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Last impressions are underrated in business. Elsewhere? Not underrated. At a restaurant: dessert. At the Olympics: closing ceremonies. At the end of Cannonball Run: a hilarious blooper reel. But at the end of a meeting? Some handshakes and business cards.
What restaurateurs and Olympics organizers and movie producers know that the rest of us don't is that a good ending magically makes you think that everything preceding it went off better than it actually did. The last impression is a powerful thing. The ending is important. Especially in a meeting room.
To be clear: This isn't about ending a meeting. Ending a meeting has never struck us as all that difficult. This is about what happens after the meeting has already ended. The handshaking. The small-talking. The walking to the door. The asking where the restroom is. This is about leaving--but in a meaningful way.
What You Do
Obviously you shake hands with everyone. Obviously you smile. The key is to shake hands and smile in a way that suggests you are, say, 30 percent more pleased with how things went than you actually are. Politicians do this all the time. Especially after a debate. Fathers of the bride do this, too. So do the North Koreans after their leader says something. The scientific term for it is: Post Event Feigned Delight. Used in a sentence: "Bob, nice work in the meeting, but would it have killed you to have upped the PEFD a little?"
This is straightforward if the meeting was innocuous. But what if the meeting was difficult? For advice on that, we turn to a group of people who have been indispensable to us when discussing meeting etiquette in the past, people who have witnessed more difficult meetings than almost anyone: former White House press secretaries.
"In a meeting that has been contentious, with some difficult emotions expressed, it's never good to have people leave a room angry, because it's not going to serve whatever common purpose you were trying to address," says Mike McCurry, former press secretary for the Clinton administration and currently a partner at a D.C.-based lobbying firm. "There has to be some kind of acknowledgement that there was a difficult conversation. To name the difficulty and to acknowledge that we've dealt with the difficulty, even if it's unresolved, it leaves people thinking their emotional input to the meeting has been acknowledged."
Establish common ground even if you couldn't find any in the meeting. Irony and sarcasm can be useful. ("Well, that was easy.") But I think it's better to be honest. ("Well, that blew.") Then proceed to have an equally authentic conversation that has nothing to do with what you just met about. In other words, move on--which is what you're physically trying to do anyway.
In the interest of equal time, here's Dana Perino, former press secretary for the George W. Bush administration and current co-host of Fox News talk show The Five: "If the meeting didn't go well, having a chance to say something that is more personal, or neutral, is good. In the briefing room, even if I wanted to scream inside or sometimes cry, I wouldn't let them know it. It's a little bit of a poker face, but also a groundedness that I believe in what I said, I believe in my idea and I'm grateful I met these people."
The question often comes up of who to talk to when leaving a room. You want to engage whoever's nearby. Because that's the most social thing to do. "There's a tendency for people when they are getting ready to leave a meeting to go talk to the highest-ranking person in the room," McCurry says. "I always sought out the person that for whatever reason hadn't participated very much."
It's an interesting notion.
Not only is it a generous act, but it also fulfills the mission of the meeting in the first place: to get key people into the room so everyone can participate. You're retroactively imposing that participation upon the reticent, but still.
What You Communicate
The main message you want to impart is: gratitude. "You never know if those meetings are going to lead to something else," Perino says. "And the people you meet on the way up are the same people you're going to see on the way down. So you'd better be nice to every single one of them, and take that opportunity to thank somebody for their valuable time, and smile and hold your head high as you walk out. One of the highest compliments you can get from somebody is, 'I'm so grateful you gave me any time at all.'"
But don't linger. Everybody has work to do, and your business has concluded. So move along. Walk and talk. After all, as Perino told us, "no one will believe you value their time if you seem to be wasting it."
What's going on when you're leaving the room is socializing. The business is over. The process of becoming people who aren't obsessed only with numbers and strategy has begun. A meeting is an alternate reality that you should consciously transition out of. When you're leaving the room, you and everyone else become re-humanized. You're putting yourself back in the context of real life, which is useful, because that's where the best ideas happen anyway.
Key Technical Matters
No matter how contentious the meeting, always shake hands with your counterparts while looking them in the eye and saying something positive.
No butt slaps.
If you're hosting the meeting, see your guests out as far as the door or elevator.
Talk about anything except what you just met about.
After a great meeting, don't say, "Great meeting!"
After a bad meeting, don't say, "Bad meeting!"
After a ho-hum meeting, don't say, "Ho-hum meeting."
In fact, never, under any circumstances, say "ho-hum," ever.
Do not say, "Hey, let's be careful out there" … unless you just wrapped up a meeting with your fellow police officers.
Do not hand out gold stars to those who did a good job.
The best attitude to have while leaving a meeting room is: hopeful.
The second best attitude to have is: kind of hopeful.
Do not tout the quality of your doodling.
Unless it is of remarkably high quality with fine lines and a certain panache.
Leave the last doughnut.
You can go back in a few minutes and grab it after everyone else has left, but for now, just walk away from the doughnut.
How to Wrap Up a Meeting
For when you want to make sure each person knows that you value their time, talents and hard work:
"Well, I think this has been a [positive adjective] discussion of [meeting subject]. We've figured out how to fix [the problem]. We've discussed new ways to [tasks]. And [name of person in meeting] showed us how to sleep with his eyes open. Oh [name of person in meeting], I'm kidding! Your input was [positive adjective] as always. So unless anyone has any questions, I think we're in [middling-to-positive adjective] shape for now. Thanks, everyone."
For when you're not all that concerned if each person knows that you value their time, talents and hard work: "We're done. Hand me that Boston cream. I like a good Boston cream."