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Many years ago I was asked to represent my company on a national committee. I had to fly from Portland, Oregon to Washington D.C. for the meeting, find my way around the city wearing an actual business suit and heels, then walk into this room and make a good impression.
I was prepared for the content of the meeting - I knew my stuff - but I was far from comfortable. The 30 or so other members of the committee came from Microsoft, the Department of Defense, and a host of big organizations; I worked for a 20-person web software vendor no one had ever heard of. Most of the committee members were much older than I was, and there were very few women.
Soon enough, the gavel pounded and the chair began the meeting. After a brief greeting, he said:
“Go around the room and tell the group a bit about yourself, starting with Don here.”
Tell them about me? What am I supposed to say in this room of dour-looking, experienced people?
I knew that if I wanted any shot of making an impact in the meeting, the other people in the room had to take me seriously, and this introduction was my chance to make that oh-so-important good first impression. But what could I say that would impress this room? I felt like I was at an awful interview, and I began to sweat.
In this case, I needn’t have sweated the introductions (or my blouse) so much. Don stood up and calmly stated his name and the organization he represented, then sat back down. Simple. As it went around the room, each person followed this short pattern, and I began to relax.
My name and where I work? That’s it? Those are questions I can answer easily! Why hadn’t the chair been clearer about what he wanted people to say?
Poor leadership creates undue anxiety
Introductions in meetings are meant to help people get comfortable speaking together. It’s a meeting after all, which means it only works well if those in attendance talk to each other. That’s hard to do when you don’t know someone’s name or you’ve been put on the defensive by an inappropriate question.
For many people, those first minutes of a meeting will always be nerve-wracking. How the meeting leader handles those opening minutes can make a huge difference in the effectiveness of the conversation that follows.
For that committee meeting, I spent the first 15 minutes unclenching from the adrenaline overdose and had no idea what they talked about. In an online setting, if you lose someone’s attention like that for 15 minutes, they’ve missed half the meeting!
How should that committee chair have started the introductions, then?
Let’s start with some basics.
The Cardinal Rules of Leading Business Meeting Introductions
Rule 1: Make sure everyone gets introduced.
If someone is important enough to be invited, they must be introduced. Business introductions make sure the people in the meeting know who they’re talking to. They provide critical context for the discussion, giving everyone a sense for the range of perspectives and experience in the room. With an online meeting, having everyone introduce themselves also reveals any issues with audio or language differences.
This goes for latecomers and other people who walk into the room, too. While you shouldn’t interrupt someone to introduce a new attendee, make sure use the next pause to quickly do so. If you’re on a conference call and the CEO walks into the room behind you, the people on the other side of the phone deserve to know that the audience just changed.
Rule 2: Provide clear direction.
Tell people specifically what you want them to share with the group, and provide an example by introducing yourself first. This was the big mistake in the committee meeting I attended; the leader left it up to the group to figure out how to introduce themselves. For someone new to the group and inexperienced like me, he might as well have pointed my way shouting “Dance, monkey, dance!”
Not sure what you should ask? You’ll find example questions below.
After explaining what you want to hear, cover the order in which people should speak. For online meetings, go top-to-bottom through the attendee list.
Rule 3: Keep it safe.
If you give clear instructions and provide an example by introducing yourself first, you’ll have a great start on alleviating anyone’s anxiety.
To further ensure you don’t inadvertently shut someone down:
- Never ask people to share potentially sensitive information in a business setting.
Stay clear of topics that get too personal; not everyone has happy childhood memories, and lots of adults just don’t have a favorite band or ice cream flavor any more. If you must delve into the personal, save it for your team-building exercises and off-sites.
- Don’t ask questions that make people feel they have to justify their right to be in the meeting.
You may need to understand the skills and expertise of the people present, but there are ways you can find this out without making someone feel like they’re being interviewed.
This doesn’t mean you have to keep introductions terse (Name & rank, attendee!) or boring (How’s the weather there, Steve?). Instead, craft an introduction question based on rule #4.
Rule 4: Make introductions relevant to the meeting.
Context (not content) is key. The best introductions will help everyone understand how each participant relates specifically to the situation at hand.
Are they there just to listen, or do they have an agenda of their own? Are they an expert in subject, or is this all completely new? Will they be in charge of decisions, or expected to carry them out?
Include at least one question in your introductions that ties directly to the goal of the meeting and reveals some of this context.
The Basic Business Introduction Questions
For business and professional meetings, introductions should always include:
Each person’s first and last name
Then, context, context, context!
The company or department they represent
This is their business context.
Current location (for remote attendees)
This is their personal context; important for understanding time zone concerns, possible connection issues, and background noise.
Why they’re at the meeting
This is their meeting context.
To get at this last one, you might ask:
- What’s the most important thing you want to get out of this meeting?
- What are you hoping to learn here today?
- What prompted you to be here today?
- What excites you most about the work we’re doing here?
- What skills can you contribute to the team that may not be obvious to the rest of us?
When you have more time: Introduction Activities
Most introductions run like an icebreaker’s disapproving neighbor. They’re in the same general area, but definitely living different lifestyles.
These activities dip their toes into the team-building waters, bringing a little more game-feel to the meeting, while still keeping it all very professional.
Gifts and Hooks
We’ve talked about this one before, and bring it up here again because this is the best example we know of a non-fluffy, clearly useful introductory game for working teams.
In Gifts and Hooks, the leader explains that team members bring gifts to the table (their skills, knowledge, etc.), but they also need hooks — things the person needs in order to remain fully engaged. Team members write down both their gifts and their hooks, then go around the room to share them.
You can get a detailed description of Gifts and Hooks by Michael Wilkinson on the IIF site.
Alliteration Alleviates Anonymity
To increase the energy in a group and help stir the creative juices, Denise Grissom Bradford suggests asking people to introduce themselves using an alliteration (i.e. Dancing Denise from Duluth or Jolly John joins jauntily).
With the right group, and especially as a start for brainstorming or other creative meetings, this approach is fun without pushing the goofy too far out of bounds. And, since one of your goals is to help people learn each other’s names, alliteration definitely makes members memorable.
Other variations: Limericks! Haiku!
Questions from the group
Instead of coming up with the questions yourself, ask the group what they want to know about each other. This works best if you go over the meeting purpose first, and provide an example.
If you’re meeting online, ask people to type their questions into chat, or put them on cards if you’re face-to-face. Remind everyone that the questions shouldn’t be embarrassing or difficult to answer.
Then, go around the room and ask each person to state their name and answer one or two of the questions posed by the group.
Final tip: You don’t need to start with introductions
Introductions usually come near the beginning of the meeting, but they shouldn’t always come first.
For most meetings, you’re better off starting by confirming the meeting purpose and goals. Welcome everyone, clarify why you’re meeting and what the team is meant to accomplish, and THEN go through introductions.
Starting with the meeting purpose FIRST establishes the all-important context for the introductions that follow.
Introverts, newbies, and meeting-avoiders:
What other tips would you give meeting leaders to help make introductions go more smoothly for you? Let us know in the comments here or on Twitter, #bettermeetings.