Conference calls have become an important part of corporate business life and yet they are not always used to their best advantage. The world of telecommunications has traveled light years since the old days of the traditional party line, but the modern conference call is really just an expansion of that retro concept. Today, most companies use a specialized service provider for conference calls and they are being used more and more in conjunction with web conferences. These service providers maintain the conference bridge and provide the phone numbers used to access the meeting or conference call.
How can your business better utilize this service? First, let us define exactly what service we are talking about. What is meant by the term, conference call? This is a telephone call in which the caller wishes to have more than one party listen in to the audio portion. Calls may also be designed so that the called party can participate during the call or so that the called party merely listens in and cannot speak. A conference call is also sometimes referred to as an ATC (Audio Tele-Conference).
Conference calls can also be designed so that participants call directly into the meeting themselves by either dialing into a "conference bridge" (a specialized type of equipment that links telephone lines) or by using a special phone number set up exclusively for that purpose. Such calls are used every day by businesses wishing to meet with remote parties, both inside and outside their company. Conference calls often serve as client meetings, sales presentations, project updates, and training sessions between employees who work in different locations. The conference call cuts travel costs and allows workers to be more productive by not having to leave the office for meetings (even if doing so would provide a breath of much needed fresh air).
In a book called "Death By Meeting" author, Patrick Lenzioni, argues that conference calls really should be more fun. He says: "If I didn't have to go to meetings, I'd like my job a lot more." According to Merlin Mann and his fascinating, irreverent and very witty family of websites dealing with personal productivity known collectively as 43 Folders, the following ideas have helped to make his life in general and conference calls in particular, easier and more productive. Also check out this interview with Al Pittampalli, the author of the Modern Meeting Standard. Consider them the next time you schedule a conference call. Read on and hold that call, please!
- Don't do a conference call without first circulating an agenda to all involved parties. An agenda helps to structure the conference and helps members to prepare by providing in advance the type of information they will need in order to effectively participate in the discussion.
- Have everyone in attendance introduce him or herself up front. In fact, make that the first thing on your agenda. It is important for people who don't know each other's voices especially well to become familiar as quickly as possible.
- Make sure the conference call has a very specific theme. Don't meander, for the road is costly and time-consuming and leads ultimately nowhere! Use the agenda to amplify the theme in question by explaining how it will be covered or explored in each section of the meeting.
- Schedule a conference call only when it is needed. Many are unnecessary and could be avoided with either a one-on-one call or a focused e-mail exchange. Group calls should only be made when either in-depth dialogue or brainstorming is required.
- Establish when the meeting will begin, break and end ahead of time. Provide a time structure, which all participants must adhere to and matters will flow smoothly.
- Do not under any circumstances, permit "electronic grazing" to occur during the conference call. Set it up like they did in the old frontier days at the saloon with all who enter checking their guns at the door!! The equipment is different; phones and laptops to be exact, but the attitude is the same. No multi tasking while the meeting is in session. This means no email, no phone calls and this means you! Attending the meeting is like being pregnant; one either is or one isn't present at the meeting. If an emergency occurs and a call needs to be made, then the person should leave the room to make the call and not tie up the meeting.
- Schedule guests and make the best use of everyone's time. Use your agenda to indicate when people will be needed to present their arguments and avoid the traffic jam of having thirty people in a room for three hours, twenty of whom will have nothing at all to do or say until the last 15 minutes of the meeting. Tick off items on the agenda as they are covered.
- Don't wear too many hats at your own meeting. Employ someone to keep track of the time so that you as the leader are free to focus on the matters presented in the agenda and keep the meeting rolling along at an even pace.
- Stay focused on your time element and subject matter. Not all issues require the same amount of time to settle and any issue that can be resolved offline or does not require the input of the majority of the group should be dismissed as quickly as possible and ticked off the mighty agenda.
- If you join into a conference call after it has already begun, make sure that other people know you are there. If you are the organizer of the conference call and this happens, seek an opportunity to introduce that person and then quickly review any key decisions that have been made. (If the person being late is you the organizer, you probably should find someone else to head the conference call in the first place.)
- Be aware of which tips work best for you and remain consistent in their use. Meetings have never been able to run themselves, and you as the leader, must always think things out thoroughly so that people attending do not feel they are wasting their time. After all, that is the one commodity that we never seem to have enough of and that waits for no one, as the old saying goes.
- Keep conference calls short and very sweet. This way, each participant knows what to expect, more or less, in terms of why they are there and what they are supposed to do. There is nothing more boring than a rambling speaker and nothing that will lose a listening audience more quickly, except maybe a sudden office fire.
- Consider dealing with any matters that are not
on the agenda last even if they are brought up at the beginning of the conference. This prevents sidetracking and losing precious time in covering the more pertinent issues at hand.
- Don't call bosses and technical experts to attend the conference unless you know in advance that their advice will be needed. Regardless of the outcome of the conference, they will definitely owe you one and be eternally grateful.
- Limit the number of people on the conference call to four or at most five. Chaos is sure to follow if there are too many opinions circulating at the same time. Problems are likely to occur because the more opinions, the harder it becomes to keep track of who is speaking and a common reaction is to go on automatic pilot and "leave the meeting in your mind."
- Try not to interrupt when others are speaking and wait for the appropriate moment to jump in. One has to listen and concentrate much more acutely over the phone than is necessary in person.
- Summarize and follow up on meeting proceedings. This can either be done by you or by a project manager, if one has been so assigned. Take a few minutes at the end of the conference to review any major new projects that were generated in the meeting and email the list of resolutions to all participants. Also, take a minute to identify those issues or questions that must be explored further. Don't forget to thank everyone for his or her participation and say goodbye.
- Familiarize yourself with the conference call service before you use it. You're going to want to know how to use the conference call service so that you can use your mute functions and any of the moderator controls. You should be able to call the conference company and get a quick overview of the different commands that you can use.
- Start the conference on time. You've sent out a lot of invitations that have a specific date and time provided to the other participants. Start at the right time so that the conference will begin for those who showed up at the right time. Participants who are late will just have to miss the introduction.
- As a participant you should take good notes. This will help you retain information and it will encourage you to pay attention, rather be distracted by your cell phone, email, or social networking.
- Use visuals on conference calls that require them. Not every conference is going to require them, so use them only in situations that call for the visual representations.
The mercurial business world of today demands quick decisions based on as many facts as possible. Aided by the cold hand of technology, telecommunications has made the transfer of information an instantaneous and ubiquitous affair. Take advantage of this process. Wasting time hurts business and morale on many levels and it is something that can be avoided by planning ahead all the details for your next conference call. Follow these tips and you are sure to have more productive conference calls. Perhaps not all of these ideas will work for you, but many of them will.
And by the way, hold that call, will you? I have to go. There's a conference call I have to attend ...