Meetings can be telling experiences. If you're an employee, you want to look good in front of your boss. If you're selling something, you want to make a good impression on your prospect. If you're the meeting leader, you want to set a good example for your team. In all of these scenarios, you want to add as much value to the meeting as possible, and look as smart as you can in front of the other participants.
Doing so can be tough, even if you're well-read and invested in the topic of the meeting. That's because meeting participation requires as much poise as intelligence, and one redundant question or moment of distraction could make it look like you weren't paying attention.
To improve your reputation and keep the meeting as effective as possible, ask a variant of one or more of these seven questions:
1. Why are we here? As long as you don't ask this question bluntly or with a negative tone, you won't be cited as being antagonistic or resistant. Clarifying the purpose of the meeting, whether you're asking a supervisor or asking one of your employees, can help bring the main topic of the meeting to everyone's mind. The more focused everyone is on achieving that primary goal (or discussing that main idea), the more efficiently you'll be able to do so as a group. This is also your opportunity to chime in with your own thoughts about the future of the discussion--as long as this hasn't explicitly been covered already.
2. Is this helping our bottom line? The "bottom line" here could refer to several different things, but the purpose of the question is to zoom out and look at the topic from a broader perspective. For example, let's say your meeting is about creating a marketing strategy that will earn you more web traffic and two of your coworkers have entered into a debate over which social media scheduling service is better suited for the campaign. Asking this question will illuminate the fact that the "bottom line" is getting more customers, and the current discussion is not relevant to that ultimate purpose. In other scenarios, this question can help realign your other meeting participants to the core purpose of gathering.
3. What evidence is there to support that? Most people will speak up in a meeting with their own thoughts and opinions; on the whole, this is good, but it's rare that someone justifies those opinions with evidence. If you catch someone making a bold claim with no backup, or if you simply disagree with someone, tactfully ask them if they have any evidence to support their claims. Regardless of whether there is or isn't evidence available, the group will have more information to qualify that person's claim, and the meeting will be able to progress more intelligently (thanks to you).
4. What do you think? Ask this of someone else specifically in the room, and think carefully about who you call out. This isn't about forcing participation so much as it is eliciting the opinion of someone more relevant to the claim or idea. For example, let's say you're meeting about the design for a new product your company is offering. You could ask the salesperson his opinion, to figure out the impact the design might have on customers from a sales perspective. You could ask the head of marketing her opinion, to see what elements are most important to emphasize in new ads. The key is to help others bring up important perspectives and ideas related to the topic at hand (and get credit by proxy for the new conversational value).
5. What other options are there? This is a useful question because it can be used in almost any scenario. No matter how solid an idea seems, there's probably at least one alternative option that could theoretically replace it. This question forces the entire room of people to question their previous assumptions and treat the new idea critically. You'll seem cautious, thoughtful, and thorough, and the group will have a better chance at fully exploring the topic before moving on.
6. What don't we know? According to Donald Rumsfeld, there are Known Unknowns and Unknown Unknowns. That is to say, there are things about your meeting's topic that you're all aware you're missing, and potential items that nobody has considered. This question raises attention to both categories. First, it forces your meeting participants to list all the things they still need to research about the topic. Second, it stirs up enough attention to possibly recognize and identify those pesky "unknown unknowns" before they cause any damage.
7. What are the action items? This is useful as an end-of-meeting recap, and shows that you're most concerned with turning the discussion items of the meeting into a tangible and actionable list. Offer your own recap of action items, including who's responsible for what, and open the floor to any additional points you may have missed.
Obviously you can't just throw these questions out and hope they're appropriate; you'll have to listen and participate carefully, with these probing questions in the back of your mind if you want a chance to show off your reasoning skills. Of course, there's no substitute for doing your homework and paying close attention, so keep your head in the game and do your best to stay current in the meeting as it develops. For more insights on advancing your career, grab my eBook, Climbing the Corporate Ladder: Career Hacks for Modern Professionals.