The conventional wisdom is clear and–on its face–totally sensible: If you’re trying to make a name for yourself in your company, you need to contribute during team meetings. Speaking up and sharing your opinions is a surefire way to get noticed. You don’t want to disappear and give the impression you’ve got nothing meaningful to add.
That much is basically true. You really do need to contribute often enough that people realize you’re there and bring something useful to the table. But there’s a chance you’re overdoing it.
More Isn’t Always Better
You might think that the ideal way to contribute is to say something whenever you have an idea or comment that’s even the least bit good. In other words, the bar for voicing your thoughts is fairly low, largely because you assume (even subconsciously) that your bosses and coworkers will mentally tally up all the positive contributions you make. It’s not that you believe quantity necessarily trumps quality, just that the more generally helpful things you say, the better.
But research on the so-called “presenter’s paradox” says differently. As the authors of a 2011 study put it, “mildly favorable information dilutes the impact of highly favorable information.” While the researchers looked primarily at marketing presentations, it hints at a psychological pattern that may well carry over into other contexts, too. When other people evaluate you, they generally don’t add up each positive contribution. Think about it: That would be a pretty exhausting mental undertaking.
Instead, they’re trying to form an overall impression of you, which means they’re more likely to average the quality of the things you say. Throwing out two great ideas and then three mediocre ones brings down your overall “score.” You’re better off focusing on those two brilliant ideas and leaving the just-okay ones out.
Think Before You Share
Keeping yourself in check can be harder than it looks, especially if you’re used to tossing out ideas as they come to you.
Research on creativity suggests that the people who have the most ideas are also most likely to have the best ideas. So it’s a good idea to generate a lot of ideas while you’re in a meeting–at least inside your own head to start with. But before deciding to contribute your latest thought in the meeting, write it down. Take a look at it, and decide whether you think it’s one of the best you’ve come up with. If so, go on and share it! Then you can keep your others in reserve in case the group isn’t happy with the options they have so far.
There are two benefits to writing your ideas down and looking them over before speaking. Obviously, one is that you can privately rank your own contributions rather than subjecting all of them to your team’s assessment (or risk even the good ones getting lost in the shuffle). This way you’re maximizing the chance that other people will actually rally to your point of view–and form a positive impression of you in the process.
The other reason is that many people who contribute a lot in meetings listen only long enough to figure out what they want to say next. But after they have a contribution in mind, they pay less attention to the ongoing conversation and spend their mental effort remembering what they want to say, and polishing the presentation of their own idea. As a result, they miss a chance to really listen to what others are saying. The ongoing conversation might actually spur an even better idea than the one you had, or it may give you a chance to build on someone else’s contribution. Both can be a better use of your energy than just getting a word in edgewise.
Plus, when you write down your idea, you no longer need to hold it in mind until it’s your turn. That frees up your mental resources to play an active role in the conversation, even if that means listening–until you spot your chance to share the best thing you’ve got.