Meetings are a core part of everyday business. They can be difficult to schedule and, without a clear agenda, they often wander aimlessly off topic. They can feel like an even greater waste of time when you don't have an opportunity to contribute something meaningful. Dreaded by many, they are nonetheless a necessary evil and do not have to be a time suck. On the contrary, you can turn them into an opportunity to shine.

By thinking of meetings as an opportunity to build relationships and establish yourself as a reliable source of information, you can use them to advance your career and business.

Whether you're an entrepreneur meeting with a potential investor or a staff member meeting with a project planning committee, here are four tips for making the most of your next meeting and creating opportunities for meaningful contribution.

1. Ask in advance for an agenda or for the main focus of the meeting. 

Some meetings are called at the spur of the moment and others are held regularly. Regardless, you can inquire in advance about the purpose to prepare yourself. This is especially necessary if you do not do well with surprises or speaking extemporaneously.

You want to set the context for the meeting and in my experience, you can do that by gathering information about the topic, identifying the intended outcomes, and knowing who else will be attending.

If you know who will be there you can explore how this meeting fits into the rest of their portfolio and the level of importance of the meeting. Even if you do not get all of this information it can tell you the meeting was either not planned well or there is a lack of transparency. There might be an opportunity, therefore, for you to help with planning the agenda in the future.

2. Prepare a question or comment in advance.

If you know the subject matter you can prepare a comment or question about that topic. Or you can prepare a generic question that you can ask at an opportune time. It is important to have a few of these ready so that even if you are uncomfortable speaking up publicly or the meeting is fast-paced, you still have something to contribute.

Some examples that I have used are: "How do you see this rolling out in the near future?" or "How do you see me/my department being involved?" and a good one everyone wants to be asked is "What can I do to support you?"

Your comments should add value and that you not speak just to hear your own voice. You want to be remembered as someone who actively participates; that higher level of engagement signals commitment.

3. Observe the dynamics during the meeting.

If you take a "meta" perspective during the meeting, like going to the balcony and looking down, you can observe the interactions among the participants. You can note relational dynamics and the level of receptivity of the ideas being floated. It is useful to know who holds the decision-making power, who is aligned with that power, who is neutral, and who is a rival.

Edgar Schein, a social and organizational psychologist, developed this practice of process consultation as a way to observe interactions among people in an organizational context. The observations can include noting who speaks up and how often, the order of who speaks and the way they speak up. These patterns of interaction reinforce who dominates the conversation, who yields power, who is silenced or whose contributions are deemed less valuable. This can inform how you participate, which ideas you support, and how you can ensure you are heard.

4. Offer to work on follow-up activities after the meeting.

There may be limited time during the meeting for you to speak up and the last thing you want to do is prolong an already long meeting. See who is taking the lead on follow-up and offer to help out. This keeps you engaged and, if it's an important initiative, puts you close to the action.

I have offered my services to colleagues and this has been a relief to those who welcome the extra hands. You can establish yourself as someone who can be relied on and when another opportunity comes along you will be thought of as part of the team. You will need to discern what is high profile and what is mundane, but even the less exciting tasks can bring you favorable status going forward.

It takes time to build your reputation and status, and one way is to show how you add value. Speaking up and being heard at opportune times works wonders in building your business and career.

Published on: Oct 3, 2018
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.