“Katherine, have a go at it?”
I love this scene from the 2017 movie, Hidden Figures. Katherine, played by Taraji P. Henson, is put on the spot by her boss, played by Kevin Costner, in a room filled with top brass NASA officials — all male. She is asked to go to the chalkboard and lay out the math to bring John Glenn’s space capsule out of orbit and back to Earth.
This moment has all the elements of classic storytelling — something unexpected happens, something disruptive and uncomfortable — and then a memorable moment becomes a life lesson for everyone who is paying attention.
Katherine steps up and displays not only her math brilliance, but also her presence — both of which would not have been revealed to the rest of the group unless she was put on the spot.
In most organizations, being called out during a meeting is not the norm. It’s viewed as potentially embarrassing and, at a minimum, uncomfortable. But if it happens to you — it doesn’t have to be either. In fact, being called on can be an opportunity to make a positive impression.
Google’s research on high-performing teams revealed that two things were consistently present in their meetings: broad participation and psychological safety. Calling on people — even if it feels like putting them on the spot — is critical for gaining broad participation. And as long as the group is engaged in a topic that matters and people are attentive when someone speaks, the safety will be there.
You and Your Team Series
Instead of hoping your boss or the person leading the meeting won’t put you on the spot, prepare yourself for the unexpected opportunity to shine. Here’s how.
- Carefully prepare for every meeting. If the meeting organizer has sent out an agenda ahead of time, look through it beforehand and for each topic, list any questions you have and any points you might make. It’s better to do this before the meeting starts but you can also jot down notes as the meeting’s occurring, as long as you’re listening as well. Being attentive will clarify your thinking.
- Trust yourself. Don’t dismiss your ideas as irrelevant or ordinary. Your ideas, questions, and views are often more unique than you think. You are the only person in this meeting with your specific combination of background, experience, commitments, and concerns. Making an impact is about sincerity, not necessarily polish; if you value your own thinking, others will respect it as well.
- Decline if you have nothing to add of value. If you’re called on and you truly feel you don’t have something helpful to contribute, it’s ok to pass, as long as you say it meaningfully. Skip the simple “I’m fine,” which can easily be misinterpreted as lack of interest or preparation. Instead give some context and say something like “Thanks for asking. My thinking has already been expressed by others.” or “Thanks for checking in with me. My group can live with what we’ve agreed upon.”
- Start slowly. If you do decide to answer the request to contribute, take a quick pause, and then begin by speaking slowly and clearly. Often when we get caught off guard, we speak too fast and get flustered. It’s OK to take a deep breath before you begin.
- Set up your comments. Let the group know what is coming. You might say, “I have one comment and one question” or “I have three points to make that are important to my group.” This setup will also help organize your thoughts so you are less likely to ramble.
- When appropriate, give yourself permission to think out loud. Since you are being put on the spot, it’s understandable that you won’t have a polished response. Besides, thinking out loud is a creative act that isn’t precise. Let the group know you are going to ramble. You might say, “There’s something I need to express and I don’t have absolutely clarity on it yet, but if the group will bear with me, I’ll get there.”
- Practice set responses. It’s helpful to have certain types of responses prepared. The following phrases and questions can help you when you’re put on the spot:
- Please say a bit more about what you’re asking. If you’re not sure what you’ve been asked to comment on, ask for clarity. With more context, you’re likely to come up with an answer that’s more direct and relevant. Don’t employ this as a delay tactic, however. Use this phrase when you’d genuinely like more background before you reply.
- I do not have that information. I will get it to you by 1:00 PM. When you don’t know something, don’t make excuses. Be honest but provide a time by when you will have the answer to indicate a sense of urgency on your part.
- Here is what I’m taking away from this conversation. Sometimes you’ll be asked where you stand on an issue or decision. Rather than just agreeing, summarize what you’re gaining from the discussion. Letting others know the value you received from a discussion validates the conversation and the contributions of others. It’s also rare, so people appreciate it.
- I think I’m clear about your idea, and I see it differently. May I tell you? When you disagree, you should say so, but it’s helpful to introduce your comments in a way that helps the other person hear your view. This set-up phrase indicates your support, takes the notion of “right and wrong” out of conversation, and reduces defensiveness.
- While I would have preferred a different approach, I’ll fully support this. Sometimes you’re asked whether you support a decision that’s being discussed. It’s easy to say yes if it’s a direction that you agree with, but you occasionally need to get behind a decision that wasn’t your preference.
- Did I answer your question? After you’ve responded, it’s smart to check that you met the asker’s expectations with this is a simple, courteous question. After all, it’s easy to misinterpret someone’s request, ramble if you’re thinking out loud, or not provide a full answer in an effort to be brief.
Some of life’s best moments occur when someone puts their trust in you and you rise to the challenge. Being called on in a meeting may not be a life-changing moment, but when others ask for your views, ideas, and questions, it is always an opportunity — not only to add value, but to give people a glimpse of your brilliance.