(suggestions that no one else has the guts to make)

As much as we hate to admit it, conference calls are a part of our daily business lives.  Whether they are with clients, remote teams or weekly staff meetings, we’re often faced with the challenge of making our calls efficient, engaging and effective. Keeping everyone engaged and focused can be challenging in any meeting, but conference calls bring their own unique set of challenges.  The temptations of multitasking can be enticing and productivity can wane quickly.

Challenges of the Conference Call

There’s a lot of advice out there on how to conduct meetings more effectively, but few address the real challenges for the sometimes loved, often hated, conference call.  Some challenges are the same whether you’re in a face-to-face meeting or on a call, but something happens to us when we have the anonymity of a phone call in place of an in-person meeting. We lose our manners and basically feel ok about it.  From that comes a myriad of distracting activities that erode productivity:

Multitasking: We’re all guilty of it.  Some multitasking is an effort to be more efficient at our jobs, other is more self-serving, but all is distracting.  Working on your to-do list, emailing, texting, looking at social media, and taking other calls are among the top 10 activities people are engaging in while attending conference calls.

If we’re doing these things, we’re not contributing productively to the call.  We’re also likely causing inefficiencies….”I’m sorry, can you repeat that?”…

External noises: The strangest places have become acceptable places to have conference calls: bathrooms, restaurants, cars, airport security.  Even with the most adept muting skills, noises from these “remote offices” have a high likelihood of producing distraction, tangential comments, and communication difficulties

Technical issues – It’s such a cliché to talk about, but to the guy who forgets to unmute, or the gal who drives through the same dead spot seemingly every call causing the call to drop, or all of you who swear you dialed the right phone number and correct PIN….you’re costing corporations millions!

Missed non-verbal cues: It’s hard enough for some people to read non-verbal cues when you’re sitting across from them.  Add physical distance and the inability to read non-verbal cues can sometimes border on obnoxious, but it is most certainly a handicap for conference calls.

It’s easier to dominate a conversation, interrupt someone who’s talking, or ignore input.  There has to be an acute awareness of these behaviors in order to conquer the conference call.

Tips to eliminate these audio-conference challenges

  1. Limit the Group Size
  2. Limiting the number of speaking participants on your call reduces distractions.  Fewer people who are multitasking, injecting technical issue interruptions, conversation interruptions and external noises will make the meeting more efficient.
  1. Require Attention
  2. Set expectations at the start of the meeting for undivided attention. In exchange for their attention, offer a fast, efficient call.  Snow days are rarely applicable to adults, but finish a scheduled 60-minute meeting in 32 and I feel like it’s a snow day.
  1. Stand Up!
  2. Many agile practices include meetings where participants stand.  Standing during meetings tends to force efficiencies.  Forcing yourself to stand during your conference calls will not only encourage you to be efficient in your participation, but it also has great health benefits!
  1. Pick a feature-rich conference calling service
  2. You’re only as good as the tools you use.  Conference calling services are getting more intelligent, providing you mechanisms for managing call efficiency.  For example, pick a service that gives you a visible dashboard of who’s on your call and tools to mute participants, boot noisy callers off the call, have a sidebar conversation with certain participants or even secretly nudge a colleague who isn’t paying attention.
  1. Have Self-Restraint
  2. Let’s face it, no one likes to hear you talk more than you do.  Keep that in mind so that you can keep your comments brief.  Create openings for others to talk and solicit input from people who are reluctant to jump in.  Resist the temptation to solve every problem. Agree to address lengthy conversations outside of the call.
  1. Create history
  2. Remembering details from a conference call can be challenging, even with notes.  Some conference calling services offer free call recordings.  Take advantage of them.  They are invaluable. As an experiment, try recounting the details of a discussion and then listen to the recording.  Notice not only the detail you didn’t capture in your notes or memory, but the verbal cues and intonation that give the information context.   Get in the habit of attaching call recordings to Evernotes or other note taking software for everyone to be able to refer back to.
  1. Create a Cone of Silence: Put your dog in the backyard!
  1. To Mute or Not to Mute?
  2. This is going to fly in the face of everything you’ve ever heard before about muting a phone call.  Don’t mute unless you have background noise that is out of your control!  The mute button is the cause of a whole heap of trouble.  It’s a license to multitask, lose focus, and disengage.  Keeping the line open creates better focus on the meeting and can help avoid those embarrassing comments you make when you forgot you took yourself off of mute!
  1. Try to listen for body language
  2. It’s there, you just have to read it.  It sounds like people trying to hurry the conversation along, people trying to say something but getting cut off, and people not listening, asking for you to repeat yourself.    These are all signals that someone is talking too much and not being efficient.
    •  Use Names Often
    • Especially on calls that are routine, it’s difficult for people to follow the conversation if they don’t know who’s speaking.  Indicate who you are when you’re speaking until people start to recognize your voice.  Or, better yet, use a conference calling service that identifies the speaker in a call dashboard.
    •  Behave like you’re face-to-face
    • There are certain common courtesies we observe in a face-to-face meeting that aren’t honored on conference calls.  If you arrive late, wait for a break in the conversation to introduce yourself.  Don’t ask everyone to wait while you pay for parking or order your lunch, it’s not ok.  If you miss roll call, don’t stop the call to ask who’s on.  Use a conference calling service that shows you who’s on.
    •  Have Manners!
    • Often people feel compelled while on a conference call to whisper something to their neighbor. Don’t.  We can hear you….really, we can.