How to Make the Right Impression at Meetings

Combine preparation with observation to feel more confident at meetings.

December 13, 2016

Uh-oh. A last-minute meeting popped up on your calendar for tomorrow—and some of your organization’s head honchos will be across the table.

What will you do? What if someone asks a question you aren’t prepared to answer? Can you check your phone if things drag out? What if nature calls?

“I think you learn from experience,” said Eduardo Morales, CPA, a senior associate with Marcum LLP in Roseland, N.J. “Early in my career I was working as an executive administrative assistant, and I was sitting down in meetings with directors and senior VPs. I just tried to absorb as much as I could.”

Here are other CPAs’ best tips on how to comport yourself at a meeting, along with some advice from an expert in business etiquette:

Do your homework. Prepare ahead of time for the topics on the agenda, and bring a cheat sheet to help you remember them.

“I’ve always been big on jotting down notes in the margin on my copy of something that I’m presenting,” said Jason Hijuelos, CPA, CGMA, a senior manager with Hannis T. Bourgeois LLP in New Orleans.

Dress the part. Don’t walk into a meeting looking like the only person who didn’t get the memo. Make sure your attire matches the meeting’s level of formality.

“Not only will it make you fit in better, but you’ll also seem more promotion-worthy if you look more professional,” said Arden Clise, president of Clise Etiquette in Seattle and author of Spinach in Your Boss’s Teeth: Essential Etiquette for Professional Success.

Arrive early. If a meeting starts at 1 p.m., be seated and ready to work at 12:55 p.m.—not racing through the door at the last minute.

Morales likes to show up 10 or 15 minutes early. He learned a lesson early in his career when he showed up near the end of a meeting after neglecting to check his calendar. “It was embarrassing, because I completely forgot about it,” he said. “It was a mistake that hopefully will never happen again, because I’m constantly keeping track of my calendar.”

Observe first, then speak up. Many Millennials grew up in households where they were encouraged to speak without fear of offending authority figures, Clise said. But behaving too assertively may alienate some co-workers.

“Hold back a little bit,” she advised. “Observe. And then, if it looks like it’s OK to speak your mind and say that you disagree with an authority figure, then do it.” But if it looks like others are not necessarily being direct about their opinions, she said, proceed with caution.

Communicate effectively. Speak more slowly than usual. Limit slang words and phrases (“you guys,” “no worries.”)

Also, use terms and concepts appropriate to your audience. For example, if the people at the meeting “have more of a financial background, then you may need to prepare to take a deeper dive into the numbers,” Hijuelos said. But if they don’t, “you may need to spend a little more time going into details on processes and how the numbers came to be.”

Buy time. If you don’t know the answer to a question on the spot, don’t try to wing it. Let the questioner know you’ll find the answer and get back to them after the meeting.

“It is much better to admit that you don’t know the answer offhand than to give someone wrong information,” Hijuelos said.

Avoid distractions. Completely silence sounds and vibrations from smartphones and other electronic devices and keep them stored out of sight. Only take notes on your laptop if you see others doing the same, and close or minimize other windows and files to prevent distractions. Don’t bring a snack. Only eat if food is offered during the meeting.

No one needs to know when you go. Don’t broadcast a bathroom break.

“Just get up quietly and do what you need to do,” Clise said. “Or, if it seems odd not to say something, simply say ‘excuse me’ quietly to the people near you.”

Stick around. Take advantage of opportunities to socialize after a meeting. It can be a great way to get to know your colleagues better and feel more relaxed at your next meeting. Morales learned that the directors and senior VPs he met early in his career were down-to-earth once he got to know them better.

“That kind of took some of the intimidation away and made me feel more comfortable,” he said.

Eddie Huffman is a Greensboro, N.C.-based freelance writer. To comment on this story, email associate editor Courtney Vien.

The Edge e-newsletter, is dedicated to providing tips and tools of interest to young professionals, including articles on building career resiliency, networking for success, and de-prioritizing the immediate to focus on the important. Watch for it in your inbox. Subscribe at