How to speak up in business meetings

One of the most common challenges facing international professionals is how to respond in the moment to a difficult question. This often happens in a meeting or a presentation. You’re going through your prepared material – it’s probably something you’ve been working on.

And then suddenly a question comes up that you haven’t though about before. Or it could be a topic that you’re not 100% sure about.

It’s stressful. On top of the language multi-tasking you’re doing (following multiple conversations, translating, thinking of the grammar), you’re also faced with a subject that you might not feel very confident about.

You hit a blank. Some clients talk about having a white brain – empty space and no thoughts. Or they just wait for someone else to speak up.

But maybe you’ve also noticed that native speakers deal with this pretty well.

Here’s something to remember: you don’t have to provide a 100% airtight answer with all the facts and information mastered.

You don’t need to be perfect, in other words. It’s partly cultural. You’re not expected to be absolutely correct. All you have to to do is provide a sketch or an outline of an idea.

Especially in the tech world, managers and other colleagues want as many ideas out there as they can have. Even if they’re not “perfect.”

Because you never know where the golden idea is going to come from. But in cultures that are very critical and judgmental and except perfection, this can be unfamiliar or scary.

Here are some handy “escape” or “excuse” phrases that can help:

I am still working through this, but…..
I’m still thinking through this , but
It’s not completely clear in my mind yet, but….
Still working through the details on this, but….
I’ve gone back and forth on this but…
I haven’t done the _____ on this. I still need to figure this out….but
I’m thinking that…
I’d have to go back and check my data but……..

These take the pressure off. Your listener won’t be expecting perfection, and you can show your expertise and intelligent insights without worrying. You’ve just told them you’re not 100% sure!

(These phrases come from actual recording of actual managers at local tech firms in the Bay Area, btw.) 

One of my favorites, given to me by a PM was: “this is directionally correct…but….”

Use these phrases so you can relax.

The important thing is: don’t let the self-doubt in the moment keep you from contributing.

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