’t have any immediate questions is agree with something someone said previously to reinforce that it’s important. “I don’t have any questions about boat-building, but I did want to second what Jamantha said earlier about sail cloth testing. I know our sail cloth budget was cut this year, but it’ll be important to get something strong.”

    In the moment, it can be challenging to come up with questions or ideas on the fly, but it DOES get easier with practice! Something else that helps me is before a meeting, asking myself “why are we having this meeting, and what do I/others want to take away from it?” That helps keep my mind focused on the goals of the meeting, which can help my brain say “I need to know X before this meeting ends, which means I need to bring up X if no one else does.”

  52. Fake it til you make it*

    I have 2 suggestions, that might seem incredibly small and trivial, but it my experience have been insanely effective.

    1. Sit next to the person who talks the most, and ideally, between 2 people who talk a lot. I know this sounds trivial, but our stupid human brains will notice “hey, this is the side of the table that talks a lot in meetings, and I’m on this side of the table, so that must mean I talk a lot in meetings.” Take advantage of this weird wiring in our brain & assume the confidence of those next to you. Additionally, if the most likely time you may talk is to respond to them, it means you can turn and face them, pretend the other people in the room aren’t there, and say what you would to them as if it’s one-on-one.

    2. Collude with your boss (or whoever is leading the meeting) to have you say something prepared VERY early. It could be something as trivial as taking attendance, reviewing the notes from last meeting, or today’s agenda. You note that you like public speaking, so you could make it something more weighted you can prepare and then “perform.” Make this something with a little more weight each time, but… whatever it is, the most important this is that you know it’s coming, and it’s early. The most difficult time to speak up in a meeting is the first time.

    If you speak once, early, it also reinforces the “I’m on the the side of the table that talks during meetings” part of your lizard brain and makes each subsequent time easier and easier.

  53. Mama llama*

    I think your problem is that you expect a certain level of polish from yourself.

    On the fly contributions might not be structured. Might not have complete sentences. If you’re composing a speech in your head, you’re never going to be quick enough.

    Work on recognizing for yourself when you have an idea to contribute. If you’re like me you notice a half-formed thought in your head with some frequency only to hear someone else say it out loud.

    You gotta start talking when you first notice the thought. Literally, practice saying “I actually, I think I might have something to add…” very slowly. When the thought forms, stop stalling. Worst case, they have to circle back to you.

    Challenge yourself to share sentence fragments. Pipe up even if you haven’t puzzled out the entire line of reasoning- let people contribute to you as you talk as well.

    1. Pay No Attention To The Man Behind The Curtain*

      This is a good point. If you’re so concerned with saying everything perfectly scripted and thought out, you’ll never say anything at all. Get over the fear of saying something “wrong” or having others disagree with you in the moment.

  54. Mellie Bellie*

    I guess my first question is: Do you actually have the information you need to say and just can’t say it in the moment? Do you know the material, topic-matter and have the experience or knowledge to contribute? If so, then notes, a list, getting teed up and all of that might help you get it out. Even improv, if the trouble is just speaking on your feet.

    But if the issue is that you’re not sure what you can contribute, and that keeps you silent, then there are a couple of other questions. Do you maybe have a bit of imposter syndrome going on? If that’s the case, then I really like the advice given to make sure you are clear on why you’ve been brought to the meeting and take on the “role” you’ve been assigned in your job and go with it. After you’ve done it enough, it’ll get more comfortable.

    If the problem is fundamentally that you you don’t have enough of a grasp of the material or topic to speak up intelligently, then, are there ways to brush up on it? Training, continuing education seminars, etc. Is that something you can discuss with your manager?

    1. OP*

      I think it’s somewhere in the middle – but probably closer to the second! The client meeting I wrote about in the post was a kickoff to prepare for a big annual event. I’m the newest to the team, and the only one who hasn’t done this event before. So I’ve reviewed materials from past events to get a feel for it – but I still feel at a disadvantage compared to the rest of the team.

      1. Hlao-roo*

        Ask questions! I saw upthread you mentioned reading Quiet by Susan Cain. Unless I’m totally misremembering, there’s a part of the book where she talks about becoming more comfortable speaking up in high-stakes meetings by asking questions. Questions are expected when you’re new(er), and generally easier than making declarative statements.

        And in case you feel like asking questions makes you look “stupid” or somehow unqualified, know that it makes you look engaged and eager to learn/contribute!

      2. Not So NewReader*

        Well, no wonder you have difficulty! I think it’s pretty normal to feel disadvantaged or WORSE. I do think that you get a pass because it’s your first time doing the event. And to some degree there is an unspoken courtesy not to rush in with “ideas” if a person does not have experience with a specific thing or event.

        This example is extreme but it makes the point clear. A family member wanted to join a volunteer group. She went to the first meeting. She blurted out all her ideas on what to do for this and that. She went on and on about x, y and z. They all looked at her like she was from another planet. She never went back. She said it was a cold group. hmmmm. Reality is she offended them.

        They don’t expect you to do anything that is big, stunning or newsworthy. It’s your first year.

        As the new kid on the block my technique is to listen for gaps, slags, shortages and see where I can help fill in the holes. I try to get the lay of the land, who does what, time frame and all that basic stuff while listening for areas in the plans that need buoying up. I tell myself, “listen for where their tails are dragging and figure out how to help”.

        Which brings me to my own suggestion. I could be mistaken but it seems that you craft answers, solutions etc and then look for a place to insert them. I’d find this nerve wracking, myself. I suggest going the opposite way and work on how to listen closer to what is actually going on. As it stands now you have all these ideas that you have committed to memory and you are looking for openings to say them. OF COURSE, you are having difficulty with this, this is stressful. I’d like to encourage you to slow down. Let them lead the conversation. Instead of trying to push in X or Y idea where it might fit, look for where they actually need help instead.
        This will free you up to follow the conversation more closely. And it might even help you relax a tad.

        To prep for a meeting under this approach, review the last meeting. What types of things came up then? What did solutions look like? Are there any sticking points still left unchecked? If yes, is there anything that you can do with in your job scope?

        Another thing to consider is looking for one friendly person. At the end of the meeting as people are leaving ask if you can ask that friendly person a couple questions. Ask them a few well-chosen questions that might help you feel like you are getting up to speed or feel more looped in.

        One board that I am on brought on a new board member. An annual project came up and it seemed like everyone knew what to do. UNTIL it became apparent that everyone did not. The new board member said, “What’s up here? What are we doing?” So the new board member made time table with a list of tasks and other key info. It was super helpful for our group and we have reused that time table for years since.

        Look at this with fresh eyes and see what you might have not noticed before.

  55. animaniactoo*

    I would go with a multi-prong approach here.

    • First and foremost, it sounds like you don’t have a decent enough idea of what a window is – watch other people, examine what’s going on when they’re jumping into the convo. It may be that you’re being too hesitant for fear of stepping on someone else, but really you need to be more assertive in pushing past that and maybe incorporating a pass back to the person you’ve taken over from. But watch them and see when/how they jump in/speak up, etc.

    • Start with small minor stuff that doesn’t have a lot of weight, just to get comfortable – and stuff that you can reliably contribute every time. Because part of what you want to do is build within yourself an impulse, a muscle, that is used to getting that kind of exercise and has the regular feedback on it from a series of interactions that will tell your brain that this is fine and appropriate to do – and even good. And then do major stuff.

    • Work on how to jump in when your thought isn’t fully formed. “I don’t have the whole shape of this, so go with me/bear with me while I’m saying it, but what if…/I see a…” and so on.

    • Picture yourself jumping in and what the possible responses are – from the positives to the negatives. Go through as many as you can imagine. Workshop it with a friend or colleague for practice if you’d like. Figure out what you want to do when they might be negative. What is the tone/wording/etc. that you’d want to put forth? A lot of times, the reason we don’t want to do something is because we’re unsure of how to handle a response that we don’t want. So if you can set yourself up to be ready for that, you’re likely to be a lot less hesitant about that jump in.

    1. anonagoose*

      Oh yeah, I love the “Bear with me/I’m still working on this/Could this work…” openings. Call people in! It’s great, and I especially love it in brainstorming sessions where you might be working with someone more senior than you. I leaned on this one a lot when I was first figuring out how to speak up and made things a lot easier and more comfortable for me, and actually solicited a lot of engagement.

  56. Kate*

    I’m a lawyer, and I had a similar problem with courtroom objections. All the prep didn’t matter, I would freeze.

    I found that if I had a routine—a kind of assist to lean on—I could interrupt more easily. It started off as something along the lines of always saying “I’m sorry, your honor, but I have to make an objection at this point.” Eventually I dropped the sorry because I am 100% not sorry. I have kept the routine, though. The ritualized manner of interrupting gives me a few precious seconds to gather my thoughts. Maybe something along the lines of “Before we keep going, I want to speak to this point/a prior point Jane made.” The ritual of it might help—it sounds professional but for me, it’s brainless filler to let myself catch up.

  57. After 33 years ...*

    Dear OP:
    You’re absolutely right wrt the difference between scripted and spontaneous – like the person who can lecture, but can’t answer audience questions, and not from lack of knowledge. I can teach 300 students, but have trouble in a cocktail party situation with more than 3 people in a group ….
    You’ve noted that., “I’m perfectly capable of talking to all of these people one-on-one!”. I’ve found sometimes that if I focus on one person to speak to, turning and facing that person and essentially blocking the group out for a moment, that I can get communication going. That brings me mentally to a one-on-one situation that I’m better coping with, and helps me get over the initial hump.

  58. giralffe*

    Have you thought about speaking with one of the other people in the meeting ahead of time? If you say, “Hey, I have a hard time figuring out when I can jump in during these brainstorming sessions, this time, would you be able to ask me directly what I have to say about X topic?”

    I might be wrong, but if you’re the lowest ranking person in these meetings, power dynamics may be playing a bigger role in this than you’re realizing. It may be that jumping in feels like interrupting, which feels insubordinate, or that the higher-ups are unintentionally bulldozing through the meeting without really allowing room for you to share your ideas.

    1. OP*

      Giralffe, you’re totally right. In reflecting since I wrote the letter, the power dynamics are definitely part of the problem here.

  59. Fluffy Fish*

    How about taking notes in a meeting? Not with the intent to share with others – solely for you.

    As you take notes of pertinent things – jot down your thoughts about it. Any questions it raises. Then use those comments to speak up in meetings.

  60. CheesePlease*

    As someone who has the opposite problem (needing to tone down interrupting, understanding when my contributions are valuable to a meeting and when it’s best for me to listen etc) I think it’s helpful to practice interrupting, especially if that’s common practice in your meetings. While I have to practice holding my mouth and internally say to myself (shut up! let someone else talk!), you may just need to practice saying “Excuse me Steven, I know you are starting to talk about llama grooming, but I want to add to the discussion on llama washing” or something similar – basically announce your need to speak up and then once that person give you the floor, say your contribution.

    Alternatively, you could also help facilitate meetings. For a frequent interrupter, this has helped me. I break up the meeting into sections and then can ask “before we move on to B, does anyone have any feedback on A? Do we think it works well with X and Y from last week?” etc. because it gives people the opportunity to talk. I learned early on (in college) that some people will simply not contribute unless they are individually asked “Keith – what do you think?” If this facilitation isn’t happening, you can ask your partner to help or step into that role yourself.

    good luck!

  61. Pay No Attention To The Man Behind The Curtain*

    The hand raise icon in Teams or Zoom seems to be spilling into real life, to me, it isn’t that unusual to make a hand signal to indicate you’d like a turn.

    Also, if the conversation seems to have moved on too quickly before you had a chance to make a comment, there is no reason you can’t say something to the effect, “I’d like to circle back to what Bob said a few minutes ago…” or “Sorry to go back a step to the question Jane had a moment ago…” and make your comment. Unless the meeting is very rigidly scheduled, this is not unusual or rude at all.

  62. Giraffes? Giraffes!*

    I’m not sure if this is helpful but I used to have this problem! Especially in meetings with Important People. The number one thing that helped was asking my doctor for medication for anxiety. I’m on a small dose but it made a huge difference. I know that’s not an easy fix – it took a long time for me to work up the courage to even ask my doctor about it but it did help. I’ve even gone off the meds for a period of time but by then I’d gotten enough experience speaking up that it didn’t make me nervous anymore.

    I think this the kind of thing that becomes easier with experience but meds definitely helped push me over that initial hurdle to get the experience.

  63. anonymath*

    I worked with a speech coach briefly — a woman who’d done theater, public speaking, etc. She worked with professionals on improving their presentation skills and I had some big presentations coming up. I have a naturally quiet voice I guess, which I generally don’t notice; I think I’m loud! Working with someone directly helped me calibrate that better.

    But more to your situation, she passed on a number of tools for the psychological side. A few I took away:

    * Cultivating a feeling of hospitality. You are an expert with a buffet of knowledge, that can feed these people. When you have guests over for dinner, do you force them to ask directly before they can have any food? Do you hide your buffet behind a wall, so the guests have to make an effort — that may feel rude! — to feed themselves? No! When you have guests over for dinner you serve up the food all at once, or in a staged manner that respects the pacing of the evening. Similarly, you as a hospitable partner with all this expertise want to ensure your clients feel taken care of, that they feel that abundance and generosity and expertise. Your knowledge and contributions delight them — it’s what they came for. Holding back your knowledge and contributions is a disservice to you both.

    * Similarly, focusing on the client/audience member rather than yourself. Can you ask questions teasing out what they need to know more about, then respond? Is it easier for you to ask questions & listen deeply, than it is to simply spout knowledge at them? If it’s easier for you to ask questions & listen, lean into that: ask a question to get a bit deeper into their needs and then respond with what you bring to the table. It’s a real superpower to be able to hone in on client needs, and asking questions is an effective way to get that started. It can also help you get out of your own head (worrying about what you’re going to say) and focus on the winning outcomes you want for that client.

    Last, think of the conversation like ping pong. You don’t just want to catch the ball on your side. You want to gracefully pass it back. Think of your interjection/contributions as moments in time that will soon be gone, just a quick interchange that advances the conversation.

    Good luck!

    1. OP*

      Anonymath, I love the hospitality metaphor! Feeding people is my love language – so this definitely resonates. Thank you!

  64. Commentator*

    I work with people with mental illness. It sounds like anxiety to me. Especially the way you describe being unable to follow what people are saying or how your mind goes blank even though you have thoroughly prepared. Think test anxiety in children. They know the answer but just can’t retrieve it when it’s crunch time. There are lots of ways to manage anxiety so Maybe if read up on it and experiment with different coping techniques you might find something that works for you.

  65. Kim Dokja Company*

    OP, I don’t know if this will help you at all, but it’s good to think of discussions like this as a little different than “normal” conversations, and therefore not beholden to ENTIRELY the same kind of rules nice, polite, well-meaning people rightly follow. Especially because your strengths are in public speaking and debate! Those have, to my understanding, fairly rigid rules as to who can speak and when. I’m not saying to be outright rude by, idk, slamming the table with your palm to get someone’s attention, but it’d be helpful to reframe your thinking.

    To give a metaphorical example, normal conversations are like driving on residential and city streets. You wait at stoplights. People change lanes somewhat slowly and with signals and you let them in. Turns are slow. Discussions in meetings and especially brainstorming sessions are a little more like driving on the highway/freeways. You merge and take exits and pass much, much more quickly, because everyone expects you to go at this pace.

    You’ve got a lot of good advice as to what this may entail more concretely, but hopefully thinking of these types of meetings as a little adjacent to what you’re used to in public speaking might also be useful.

  66. Keymaster of Gozer (she/her)*

    Similar here: I have no fear of public speaking at all (I’ve done standup in front of lecture theatres) but at one point in my career I’d say barely anything in meetings and really had trouble figuring out why.

    Then I realised, for me anyway, I was trying not to be seen as the (insert negative word against women here) of the office and feared that any time I said any contradiction or ‘here’s what would work better’ or ‘we can’t do that in 2 days boss why are you promising that?’ that I’d lose status and people would think I had no business being in IT and should leave it to the men.

    I know, it sounds daft, but part of me still believes this and it’s been a battle to not listen to it anymore.

    What helped early on for me was essentially giving myself ‘permission’ to say something and with a ‘if it goes wrong it’ll be fixable so don’t worry’ kind of mindset. Took a lot of repeating it in my head but the first time I spoke up with a suggestion based on my technical knowledge it was with palms sweating and pulse racing…

    …to get a ‘Keymaster makes an excellent point’ response from the client.

    Validation. It got a lot easier. That voice in my head telling me that they’re all gonna laugh at me, or that I’m a complete lump of broccoli is still there but she’s quieter these days.

  67. Electric Mayhem*

    I like to summarize and ask questions, especially if I’m hanging back. I’ll listen to the others in the room, and then put the different comments or threads together so that everyone can digest the discussion. I might say something “So it sounds like in the workflow we’re examining, A happens, then B, then C. Is that correct?” Or I’ll say “How does X work?” A lot of times, that sounds like a dumb question but it’s actually elucidating details or a process that not everyone in the room is familiar with. I can’t count the number of times that summarizing and/or asking simple questions has led to a revelation by the group.

  68. LeNerd*

    Not sure if this is helpful, but this episode of the Hidden Brain podcast came to mind: https://hiddenbrain.org/podcast/why-conversations-go-wrong/

    The researcher focuses on conversations and how things can go awry. One anecdote talks about her studying the conversation at a Thanksgiving dinner where she had invited New Yorkers, Brits, and Californians. It turns out that every region has different instincts about how long to wait before you start talking (or interrupting). Apparently, New Yorkers wait a very short amount of time before chiming in — it’s polite to keep the conversation moving. But that could come across as domineering and interrupting to the others who felt that you should wait a longer amount of time to make sure that there is space for everyone to contribute.

    I found this fascinating. This may not be what’s happening in your situation, OP, but it may be helpful to talk about conversation and meeting norms explicitly with your manager and how to navigate them with the various personalities.

    A couple of other thoughts:
    One thing I always do when facilitating a brainstorming meeting is to have people write down ideas on post-its to then share out. This ensures that everyone in the room gets a chance to contribute without necessarily being influenced by the HiPPO (Highest Paid Person’s Opinion).

    You may also offer to follow up with written comments/notes after the meeting so that your contributions are always included. You could cultivate a reputation for having the most coherent ideas because you take the time to synthesize and organize.

    1. OP*

      I’m definitely going to listen to this! FWIW, the meeting with Big Client was in New York ;)

      I also love the HiPPO acronym! I’d never heard that one before.

    2. münchner kindl*

      Deborah Tannen also talked about this in one/more of her books. She had done studies and found not only cultural/ regional difference (Greek immigrants versus Americans; New York vs South) but even among families. She cited two people who grew up with very large families: one person learned “therefore” to always let everybody finish because otherwise it would be chaos; the other learned to interrupt because of course it was chaos, and waiting to let everybody finish would never get anywhere.

      There’s also the social aspect: women are (broadly here) expected to socialize, and (especially in the more southern cultures) some type of middle-age women might find it uncomfortable and hostile if the conversation completly stops. So to signal they’ve finished saying their part, they’ll keep repeating, but not stop.
      Other groups (more northern or male) find it polite to wait until everybody has finished – the window – and then talk.
      Obviously both styles work in their own contexts, but appear rude when crossed.

  69. Ivka*

    This could also be me! I remember being in college, and all of my professors telling me that I was an excellent student but that I NEEDED to get a handle on speaking up. Cut to a few years in the workplace, and I’ve gotten a bit better, but still struggle (even in my tiny team meetings with coworkers I feel comfortable with!). It can be so nerve-wracking trying to think of something smart to say and how to interject to say it, only for the moment to have passed and you’ve completely lost out on the next topic. Some things I think would help me:
    – Rather than asking your coworker to tee you up to contribute, ask them if they can ask you specific questions. “OP, what are your thoughts on X?” even having to respond “I think you’ve got it covered, I agree keeping Y in mind is important” will loosen you up to talk.
    – Rather than brainstorming potential questions or if-this-then-this comment trees, think of one thing you will DEFINITELY say (maybe 2-3 – sometimes people steal mine). A piece of relevant news, a deadline quirk everyone should keep in mind, a compliment, anythiing.

    Additionally, some things I keep in mind:
    – A lot of the things people say in meetings are dumb. You’re holding yourself to a waaay higher standard in terms of quality of your contributions than anyone else is. When you pay attention more to what is being said than on trying to formulate your own response, you’ll realize the stakes are lower than you thought.
    – It can often feel, if you’re struggling to speak, like the stakes get higher as the meeting goes on. Once we hit the 15 minute mark, I’m thinking, oh god, I haven’t said anything, people will be so jarred if I talk now and they realize it’s the first thing I’ve said! Try to internalize that NO ONE is paying attention, and/or focus on saying something – even an extended pleasantry – in the first five minutes.

    Seriously, I relate to this problem so much. Reading other advice with interest. You got this!

    1. OP*

      ” I remember being in college, and all of my professors telling me that I was an excellent student but that I NEEDED to get a handle on speaking up.”

      Omg this was me in school, too. That’s part of why I feel such an urgency to do something about it now – enough already!

      1. Properlike*

        Sounds like a perfectionist. Can’t possibly risk being seen as less than brilliant/perfect, or the jig is up! Cue the Job Police sirens!

        Time to practice failure. Your brain has to get comfortable with the idea that not getting something right does not equal Death. Pick up a hobby that you really suck at. Be wrong on purpose about something and process the feedback (like taking a quiz about a topic you know little about.) Do crossword puzzles or math puzzles or something else frustrating – the important thing is inviting in the discomfort and working through it in small-stakes situations and finding out who you are as a person and how you’re perceived is unchanged.

  70. Janet*

    If someone came to me as their manager and explained this problem, I’d ask them how I can help. And depending on the conversation, I would perhaps suggest that we tee-up a question or two I can ask them during the meeting so that they are invited to participate. And hopefully knowing in advance what I’ll be asking about, they could be prepared, which may reduce the stress of the situation. All of this approach may not be an option in this situation depending on the relationships/dynamics, but I’d suggest giving it a try.

  71. A Pound of Obscure*

    Who was it that said, “If you think you can or you think you can’t, you’re right.” You KNOW you can speak convincingly, but you *think* you can’t or shouldn’t or won’t come across right or whatever. I have felt that way at times in my life (I’m sure we all have), especially when there’s a power dynamic where I feel “less than” others in the room. When I’m the one conducting a training or sharing information others don’t have, then the power lies with me, and I do great in that context. They key here is to allow yourself to feel at least equal, because you are. They are paying you for a reason; own it! This does not mean you have to dazzle them with brilliance. I LOVE using questions in contexts like this, because (a) people love to talk about themselves, and (b) it can be a helpful way to enter the conversation without declaring something you don’t know enough about. Listen closely (without making yourself crazy thinking of a clever or brilliant response) and let your knowledge interpret what they’re saying. Then ask a question for clarification, or flattery, or whatever. “I love what you said about A, B, C and would love to hear more about X.” “It sounds like you’ve considered X, Y, Z approaches — Do you have a strong sense that one might work better than the other?” “What role do you see our team filling, specifically? Can we help with A, B, C, or are you looking for something completely different?” (I’m making these up since obviously I have no idea what services you offer.) A question will always start a back-and-forth if you look genuinely engaged and interested. One thing leads to another; go with it!

  72. New-ish Manager*

    Sometimes I think it’s just as important to move the conversation along vs. adding to the brainstorming/discussion. I don’t always contribute ideas to meetings and instead think of my role as facilitating the conversation and getting all the ideas on the table. “What I hear you saying is xyz, that’s a great idea”. “Sarah brought up this idea; let’s discuss that one further.” “We’ve spent a lot of time on this topic, what other topics do we want to make sure we discuss today?” “Going back to our agenda for this meeting and the time we have left, is everyone good with moving on?”. Then you don’t feel pressured to add ideas to the conversation on the fly, but are still adding value to the meeting.

  73. irene adler*

    Post-meeting, are you left with good comments or relevant discussion points left unsaid?
    Are these things that would have been a “better idea” for the group to follow?
    If so, then you need to participate in the meetings. Maybe work with your “tee up” team member to get an opening in the meetings. Or, visibly signal the chair of the meeting that you’d like to speak. Or, maybe the format of the meetings needs to include “are there any other comments before we move on/adjourn?” statement when discussion is about to wrap-up. Course this last one might mean your thoughts don’t get voiced until everyone else has had their say.

    I’m not one that likes to talk in meetings. So it is rare that I do. I became more comfortable doing so by voicing agreement when someone made a point I agreed with. Then I worked up to asking one question- if/when something wasn’t clear. But I’m not going to speak just to hear myself talk.

  74. CE*

    This resonated strongly with me because it is something I am also trying to deal with (with some successes, but not always). I am also fine with public speaking.

    There are lots of helpful suggestions here and your replies seem to indicate that your aren’t entirely sure why this is such a problem for you. I had that and something that helped me was to explore the issue in detail during a peer to peer mentoring session. If the other woman on the team is someone you really trust you could ask her, but it may be better for it to be with someone you don’t really work with. (You may well have done this sort of thing as a coach, but in case not) start by describing the problem to someone who doesn’t provide advice or solutions but asks open questions to help you think more about the issue (e.g., Can you describe exactly what stopped you from speaking last time? what are you feeling when you don’t speak? what do you think is the worst thing that would happen if you did speak? Why do you think that? Etc). Take about 10mins to describe the problem and 10mins for the questions and then between you try and sum up what you said. Ideally you commit to one or two actions as well. (And then you reciprocate with an issue the other person has). If there isn’t anyone you trust enough you can do it by yourself but it is better with someone else.

  75. Emmi*

    I think it’s worth taking a moment to consider the underlying emotional reasons for why you’re unable to speak up in these meetings. Without recognizing that, it will be difficult to find the right strategy to overcome this.
    Do you find your mind simply going blank, and you completely forget what to say? If so, a tactic like improv, as suggested by other commenters, might help you learn how to speak on your feet.
    But, there could be other underlying reasons. The question really resonated with me, as I know I might hesitate to speak up in these high pressure environments for fear of looking “silly” or saying the wrong thing. That goes all the way down to a really deep desire I have to always be right, and perfect, and to make sure everyone always thinks the absolute best of me. Having someone else *possibly* think that my suggested idea was silly or incorrect absolutely terrifies me.
    The only way I’ve found to work through this fear is to identify and acknowledge it, and to actively address it mentally. One good approach is to ask yourself what’s the worst that can happen, if you speak up and say this thing? Visualizing the entire scenario in your head, including any consequences or outcomes, can really help to overcome the fear and move forward.

    1. DrSalty*

      This is what I would going to say, more or less. Therapy or some deep personal reflection might help figure out what you’re afraid of. Once you’ve identified and acknowledged it, you can come up with strategies to overcome it.

      If it’s a fear of being wrong or looking silly (feelings I often have too!), maybe asking clarifying questions would be a good middle path forward to start contributing?

  76. Properlike*

    OP – so much good advice here, and I do think it’s your anxiety that’s shutting down the rational part of your brain! But here’s a thought, given that you thrives in academic speaking situations and coached others:

    Ask your boss – or a colleague, or anyone else – to pair you up with someone who’s really excellent at contributing in meetings. And then attend meetings with that person with the sole purpose of studying how they interrupt in order to contribute.

    Do it for more than one person. Make a list of the skills/techniques, as if you were going to teach a class on it later. If possible, debrief and ask questions about what they did and how they felt.

    If assuming a “persona” is helpful, think of those things role you studied when stepping in to a meeting.

    It takes practice. Practice means willing to fail and still succeeding.

  77. Dolly Flowers*

    I have a very similar tendency; my issue stems from my inability to articulate partially formed ideas concisely, and I worry that if I talk through my entire thought process in meetings my idea will get lost or rejected from my inability to explain it in the moment. (my verbal brainstorming is the equivalent of word vomit)

    I found that if in the moment I take the part of the idea that feels concrete, and put the rest of the thinking on hold, I can say something along the lines of “I’ve got a start of an idea, that involves xyz” or “my mind is circling around the idea of abc” and then follow that statement with “i’d like sometime to develop the idea a bit further and I can follow-up when I have a complete sense of it” or “is this something you’ve considered or be interested in exploring, I can flesh out the idea a bit more and follow-up”

    This way even if people object it gives me an avenue to open the topic back up.

    1. nnn*

      Sometimes I say “I have half an idea, so I’m putting it out there in case someone else has the other half. “

  78. BlueBelle*

    Instead of making a list of potential questions/answers, or solutions. Break it down by what information various people(positions) are going to need. I tell my clients to think of – technical- what technical information needs to be gathered or given. Financial- what financial information needs to be gathered/given. Influencer- this is the person in the room who influences the decision maker- what information do they need to have further discussions outside this meeting. Decision maker- high level points they need to make the final decisions, did all of those high level points get answered?

    While in the meeting try to identify who each of these people is- and then as they speak make notes by your own notes- match what they say to the points you wrote down. You can then summarize these points, or you can direct them back to the information you or they need.

    You are providing them with information– you wouldn’t be there if you didn’t have something to offer and gather.

  79. talos*

    When I was new, I started contributing in meetings largely by having one thing I was in charge of, then answering questions about how it worked with other people’s projects. This was something I knew (relatively) so much about that it was never really an issue to speak off the cuff about it, and I was the clear expert on the project so there was nobody else to defer or feel inferior to. Having that experience helped me build confidence to contribute in other ways.

  80. Lily Rowan*

    There’s a Slate podcast called How To that had an episode recently called How to Speak Up So Others Listen that might have some useful advice — there’s a lot of focus on calming down, self-affirmation, and focusing on listening in the moment.

    Good luck!

  81. Katie B.*

    Four suggestions:
    1. Practice occupying low-pressure verbal space. I’m talking about saying things like “Yeah, that’s a great point,” “I really like that,” “Great idea – Now what would that look like for Jim?,” – that would also allow us to…”, ” Verbal connective tissue is hugely important in these kinds of meetings, and requires very little in the way of on-your-feet thinking. Grab you some of that sweet, sweet auditory real estate. Once you’re comfortable with that, piggy-backing and building on other people’s ideas is a natural evolution of this starting point – e.g. “I really like that idea – at that point we could also use that repository to streamline our documentation for the llama painting department.”

    2. Buy time for yourself. You have great ideas! You contribute them to your clients and your work! Own it, and carve out space for your process. Practice saying things like, “I’m not being super verbal, but my gears are definitely turning over here.” Or “I’m not speaking up much, but I’m loving the conversation, and I’m just chewing things over. There’s some really great stuff here.” Or “It may feel like I’m just lurking at the moment, but I’m soaking in all these great ideas – I might chime in once I’ve got something more dialed in, but you can definitely brace yourself for a novel in your inbox later!” Levity helps here (“can you hear those gears turning?”). A few of these charming “give me some time” phrases and taking ownership of some low-pressure verbal connective tissue will give you a pretty substantial presence in the meeting without requiring you to do much on-the-spot idea creation. And all of these are lines you can rehearse infinitely in the bathroom mirror and insert whenever there’s a lull in the conversation.

    3. Take advantage of breaks – particularly breaks in very long meetings. These are natural transition points – use time during breaks to structure your thoughts, and don’t hesitate to pull a single person away during a break to start a conversation based on things you’ve been thinking about. They can help lead the broader convo back to your point once everyone is reconvened.

    4. This is a bigger one, but it might be worth investing some of your professional capital in changing some of the expectations around how your organization structures their meetings. There are many, many people other than you who are similarly challenged with coming up with input on the spot, and it sounds like there are some relatively simple adjustments your organization could make to the standard structure of meetings that would make them more productive and inclusive – things like A) starting and/or ending every meeting with a round table check-in where every person is individually given space and time to offer their thoughts and ensure that you’re hearing from everyone (if you do nothing else, do this), B) sending out pre-reads, agendas, and prep instructions so people can do more substantive prep ahead of time, and C) providing structured quiet time during meetings (particularly during multi-hour marathons) where there’s 10-15 minutes at a time set aside for people to individually process and structure their thoughts. This would be a broader cultural shift, but any of these would be useful, and any other introverts or internal processors on your team would be grateful.

    1. fantomina*

      Seconding the low-stakes comments– “I agree, so and so;” “great point, such and such;” “can we spend more time on X’s idea?”

  82. J*

    This might sound a little weird – but maybe try learning a combat sport? I’ve always had a “freeze” instinct in conversations/social situations, where I feel like I have to double-check/perfect what I’m going to say before I can speak up, even if it’s a perfectly well-formed thought – and then by the time I do, the opportunity’s passed. Was always an issue too in trying to do things like music/dance/improv, where I’d just stop/start and repeat things a lot trying to make sure I got it right (and it didn’t matter how many times I was told to just keep going if I made a mistake). One thing that’s helped a lot is getting into boxing/fencing; if I’m sparring or doing a partner drill, I’ve got good old self-preservation to get me over the “freeze” and react to things in the moment (and you can’t exactly try to hit someone and then go “wait that wasn’t right, let me try again”)… just a thought!

  83. nnn*

    If this is a question of having something to say but having difficulty bringing it up at an appropriate time in the conversation (as opposed to not having anything to say at all), a few things that have worked for me:

    1. Whenever you do get the floor, tie what you’re saying in with whatever part of the conversation it relates to, even if that part of the conversation has long passed. Example: “Building on what Sanjukta was saying a minute ago about the onboarding process…”

    2. Raise your hand. Some online meeting software like Teams actually has a hand-raising function, so you can signal that you have something to say even if you can’t get the floor right away. In person, raising your hand like a child in school would be a bit much, but you could raise a finger with a sort of “I just thought of something I need to say” expression on your face. (Google “speechless stickguy meme” if you don’t know what I mean.) That conveys to the room that you have something to say at that point, and even if they don’t give you the floor right away, it makes it reasonable to bring up your point when you get the floor.

    3. Have a list. Bring in a piece of paper with a few mildly relevant points written on it, make a note on the paper when you think of something to say, and then when you get the floor you can refer to your list and say “There’s just a couple more points on my list that haven’t been addressed yet” or “We’ve covered almost everything on my list, we just need to talk about…” Even if the only things left on your list are things you didn’t get space to say in the meeting, they’ll never know! The list lends a sort of authority to raising the topic – you have to get through the list! That’s what lists are for!

    1. Grumpy Elder Millennial*

      I especially like the third suggestion. My role is one where I may not be leading the meeting, but I am accountable for making sure that issues are raised, decisions are made and documented, etc. So I generally will have set objectives for the meeting (either in the meeting invite or just for myself). It’s very natural to me when we’re reaching the end of a meeting to say that I have one more thing I wanted to raise with the group.

      Heck, making reference to “my list” also shows that you’ve been working on this file and came prepared!

  84. Checkert*

    Depending on who is in the room, is it possible that they are a trusted individual that you can ask to specifically include you in conversations (e.g., “What are your thoughts on this, OP?” or “OP has some knowledge/experience with this, is there anything we’re missing?”) just to get you an open spot in the convo? I do wonder whether some of it is feeling like you’re interrupting? I also always am looking at imposter syndrome as involved in these types of situations, as I’ve even heard myself talking and wondered who in the world I am and why these people are listening to me at times. I find it very useful to remind myself that no one starts out/constantly feels like the expert. Getting there is very much a fake it til you make it situation (in the business world referred to as ‘rich learning opportunity’).

    1. Grumpy Elder Millennial*

      I like this strategy in general for meeting management. Ideally, the person leading will make space for everyone to contribute. Could also include saying gently that we haven’t heard as much from Joan, Jane, and Jim at the meeting, is there anything they want to add?

  85. Looby_Lou*

    Contributions don’t have to be earth shatteringly good or even correct.

    Think of small meetings as an opportunity to educate yourself on what is going on in your organisation. If somebody rejects your idea it allows you to recalibrate your thinking into something better for the current situation.

    1. Grumpy Elder Millennial*

      Heck, it’s not all that unusual for me to start making a suggestion or asking a question, then in the middle say “wait, that doesn’t make sense, never mind.” If appropriate, I might explain a bit about what I was thinking and why it wouldn’t work because that information could be useful. Nothing bad has ever happened to me doing this, but it’s definitely one where YMMV.

  86. CM*

    Lots of great advice here! I used to have this problem too. One thing that helped me was to not worry so much about how I was perceived by other people in the room. I was so used to constantly being questioned about my competence and expertise (yes, I’m a BIPOC woman) that I felt terrified to speak up, like everything I said had to be absolutely perfect and brilliant. Then I started focusing on just trying to be helpful. Everyone in the room was there with a common goal — how could I advance that goal?

    An easy first step was asking clarification questions. “I’m not sure I understood that point, can we go back to that for a moment?” Often it turns out others didn’t understand either, or it’s unclear because nobody knows how to address it. So just asking questions can be a useful contribution, and they can lead to a followup discussion.

    1. Grumpy Elder Millennial*

      I love the advice in your second paragraph. In meetings there can be so much pressure to be the one to come up with the brilliant solution. One way to be really helpful is to make sure that everything is clear and everyone understands the problem/objective. Or to say to the client “what you just said about X was really interesting and I’d like to hear more, could you elaborate?”

  87. Sauron*

    Not much to add, but I will be reading the comments for everyone’s great tips. I also struggle with this to the point where it’s been the #1 problem in any performance review I’ve had. Group Slacks are sometimes the only way I’m able to contribute to projects, which I know isn’t healthy. I’m going to seriously look into improv classes again based on this. Wishing you luck, OP!

  88. fantomina*

    So, a person I supervise brought something similar to me a while ago, and she asked me if we could discuss ways she could contribute in upcoming meetings. We have a regular check-in and we look ahead at the schedule and talk through what each of us might bring up. We did this for a meeting yesterday and she really shined– we were debriefing on an event we had done, and she brought up a lot of things that hadn’t occurred to me, and if I hadn’t made the advance plan to pass things over to her I probably would have steam-rolled right over her insights inadvertently.

    So, OP, I would talk to your manager and ask how you might work together to anticipate ways to contribute?

    1. Grumpy Elder Millennial*

      I love that you’ve worked with your direct report on this and that it’s a success story!

  89. JenG*

    I am by no means attempting to diagnose anyone here. But for what it’s worth, I have had similar issues with brainstorming and speaking up in the moment. I didn’t think it was related to my anxiety, but once I got on medication for it, it became far easier for me to join in those types of spontaneous conversations. I don’t know if I was subconsciously feeling that my thoughts didn’t have merit or if just being more relaxed in general helped unlock that part of my brain, but it was a unexpected positive impact of getting help for my anxiety. Best of luck to you in however you choose to pursue this yourself!

    1. Grumpy Elder Millennial*

      As someone who also has struggled with anxiety, several things OP said rang true for my experience. Especially the feeling like my brain is on overdrive trying to figure out what to say and when to say it and whether it’s a good idea and whether people will think I’m weird and whether X and whether Y and whether Z until the moment has passed. And when that’s happening, you can’t really listen properly. Which makes it even more stressful to say anything, in case you misinterpreted.

  90. GreenDoor*

    Hello fellow debate and speech competitor! I also work with teenaged speech competitors and I would give you the same advice I give them. I imagine that you choke up because you aren’t used to your own voice! This is why we tell students to practice their pieces in the bathroom, out loud, in front of the mirror over and over. You get used to hearing your own voice & you memorize bigger chunks of things you want to say. Then you find yourself adjusting your voice – improving your speed, volume, tone, adding an emotion or taking out excess emotion. You need to talk out loud to yourself in front of a mirror…but for your needs, practice some common interjections out loud so you get comfortable….just….jumping into the conversation.

    Another trick I teach for students competing in our Group Debate category is to use a clear body movement. Often when someone is speaking, they get distracted by movement and pause their talking, which then allows you to interject. In real life, I might bend my arm at the elbow, run my hand through my hair, lean forward, turn slightly. They’re all polite, natural movements but are also obvious enough to pause a talker and allow for an interjection.

  91. Quiet Person*

    I feel this so hard! I had trouble speaking up in college classes 20 years ago and it’s been an ongoing issue throughout my life. I’ve made a ton of progress. What’s helped the most is easing into speaking up: I gained confidence speaking up in small meetings with my peers. And then in meetings with people on my immediate team. It really helps when you have a rapport with at least some of the people in the room, but I recognize that’s not always possible with client meetings.

    Another thing that helps me is just accepting that sometimes I’m going to say something dumb or repetitive, and that’s OK! Everyone does from time to time.

    “Piggybacking” is another approach I use. If someone else makes a comment that you agree with or find particularly insightful, say so and try to add some small bit of information. “That’s a good point. We had success with that tactic on a project 2 months ago”– that sort of thing.

    It gets easier with practice and as you gain confidence in your role. You can do this, OP!

  92. Kasbot*

    Power Suit! I’m not kidding. I am also a young-ish female who was a former debater. I’m good at speaking and good at articulating my points, but….I doubted my expertise sometimes. Before going to my last conference, I bought new clothes that made me look professional without being too “old” and that I felt GREAT in. and then i hyped myself up about how this was my chance to show this group of my peers what I know. It worked. It was great. Once I got into a vibe, it was natural and easy, but though it’s a little silly, i needed the outside reminder of my position (as well as using that to convey my professionalism) and a big internal pep talk.

  93. El l*

    It seems to me that the problem is control. In something like speech and debate, there are rules to the interaction, and within those rules you are very much in control of what you say.

    In meetings, you do not have that control. Not only do you have far less time or energy to formulate your thoughts – other people are talking, and not only can they speak when they want, you have to respond to what they say. You also have much less control of their perception of you. From your perspective, there are no rules, and because there isn’t a set place and way you are expected to talk, you freeze.

    So how do you let go of this need for control of what you say? Perhaps it’s worth talking to a specialist of some sort (wouldn’t know where to direct you on that), but I’d start with:

    Remind yourself that nobody else is really in control in a meeting
    Remind yourself that people frequently say wrong things. Or misunderstand. Or miss the point. Or generally be stupid. Everyone does this
    Ask questions. Make someone else talk
    Make it a point to say one thing. Every meeting, always, pleasantries don’t count. Then, once you’ve done that, go on to 2, 3, and then stop counting.

  94. Grumpy Elder Millennial*

    I can certainly relate to this as someone who has struggled with social anxiety, though for me, it comes out primarily in social situations. Work has never been as much of an issue for me, so my experience may not be the most helpful for you. Therapy helped and my counsellor directed me to these resources: https://www.cci.health.wa.gov.au/Resources/Looking-After-Yourself/Social-Anxiety
    If you do have some anxiety stuff going on, part of tackling it will be doing scary things. The good news is that most people don’t judge us nearly so much as we judge ourselves.

    Other commenters have asked what I think is a really important question – as specifically as possible, what is holding you back from speaking? What are you concerned will happen if you do speak?

    A few random ideas:
    1. Could you ask to present prepared materials in situations where it’s appropriate? That way you’re talking in meetings. I doubt this will satisfy your bosses, but it’s a good start.

    2. Could you start with contributions that focus on “I think Jane’s point there was really important because…” or “I think Wakeen is spot on about…”

    3. For social anxiety, could you start setting yourself mini-goals and tracking them? Could be as simple as “in X meeting, I will speak 3 times, not counting the intro conversation.” (Mine were things like, at the party, I will start conversations with 2 people I don’t already know). The goals will shift over time to include more talking.

    4. Definitely take your coworker up on teeing you up. And/or could you coordinate that your boss will toss the conversation to you about X topic? Like “OP has been researching X and has identified a few trends, over to you, OP!” That way, you can do a bit of prep and have a plan for what you’re going to say. I know, for me, part of the fear about conversations is that improv factor. You never know quite how they’re going to go or what other people will give you to respond to. This approach will let you speak, but in a way that you can plan for in advance. And if someone asks you something you don’t know the answer to, the classic “that’s a great question. To make sure I give you the best answer, I’d like to take that away and follow up with you.” If you feel comfortable, you could speculate on what the answer could be, or the factors that are relevant to getting to the right answer.

    5. This is going to sound awkward AF, but could you try out some fake meetings to practice? When I was in grad school, we would do mock thesis/dissertation defences with other students before the real one. Our format was a 20-minute presentation, then questions from the panel. Sometimes, we would have other students pretend to be a member on the examination committee and ask what they thought the examiner would ask. It was stressful as heck, but it meant that my actual defence was totally fine.

    Good luck, OP!!

    1. Grumpy Elder Millennial*

      To clarify on my second suggestion, I was thinking you might feel more comfortable making comments that are supporting what someone else said than feeling like you have to come up with something totally new.

  95. Chilipepper Attitude*

    My sense is that a lot of Alison’s tips about reframing interviews as conversations where you are both figuring each other out could help.

    Reframe speaking up in meetings as conversations? Giving a talk is very scripted. Conversations are not.

    Or maybe I should ask, does this extend to conversations in your personal life?

    My mom is always waiting her turn in conversations like it was a scripted play. But of course, no one else has the script so they never pause long enough for her to get her lines in.

    If this happens for you in personal conversations, could you start there, where the stakes are lower, and try “interrupting” friends and family while they are talking?

  96. April Alter Ego*

    Hello OP! I used to act and was never a comfortable with improve and I totally get your comparison. I also am a facilitator – I facilitated workshops, lessons, meetings, etc all the time. What I have found makes that different for me than improve is that well, I plan it. Even if I am not the “owner” of a meeting, I frequently facilitate. That does not mean I am talking the most at all, but it does mean I have a mindset shift of thinking about the objective of the meeting and how we get there. So if it is to determine a clients problem, I will be focused on listening to what they say and pulling out clues that I might want information on. And then I might ask for example, can you expand on that? Or why is that your biggest concern? I am not focused on speaking, I am focused on finding the answer, or focused on showcasing someone else on the team, or focused on getting the problem we found well understood. The more my focus is on that, the less “stage fright” there is because well, it’s not about me, and it doesn’t matter what I say. It matters that we hear from everyone to get to the objective.

  97. Calyx*

    I like all the suggestions you’re getting about improv and so on. I also want to recommend two companies that did a great deal to help me be more effective while still being very much myself. I’m not connected with either firm and get nothing by recommending people to them; this is just because of all the various coaches I’ve used over the past 28 years, these are my two favorites. They made a huge, unique difference to me, my teams, and my colleagues.

    Ingrid Gudenas’s form: https://www.effectivetrainingsolutions.com/

    Arc Leadership Dynamics: http://arcld.com/

  98. Mahak*

    You’re not alone in being able to speak on a stage but not in a smaller meeting room. Both computer public speaking but they’re very different skills so don’t overthink it! I agree with the other commenters about saying “that’s a good idea” or a similar positive comment before a meeting starts. Of possible can you have 30 secs of small talk too before the meeting starts? Just a hey how was your day or how has the week been might help make you more comfortable?

  99. Cheezmouser*

    Oh wow, this was totally me about 5-7 years ago. I was always quiet and introverted, that’s just my personality, but I got feedback from my manager that I needed to speak up more in meetings and “demonstrate leadership,” or else it could hold me back. I was very good at my job, but it seemed like no one besides my direct manager knew because I never showed it in meetings. Fast forward to today, and I’ve overcome my quietness. I’m leading meetings, actively contributing to them, and even taking over/redirecting them if I see them getting off track. Here’s what I did to get here:

    1. Consider getting a leadership coach. My HR department provided 1:1 leadership coaching, and it helped me immensely when I was making the jump from junior staff to manager. My coach helped me identify what was holding me back from contributing more/stepping up/putting myself out there, and we worked on baby steps I felt comfortable taking.

    2. Find someone who is similar to you in personality/disposition but demonstrates the speaking style and leadership skills you’d like to emulate, and observe what they do in meetings. How do they contribute to discussions? What sorts of comments do they make? It helps to analyze an example of success so you can figure out what might work for you.

    3. Start small and recognize that this change is going to take time. My HR leadership coach told me at first that my goal should be to say 1 thing, just 1 thing, anything, during my meetings.

    4. Discover what works for you. If you’re not a social butterfly, don’t try to be a social butterfly. Leadership has many different styles. Figure out what feels natural and comfortable to you.

  100. Xaraja*

    A few thoughts. First, feeling like a failure is going to hold you back. Anything you can do to change that self talk and internal narrative will be very very important. Personally, I literally talk back to my internal self talk, out loud if necessary (not during the client meeting of course! But possibly afterwards alone in the bathroom). I’m not a failure, I contribute in xyz ways, etc.

    Second, for me, I never thought of myself as a person with anxiety because I don’t have panic attacks, but my last therapist pointed out how I do have anxiety (she was completely right) and we added a medication specifically for anxiety to my other meds. A few months later I noticed I had the head shave to be able to be more assertive where for my entire life I’ve always let things go because I was frozen. So don’t discount anxiety or a need to talk things out with a therapist.

    Third, my last boss (a woman) had me facilitate conference calls with customers for about five years, and I find now at the job I’ve had for a couple of years I’m very confident in meetings. There were calls with my customer, but I didn’t feel entirely comfortable since I was not in sales (it’s a long story, the calls were kind of ops/technical, not sales). When the customer asked questions, I answered them because no one else was there on our side answering them. If we had something to say, I was the one saying it. I learned a ton from all those calls. If there’s any way you can do some low stakes meetings where you have to be the one asking or answering the questions, it might help. Another thing I find is often really lacking in meetings is someone to keep the agenda moving or to recap and make sure everyone agrees on what has been discussed and decided. Those might be specific enough tasks you could practice to get your voice in meetings.

    Fourth, I would guess that once you get used to talking more in meetings it will gradually get easier, so have you thought about asking questions? Given you are on client meetings I can see you might have to consider how to do it, but clarifying questions about their needs and their understanding should be useful and appropriate, surely? Hopefully, that could be less stressful and kind of break the logjam up as it were.

  101. LK*

    This has been something I’ve always struggled with – and now I’m in a role where it’s my job to lead certain meetings! But it’s always been difficult for me to gauge the right moment to speak up, and I’m also worried abpit cutting someone off, and so often the conversation then moved on before I could say my piece.

    I had to get really comfortable with persisting to look for an opening and then saying, “Actually, can we go back to…?” and just talking about the thing I’d initially meant to say before bringing it back to whatever the current conversational moment is. This can also be a subtle reminder for people to make sure they’re giving you room to jump in.

    Or, if you want to be more explicit about it, ask a co-worker who will be in the meeting to periodically make a space for you to speak by asking for your thoughts. Or, start out the meeting by laying out a structure where everyone goes takes turns speaking in a set rotation. That way, you don’t have to put guesswork into knowing when it’s your turn, and if you don’t have anything to contribute when it gets to you, you can just second something somebody else said or say something like: “I’m still putting together my thoughts about X. Please continue.”

    In general, I think meeting leaders need to recognize that not everyone is as quick at thinking on their feet or as skilled with conversational cues, and that they can mitigate that and make space for everyone to speak with even a very loose structure or by making a point to check in with everyone. Who know, maybe your clients also have team members with the same difficulty who would benefit from this as well.

    Good luck, OP.

  102. Tiger Snake*

    It sounds like you’re struggling with the brainstorming part of things, and that’s preventing you from jumping in an contributing?
    One thing that will actually be really good/useful, especially for initial client meetings, is if you focus on asking the client questions rather than try to add to the solution.

    People are problem solvers. We hear an issue and like to try and give a solution immediately. But that creates a whole heap of problems where people are assuming things, and those who do have problems don’t feel heard. If you ask questions to understand the problem instead of ‘have you tried X’, you do a lot in the way of making people feel like you’re really listening and contributing.

    Where are those most causing pressure in your organisation? If we had to rank the outcomes you hope to achieve, what would they be 1 through 5? What did you try, and what was the measure that made you realise it didn’t work?

    When you focus on making the customer be heard and your active listening really start to kick in, you may find that “obvious” suggestions start falling out of your brain too.

  103. MissM*

    I’d try to drill down on it a bit more. Is it a brain blank in the meeting, that you have nebulous thoughts but your debate training is shutting them down because they’re not fully formed/articulate-able, socialization, impostor syndrome, or something else? I really appreciate your other colleague offering to tee you up so it sounds like you’re in a supportive environment. Depending on the why, I think you’ll be able to figure out solution but I also want you to know it’s okay to not have the solution immediately and just say I will have to look into that or I think it’s X but will have to confirm, and then follow up. People like transparency and follow-through; it’s better to be imperfect and correct shortly after.

  104. Aunty Fox*

    I struggle with this in some situations (although in meetings where it’s very much my field it’s harder to shut me up). Where I’m feeling intimidated or unable to contribute I often start as others have suggested by following up someone else’s comment with ‘I just wanted to come back to what x said about y, which I wanted to add my support to as an approach’ or something like that. Contributed – tick. Supported colleague – tick. Jobs a good ‘un can relax now. ;)

  105. Teapot Wrangler*

    No advice but I have a similar issue so I know your pain and will be reading the replies with great interest :) What seems to happen to me is either I’m silent or I decide that I really have to say something but end up saying it at the wrong point or talking over someone which then makes me feel even worse so I think the other colleague roping you in will really help to avoid creating a new issue!

  106. münchner kindl*

    My thoughts, especially once OP brought up the improv vs normal theater comparison, go in another, big-picture, direction:
    OP, you said you need to be able to do this to advance.

    But if it’s just not your talent to do improv, but you are very good at normal theater, maybe look for a different role (even if it’s another company)?

    Surely while your company is niche, your field is broad and offers more different roles?

    Yes, in general, it’s good to try overcome your weaknesses. But it also requires a lot of time and effort, and if improv is simply not your strength, you may never be as good as you are when playing to your existing strenghts instead. And that would be also a good decision you make for your personal life, to build your strengths instead.

  107. JessicaTate*

    Late, but two thoughts:
    1) Really observe and reflect on how those senior folks in these meetings operate when they do this “easily.” What cadences do they use? What are their go-to phrases when jumping in, changing the topic, reaffirming something? One of the most helpful things for me building this skill (which is a core part of my job now) was carefully watching HOW others above me – and who were successful and I respected – navigated this. It wasn’t about the content of their ideas, it was about the strategies they used to navigate the interpersonal dynamics with clients, stakeholders.

    2) Talk to one of those senior people about creating openings where they know you would/should be able to contribute an idea. One of the ways I do it for my junior staff – is to signal that I’m going to throw to them, and then blab for a bit to (A) buy them some time to think, and (B) give them something they could basically agree with, if their mind does go blank. So, I’ll say, “Fergus has tons of experience with alpaca grooming and could probably add good advice about combing direction; I’ve tended to find that there are problems when you comb against the grain, but sometimes there are also reasons for that. Fergus, do you have any insights you’d add to this discussion?”

    It takes practice — and some foot-in-mouth moments. But you’ll get there!

  108. Tree*

    I always spend a half hour before each meeting writing down word for word what I want to say, and then either i read it or i paraphrase based off of it.

  109. Kristina*

    I like that the suggestions for related articles on this were: “ YOU MAY ALSO LIKE:
    someone keeps farting in important client meetings”

    Take heart, OP, at least you’re not contributing that way!

  110. Raida*

    “acting in a play versus joining an improv troupe”

    So, have you tried to learn the wide range of improv skills? It’s easily one of the best things I had lessons in – every lesson includes games, there’s no failure, and there’s so many different parts to learn!

    Status, timing, support, body language, matching energy levels, the range of ways to say the same thing – all of this could help you get out of the rut you’re in now where you’re all in your head and paralysing in the meetings.

    1. zumilla*

      I completely agree with this – take an improv comedy class! There really is nothing better for overcoming fear around speaking up, and you’ll have so much fun at the same time.

  111. RebelwithMouseyHair*

    If your boss wants you to contribute maybe they can delegate something to you.
    It often helps if you manage to say something apart from just hello early on in the meeting. Your boss could perhaps ask you to formally present something, and that, you already know how to do! Then, quite naturally, people will then ask you questions about the stuff you presented, and they will turn to you later if the same subject comes up. You’ll have researched it thoroughly so it should be OK. If you don’t know the answer, you admit it, there’s nothing wrong with needing to check up on details, and much better than blithely winging it then finding out later that you got it wrong. You promise to get back to them with the answer at a later point and that later point might be a lower-stakes convo where the lack of pressure means you can really shine.

Comments are closed.