How to Not Torpedo a Business Meeting

Miss Conduct shows you how to prepare and stay afloat when the pressure's on.
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Editor's note: Welcome to our new weekly column on business etiquette. If you have a pressing biz etiquette question for Miss Conduct, please send her an email.

Your project is in jeopardy; delays have chewed away your lead time. The client is nervous. Your collaborators don't trust each other. It's 4 p.m. on Friday before a long weekend.

Everybody just wants to go home, but it's your job to run the critical, last-minute meeting that keeps them at work, overtime. Lucky you.

The good news is, if the meeting goes well, everyone heads home hopeful -- and they might have some bright ideas over the long weekend.

If not, they have a full three days to mull over any slights or unskillful words until their resentment festers and crusts over like that half-eaten yogurt someone leftin the breakroom fridge last quarter and everyone's been afraid to touch since.

So you ask Miss Conduct, "How can I be sure that I don't torpedo this make-or-break meeting?"

Luckily, meeting torpedoes, like their submarine counterparts, do not explode by themselves. It's an involved process: First, the ordnance that torpedo-room denizens call "fish" are loaded into the inner tubes, the outer tubes are flooded with water to smooth the fishes' way into the sea, then the outer doors are opened (so that the explosive missiles don't blow them off and sink the sub). Last, the torpedoes fire out into the ocean, ready to detonate on impact.

It's kind of like how your boss gets worked up on a bad day, or so Miss Conduct has read, because her boss is perfect in every way. (That's Miss Conduct's story, and she's sticking to it.)

So Miss Conduct suggests that if you don't want to torpedo this meeting, whatever you do, make sure you load only the best fish.

Set the Scene

The characters at this meeting are the ordnance on your submarine -- your firepower -- and if you lock 'n' load just the most explosive ones, you're blowing your project to smithereens. Therefore, if you have a choice, be sure to bring only the smart, nonegocentric people on your team -- and then save a seat for yourself of course (even if you're as egocentric as Miss Conduct can be).

If you can't pick and choose your team, then ensure that roles are clearly defined before the meeting doors close. Set up a specific task for the one who always interjects the snarky comments, so that he or she will be focused on that, not a bad attitude.

Second, smooth the way for your good fish by making sure to take care of appearances, as well as substance and sustenance.

By keeping yourself, your environment and your notes together, you signal the importance of your clients' business. If you look nervous and unkempt at the meeting, you might believe it reveals how hard you've been working, but in reality, it only signifies how little control you have.

Next, it's time to take the pressure off all your tubes. Battles and bad meetings are about tension, so if you release the tension ahead of time, you forestall the battle. Make sure none of your team is squabbling over petty office politics the day of the meeting.

Make Them Laugh

But somehow, despite all your best-laid plans, if before the meeting things get so bad, it's time to play around with your misery. Make light of the situation, say, by glossing over the problems your team has encountered in favor of a treatise on the inadequate number of icing swirls on the Hostess cupcake, the hideousness of the rug in the conference room, or the mind-bendingly weird weather you're having.

The true purpose of business etiquette is to set everyone at ease, not to grind your superiority into their frontal lobes like cigarettes under one of Miss Conduct's spiked heels. Fortunately, nothing calms people down like gratitude and recognition. Once their spirits have been lifted and your fish are all in the same boat, so to speak, they'll be able to hear your appreciation.

Never miss an opportunity to thank your crew for their contributions and enumerate the way their strengths have allowed the team as a whole to accomplish intermediate goals.

Sharpen the Focus

Now it's time to fire up your ordnance -- but not with spiked heels. (That's after work.) The trouble is, you don't want your fish to explode, youwant your crew to focus, find their targets and meet your collective goals throughout the meeting.

Try to present the problems to be solved as if they were a puzzle or a game. You might even set a reward for the best solutions and fastest turnarounds -- that Hostess cupcake with extra swirls could come in handy here.

As when you meet someone for the first time, when you want to encourage your colleagues, lock and load your eyes, smile and give your best energy.

If some team members have still not kicked into high gear, if the crew is suffering due to nonperformance by one or more of its members, it may be time to challenge them to draw on new strengths. Unfortunately, nothing works better to ensure a lack of rest, constriction of critical thinking or ability to reframe the problems you face together before the big day than fear.

Just remember the tubes -- try to avoid flooding everyone's emotions by enumerating their faults and errors. Access their outgoing emotions instead.

If playfulness doesn't work, try playful aggression. It that doesn't work, try a nonexplosive kind of anger. Just make them angry at one piece of the problem, not at you.

Break the big presentation down to smaller, solvable components so that your teammates have the confidence that they can overcome them and prove themselves. Remember, everyone wants them to stay on the boat and swim with the best fish. Help them concentrate not on the big questions (that's your department), but on the techniques they need to solve the smaller problems.

For any big meeting, the difference between blowing your competition out of the water and exploding your own sub is all about your ability to target. Focus your firepower on the solution, throw your best cupcakes at your team, and be sure to shine your shoes if any icing drops on the way.

Read more of Miss Conduct's best advice at

AskMissConduct.com. Her amanuensis, Lisa Moricoli Latham, is a freelance writer in Los Angeles, and has contibuted to the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times and Salon.com.