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How to Nail the First 90 Seconds of That Big Meeting

By Fast Company
Lifestyle

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It’s your big opportunity. You’ve been invited to join your boss for a major meeting–with upper management, or maybe with an important client. You’re the expert this time around, the eyes-and-ears-on-the-ground who’s here to share some insights from the front lines. Do that well, and you know your boss will trust you with bigger responsibilities in the near future.

But you’re nervous–understandably–and you know you can’t blow your first impression with all these new and influential people. Here’s what you can do to nail it within those first 90 seconds after walking into the meeting room.

1. WRITE DOWN THE QUESTIONS YOU MIGHT BE ASKED (NOT THE ANSWERS)

To make those first moments count, you’ve got to do some prep work the night before. Type out or jot down a few potential questions you might be asked. You don’t need an exhaustive list–just a few big ones to commit to memory.

Some people like to prepare their answers to likely questions ahead of time, that might be the wrong approach (this isn’t a job interview). If you focus on writing out your answers, you won’t be fully present when you’re actually asked the question. You’ll be stuck trying to remember exactly what you wrote the night before, when what you really need is to be in the moment. So define a few of the big-ticket questions you’re there to answer, plus any follow-ups that the information you’re going to present is likely to elicit. Then trust that you have the expertise to give good answers on the fly.

This won’t just help you midway through the meeting when people start asking you things. Crucially, it’ll also give you the confidence you’ll need to walk into the room feeling and looking like you belong there and know what you’re doing.

2. TAKE A FEW DEEP BREATHS BEFORE SITTING DOWN

There’s a good chance you’re going to feel tense before you even take your seat at the table. This causes some totally normal yet unproductive physiological reactions: You hold your breath. You’re suddenly unaware of your body. You may start to shake a leg, pick at your fingernails, or fall into some other distracting behavior without even realizing it.

So when you walk into the room, take a few seconds to breathe, focusing on the exhale. Take small sips of air, and then extend your release. If you take some time to focus on your breathing, you’ll become more aware of your body, so you can free your mind to focus on what’s most important. All it takes is a minute or two to get control of your breathing, but it can help you steady yourself for the next hour.

3. SIT DOWN, THEN ADJUST YOUR BALANCE

Next, you’re obviously going to need to sit down. This seems trivial, but the way you sit is more important than you might realize. Sit with both feet on the floor in a way that’s balanced for you. If you’re sitting in one of those conference-room chairs that lets you adjust the height, take advantage! (Depending on your own height and the type of chair, you might not be able to plant both feet entirely on the floor, but do the best you can.) You should ideally be able to lean move forward, back, and side to side without moving your legs.

Leadership presence isn’t just about what you say and how you say it. There’s a physical, nonverbal dimension as well. So make sure you’re seated in a position of strength and balance.

4. TAKE OUT ALL THE STUFF YOU’LL NEED

When I was starting out as a speaking coach, my mentor scheduled a meeting for me with a senior executive in New York. I’d never met him before–actually, I’d never even been to New York before. So I was incredibly nervous.

To steady myself, I decided to practice a ritual for what I would do when I sat down. I smoked cigarettes at the time (this was back when smoking wasn’t considered inappropriate in business contexts), so I reached for my Dunhill cigarette case and my microphone-shaped lighter and set them down on the table in front of me as precisely as I could. Sounds silly, but just practicing how I was going to sit down and get comfortable within those first few seconds after walking into the room made me feel more relaxed when the meeting came. (The exec even wound up buying my services even though I’d thought this was just an introductory meeting.)

When you sit down at the table, you probably shouldn’t yank out your smokes, but you may have a laptop, notebook, tablet, or phone on you. Ideally, you’ll want to keep your phone in your pocket, but if you need to be available, at least make sure it’s on vibrate and the screen is turned off. Then waste no time getting your materials out quickly but smoothly. This helps you settle in right away and shows you’re present and ready to get going.

5. MAKE EYE CONTACT WITH EVERYONE IN THE ROOM

When you walk into the meeting room, you might not know all (or most . . . or any) of the people there. You may not even know who the most important decision-makers are. But you need to resist the temptation to seek out a friendly face and stay in your comfort zone. Instead, try to make eye contact with everyone right off the bat. If the meeting is too large for that to be feasible, mentally divide the room into sections and make five seconds of eye contact per section. This will help you survey the landscape and get an rough feel for who’s who.

I once had a salesperson from a tech company visit my office to sell my company some equipment. From the moment he walked into the room, he never once looked at me. He assumed I wasn’t the decision-maker, when in reality I was the only decision-maker! Gender dynamics aside, he’d also flatly failed to tune into the room. Within the first minute or two, take a moment to do a quick scan and make sure you don’t miss anybody important.

True, you’ll need to be on your game for the entire meeting, but nailing these quick habits within the first 90 seconds or so can make sure you get off to a strong start–so you can finish that way, too.

Photo: Getty iStock

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