When communicating in meetings, leaders generally fall into one of two categories: those who methodically think through their ideas and formulate a response before speaking, and those who take a less structured approach, sharing all of their thoughts out loud to spark discussion or reach a final decision.
While neither of these communication styles is wrong, it’s essential to know how best to communicate to give your ideas maximum impact. Depending on your company’s culture, you might mistakenly be seen as disorganized or verbose if you fall into the latter category.
Another thing that’s important to remember is that virtual brainstorming can be more tricky and present some additional obstacles for connecting with your employees. You might have to be a bit more creative with technology and tools.
So the next time you’re in a meeting that calls for ideation, try these tactics to help you get your point across:
Share That You Are Thinking Out Loud
By being upfront about what you’re doing, you can give your manager and/or teams context into how you communicate. This might look like saying, “I am brainstorming out loud to help get to our solution.” Or, “I am speaking in rough draft here and welcome your input.” Being open about the fact that you’re thinking out loud will signal to others it’s okay for them to do the same.
I worked with one client who was regularly being put on the spot by her CEO. He would ask her tough, direct questions in senior leadership meetings—even if she prepared for the questions ahead of time, he would throw in curveballs that knocked her off balance. At review time, she was told she sounded disorganized when she answered his questions. To help her with her delivery, we decided on two options: One, if the question didn’t require an immediate response, she would state that she would follow up with an answer in email. If it did, however, she would name that she was brainstorming out loud for a solution. By exploring her options, developing a plan of action and being open about how she was communicating, she was able to reclaim her power and credibility when it really counted.
Communicate in “Tweets”
While this might not feel authentic at first, being intentional about limiting your words can also help during brainstorming sessions by allowing others to see an abbreviated summary of your thought process. You can practice doing this before a meeting to see where you can enhance your skills.
Another way to practice “speaking in tweets” is to write out a sentence from a presentation or conversation and see how many words you can cut out without losing the meaning. Practice reading it out loud. Then, take another sentence and do the same thing. You might even want to practice reading your abbreviated sentences in front of a mirror to see the impact a little strategic cutting can have on your delivery.
Think and Speak in an Outline
Adding the outline concept to how you share ideas can help you demonstrate your brainstorming flow. Consider formulating a rough outline (e.g., the main point and two to three subpoints) to emphasize your ideas and give them some structure. If you process visually, try mapping your outline on a whiteboard for others to see.
As a best practice, it’s always a good idea to create and practice with an outline when you’re giving a presentation. You can use this approach for impromptu speaking, as well. First, slow down—give your words a chance to catch up with your ideas. Then, think of the big idea to your outline; share that first. Finally, deliver your two to three supporting points. By limiting yourself to sharing only the most important points, you’ll avoid overloading your colleagues with too much information.
Set a Time Limit on Idea Sharing
Rather than stifling your creative thinking, this tactic can help you move quickly and avoid idea overload (along with the dreaded “analysis paralysis”). Remember, you can always go back and share more ideas (or build on the ones you’ve generated) in another meeting or email.
If you don’t set an actual timer, you can keep an eye on your audience to make sure you haven’t lost them (or ask a trusted associate to do this). You might periodically pause and ask for feedback on what you’ve shared to keep yourself from rambling—you can jot down where to pause in your notes, if you’re afraid you’ll forget. Be sure you’re actually having a conversation, and not giving a monologue.
Emphasize Your Strengths
Finally, if you excel at ideation, consider scheduling more brainstorming meetings than formal discussions. Take the opportunity to organize your department around your strengths.
You might schedule a recurring monthly brainstorm to get your colleagues in on the action. Feel free to get tactile; you can use post-it notes to jot down ideas as they come to you (and encourage your fellow meeting participants to do the same). Doing your “out loud” thinking on paper helps those participants who don’t like to publicly share sometimes.
Anne Sugar is an executive coach and keynote speaker who has advised top leaders in verticals such as biotech, technology, and finance. Anne serves as an executive coach for Harvard Business School Executive Education and has guest lectured at MIT.