Meeting expectations

It's a common notion in the business world that "nothing gets accomplished in meetings," but that couldn't be further from the truth.

Plenty occurs in your typical business meeting. In particular, careers are ruined because participants don't know how to play the game.

No matter what your field, you eventually will be expected to "take a meeting" with your superiors or co-workers or clients. Somewhere, I'm sure, lumberjacks are forced to sit around a long table and analyze performance and profit ratios.

(Even we lowly workers who toil in home offices occasionally are summoned to headquarters or forced to pitch our ideas to customers. We tend to be ineffective in meetings because we're accustomed to working alone, muttering and cursing and wearing coffee-stained sweatpants.)

The key to a successful business meeting is to be prepared. You must know your material and how best to project it. You must know the participants and what they expect. You must make sure you don't have spinach stuck in your front teeth.

All the etiquette lessons your mother tried to teach you apply to business meetings. Since you didn't listen to your mother any more than you currently heed your boss, let's review:

--Mind your manners. Common courtesy is expected at business meetings. Don't talk over other people, no matter how slow and befuddled they seem. Don't shoot rubber bands at co-workers. Don't chew gum while meeting with a client, and never, ever stick the chewed gum to the underside of his desk.

--Know your audience and what connections lie behind the scenes. Do some research, so you know which client is a slack-jawed idiot and which ones simply look like slack-jawed idiots. Dogpile-on-the-boss'-nephew almost never works. And, how many salesmen have been ruined by referring to competitors as "Satan's spawn," only to learn the customer is married to one of those competitors?

--Avoid sweeping generalizations. For instance, don't say "golf is for morons" until you find out your client's handicap.

--Don't hog the conversation. Nobody likes a know-it-all. Give others a chance to dig their own holes of ignominy. (Note: When you witness a colleague sink his career in a meeting, it's considered impolite to snort-laugh.)

--Pay attention. No matter how long-winded your boss or how unproductive a meeting seems, it's always bad form to start leafing through magazines. Just like in school, the teacher always calls on the student who's staring out the window.

--Know the terminology. You won't make a good impression using terms like "gizmo" and "widget" unless you work for Universal Gizmos and Widgets, Inc.

--Dress appropriately. At one time, the traditional business suit was the correct uniform for all meetings. No more. Part of knowing your audience is knowing how they dress. Hollywood types, for instance, tend to dress like carpenters. Computer engineers go for the "surfer/nerd" look. If you wear a business suit to a meeting with software geeks, they will sneer and flick pizza on you.

--Be careful with jokes. "Two drunks walk into a bar…" may not seem funny to a client who's active in Alcoholics Anonymous.

--Make suggestions. If you sit silent as a stump through every meeting, co-workers will start treating you like a stump. Or, worse, the way dogs treat a stump.

--Be prepared to back down. Don't insist that your idea is the only workable one or that the boss is stupid to ignore you. Wait until you're out of the meeting, then say those things in the "safety zone" behind your manager's back.

--Stay awake. No matter what.

If you follow these simple rules, you, too, can be effective in business meetings and go on to have a successful career. Particularly if you're the boss' nephew.

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