Balancing the Mars/Venus Dichotomy in Conferencing

The differences between men and women in and out of the workplace have filled volumes. When teleconferencing or video conferencing, it helps to understand the underlying difference in approach. As women became a more powerful force in the workplace, the differences in the way men and women communicate generated significant academic study. In the 1980s, Georgetown scholar Deborah Tannen succinctly summarized more than a decade's worth of linguistic research into what has become a widely accepted belief: Men talk to deliver information and women talk to create relationships. Tannen called these two styles of speech report talk and rapport talk.

Though oversimplified, this observation has been popularized in books such as John Gray's Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus to the point that it is universally accepted as the defining statement about gender and speech: Men talk to deliver information. Women talk to make friends. Or, as Rob Becker says in his funny one-man Broadway play Defending the Caveman: Men are the hunters, always focused on the target. Women are the gatherers, always seeking more information.

In the workplace, we have learned the dangers of stereotyping, but there is a kernel of truth in the general concept. Numerous scientific studies have proven that men and women do use their brains differently which often results in different thought processes and communication styles. Cultural learning exacerbates these differences. In teleconferencing or video conferencing with business colleagues, encouraging both communication styles can build consensus and lead to more creative problem solving in the pursuit of your goal.

Communicating with Foreign Customers or Colleagues

In an interesting experiment, an American university professor divided students into two groups. Both listened to the same lecture by a native speaker of English. Each group was shown a photograph of the purported speaker. The group that was shown a photo of an obviously American speaker exhibited greater comprehension of the material than the group which believed it was listening to a non-native speaker. Both listened to exactly the same speech delivered by the same individual.

Personal assumptions, cultural bias, gender, age or racial prejudices, education preconceptions, and power hierarchies – so many factors affect the way we perceive others. Even when we speak the same language, these biases can affect the way we hear and understand each other. In communicating with foreign customers or colleagues in a teleconference, the effort must be made to set aside our cultural differences to understand each other. Often cultural references and idioms get in the way of clear communication and repetitive efforts must be made to arrive at a shared understanding. Video conferencing can present additional challenges where body language and gestures common in one culture may give unanticipated offense in another.

Many companies that regularly do business in foreign countries have implemented cultural advisor services to assist their employees in putting the company's best foot forward. If your company does not offer such a service, you can find many country-specific websites that provide helpful advice on bridging the cultural gap by entering a search for foreign customs + business meeting. Proper advance preparation will ensure a smoother, more productive teleconference or video conference with your foreign counterparts.

Timing is Everything in Teleconferencing

So you've scheduled a teleconference—great! Now you want to make sure that it is successful and meets your goals.

Here are some ways you can ensure a successful teleconference:

Send out reminders:
Of course you have the teleconference on your calendar, but what about everyone else?
Even if they have written it down, they could get caught up with something and not pay attention to the time. A reminder will jog participants' memory and is a great way to maximize attendance. You can actually send out two reminders—one the week before and another a few hours before.

Watch the clock:
Don't let any participant drone on (and don't drone on and on yourself either). Only the featured speaker should speak at length. If you find that someone is making long-winded comments or trying to push their own agenda, don't be afraid to steer the teleconference back to the main topic. Make notes of hot topics for future teleconferences.

Have a well-timed agenda:
Just as you don't want one person to go on and on, you also don't want to spend too much time on one issue. On the flip side, you don't want to jump from topic to topic at a speed that will leave the participants dizzy. Be aware that a teleconference should not be exhaustive. They should be informative, but every aspect of a topic cannot be covered. Decide just what information you want participants to leave with after they hang up.

Rewind And Repeat

The great thing about conference calls is that they can be recorded for future use. An audio, video, or web conference is not a one-time only event.

You can make previous conferences available to your staff as a teaching/learning tool. If someone was out the day of the conference they can still catch up by listening to/viewing it.

And you can also make them available to customers to inform them and market your products and services. You can create a library of past conferences and make it available on your website.

These conferences can also be mined to data. No one can remember all that took place during a teleconference and if you were the one moderating the conference you’ll remember even less than others. So go back, listen, and take notes that you can use in the future.

Your Marketing and PR departments can also use these conferences for sound bites and media-friendly quotes that can populate press releases, brochures, and other marketing materials. Just be sure the clear it with the individual you want to quote. If they work for your organization, this probably won’t be a problem. If they are from outside, you may even want to ask them to sign a release beforehand and then just let them know later what quotes you’ve decided to use.

Energizing Your Teleconference: Using Fun to Make an Impression – Part II

Making a conference call or audio workshop memorable and having attendees leaving, but remembering what fun they had and all the great new people they met is an art.  Much of it comes from getting the teleconference participants to interact with each other in a relaxed and stress-free atmosphere.  Lightening the mood and providing a lot of lighthearted topics and free interaction within the group is one key element in making a conference memorable.  Below is a list of other ways you can make your conference call or audio workshop something to be remembered and talked about for years to come.

  1. Think about the liberal use of humor. Remember to be cognizant of taste, of course don’t use off color humor or jokes stay safe.  But like the entertainment elements, when incorporated into presentations these help to lighten the mood for attendees.
  2. Have teleconference conveners and staff interact with the group throughout the event.  This not only helps attendees identify the people running the show, but it serves the purpose of lightening the mood and presenting additional networking opportunities when the time for follow-up starts after the call. If your staff is small, use your own staff to act as attendees and use pre-planned questions to start of the interaction at your free exchange or question and answer time.
  3. Play upbeat music where people enter and leave the conference call.  Choose music and lyrics that reflect the conference theme.  This can also make for a good conversation starter among attendees. If your attendees know each other or have had some interaction with each other, allow for casual open conversation between participants before the teleconference starts.
  4. Have the phone registration line staffed by outgoing employees who have a great telephone presence.  This leaves an energetic and upbeat initial impression about the teleconference and enhances the anticipation for your event.

Energizing Your Conference Call: Using Fun to Make an Impression – Part I

Most people don't have any idea what it takes to put on a successful conference call or audio workshop.  What they DO remember, however, is how much fun they had, who they shared stories with, and having a good laugh.  It is widely known that people relax when they are happy and they also learn faster and remember more.  By being astute in your planning, you can make your next teleconference or audio workshop something to be remembered by making sure it incorporates many elements of "fun".

Most conference call organizers think that building in fun or irreverent activities will make people think they are being "silly", but when the teleconference staff starts thinking of and planning fun activities, they start feeling much more positive and energetic about the whole conference.  If YOU are having fun, it becomes infectious and the teleconference attendees will join in.  Take your teleconference seriously, but not yourselves!  Below are some ways to infuse an element of fun into your next conference call or audio workshop and make your attendees really remember the good times they had there, the great information they received, and the great contacts they made.

  1. Use a title that promises fun AND reflects the theme of your teleconference. You can always have a serious subtitle.  Try and reflect the promise of fun in your pre-conference communications.
  2. Open the call or audio workshop with a light-hearted opening that plays off its location, theme, and the nature of your audience.  Remind attendees that the point of the conference is to meet new people, get new information, and most of all to have FUN while doing it.
  3. Make sure that you circulate the names of attendees and business names prior to getting on the phone, if appropriate. Better yet, depending on your teleconference and how much advance notice you have, ask each attendee to send you a one sentence blurb on a specific fun topic like favorite ice cream, food or pet and include this in the email introduction prior to the call that will list the attendees. If appropriate, you could even include the email addresses and phone numbers of participants so that contact and networking can be done after your event. This may not be appropriate in all circumstances but would definitely work in interoffice teleconferences or team events.

The History of Teleconferencing

It all started just a mere 47 years ago in the 1960’s as a vision from American Telephone and Telegraph (AT & T) through its Picturephone device – the birth of teleconferencing. At that time, travel was cheap and many people simply didn’t understand that the Picturephone would be a workplace changing technology. It’s taken 47 years and hundreds of millions of dollars spent on fuel consumption for the idea that grew out of Picturephone to become a real-world every day application embraced by millions worldwide.

There are three kinds of teleconferencing devices:

  1. Audio for verbal communication using the telephone.
  2. Video conferencing which uses the telephone for voice and video combined with the computer.
  3. Computer conferencing allowing printed media conferencing via computer terminal.

The uniqueness of teleconferencing is that participants can be widely spread over the globe and yet meet in a virtual office space for a rapid exchange of ideas at anytime.

The key benefits of teleconferencing are:

  1. Reduction of communication costs. As much as a 30% decrease in travel expenses is the norm for businesses which use teleconferencing regularl y.
  2. Availability of meeting information for people who could not attend a meeting. Our teleconferencing application allows for the recording of calls so all can benefit from the exchange of information even if they can not attend the meeting.
  3. Spontaneity of meetings. Due to limited cost for teleconferencing follow-up meetings can be held more frequently and on a more spontaneous basis allowing for a more collaborative approach in many areas.

Use Different Speech Patterns to Get Conference Call Results

In a conference call, the words you use and how you use them affect both how you and your message are perceived. Basically, people take one of two approaches: the I-centered in which you exert control over the conversation from the start or the Group-centered which encourages open participation from the entire group. The approach you use depends on your goal.

Let's take a look at some of the statements you might use in each approach:

I-centered

  • My experience indicates that the plan is workable/impractical.
  • I agree/disagree with that idea.
  • I would argue that …
  • I'm in favor of/opposed to …
  • I'd like to review the (budget, timeline, analysis, etc.).
  • I have several thoughts on how we can solve this problem.

Group-centered

  • Is there more to this issue?
  • Interesting … go on.
  • W hat else do we need to discuss?
  • What do you recommend?
  • I wonder if we should consider the (budget, timeline, analysis, etc.).
  • Say nothing. Silence often elicits expansion on a statement or provides a void that encourages another person to speak.

Your choice of approach will depend on the purpose of the teleconference and your goals. You may find it necessary or beneficial to use different approaches at different points in the conference. If you are leading the teleconference, you might begin with an I-centered statement that defines the objective and parameters of the call. You might then switch to group-centered statements to elicit ideas and discussion. Ending the call with I-centered statements that specify any results, conclusions or work assignments allows you to reestablish control of the proceedings. Be aware of and use the power of language to ensure that your teleconference achieves your desired goals.

7 Methods for Group Communications

In the beginning, the most popular way for groups to communicate was simply "in person". But with the advent of technology, even as early as two millennia ago, man has devised new ways for groups to communicate without actually being together in the same room.

IRC (Internet Relay Chat)

Back when the internet was young and 28.8 baud modems were all the rage, Internet Relay Chat was the way for web-heads to communicate online. VOIP was still the internet equivalent of HAM radio ("I spoke with someone in Australia today!"), and ICQ was still a few years out. Created by Jarkko "WiZ" Oikarinen in late August of 1988, Oikarinen’s design was inspired by Jeff Kell’s Bitnet Relay, which had been designed as a way for researchers to chat on Bitnet mostly over mainframe servers. IRC’s slash commands were inspired by Bitnet Relay and they persist to this day in many other chat mediums. IRC’s leap into the public eye came when it was used by the citizens of Kuwait to contact the outside world during the Iraqi invasion of the early 90’s. While many today now utilize more modern means for internet person to person communication, when it comes to text based group chat, IRC is still king.

IM(Instant Messaging)

Instant messaging had its start in the 1970’s when it was developed to allow two uni x users to chat if they were both logged into the same server. The technology would then evolve to function on closed networks and then finally the internet. The first instant messaging program to enter the public eye was the "On-Line Messages" feature of "Quantum Link" for Commodore computers in the late 80’s. In 1991 "Quantum Link" would change its name to "America Online". Despite this, however, it would be a different company that would beat AOL to the modern (graphic user interface) IM market. An Israeli program known as ICQ would hit the market in 1996, followed by AOL Instant Messenger in 1997. Since then a number of other heavy hitters have joined the fray. Yahoo and Microsoft hold a heavy share of the market, and Google has recently come out with its own instant messaging service known as GTalk. Recently, these companies have begun to incorporate IRC chat room type functionality into their IM clients for group conversations. Unlike IRC though, these conversations are restricted to the user’s buddy list. This alone could be what keeps IRC as the leader in the chat room venue.

Smoke Signals

Laugh all you want, but when the electromagnetic pulse of the apocalypse hits wiping out all electronics, you’ll be glade you had a way to you’re your neighboring walled-in villages of the oncoming uber-mutant invasion. Hey, it could happen. As a technology, smoke signals were created by both the Chinese and Native Americans. The technique involved using a blanket to cover a fire then quickly removing the blanket to produce a large puff of smoke. Smoke signal codes were never standardized as a drawback of the technique was one’s enemies could see the smoke signals as well. Because of this, codes were agreed upon before hand by the individual senders and receivers. In China, smoke signals were used along the Great Wall to communicate between towers. Calls for reinforcements and warnings of enemy movement were vital for the wall to serve its purpose. Although modern technology has rendered the smoke signal all but obsolete, with recent events such as Hurricane Katrina still in mind, it’s easy to imagine a modern instance where smoke signals could be used for groups to communicate a call for help.

ConferenceCalls

The origin of conference calls can viably be seen as rooted in party line technology used in the first half of the twentieth century. Instead of each home having a private line, groups of houses would share a single line. The unavoidable perk/drawback of this was the ability for these neighbors to speak to each other simply by picking up their phone and chatting on their shared line. Technology in this case would go full circle as phones would move on to individual private lines, then turn around to once again add a feature to let multiple parties once again speak together in one communal phone conversation. Initially, the easiest way to do this was for a home to possess two phone lines, and a phone that would allow linking a call on both of these lines together. Today, the equipment is now mostly handled by the phone company and conference calling has become a feature of the phone service itself. For conference calls involving a multitude of people though, a conference calling service must be used, either through your phone company or a third party vendor. Such calls can involve the party line type functionality in which all participants can speak with each other, or a layout where only the host may speak, and the others only listen.

Ventrilo/Teamspeak

Group voice communication is a veritable requirement for any gamer who plays multiplayer online games. Ventrilo and Team Speak (competing programs) are a cross between VOIP, party line functionality, and IRC. In essence it is IRC that uses voice communication instead of text. With these services, a host server is established, which users can then log into using a client. Once logged into the server, the user may a join a chat channel and speak to the group of users within that channel as if it were a party line. The service is primarily used by gamers for gaining an efficiency advantage in their competitive games. If one team needs to type text to communicate, while the other team merely needs to speak, the advantage becomes obvious. This advantage has become such a commonplace necessity that "World of Warcraft ", the world’s best-selling MMORPG, has recently integrated this functionality into the game itself. While still primarily the realm of gamers, it is only a matter of time though before programs like these enter the public spotlight, as IRC did in the early 90’s.

CB (Citizens Band Radio)

For truckers, CB radios have been the chat room of the interstate for over 40 years. Invented by Alfred J. Gross, who also invented walkie-talkies, pagers, and cordless phones, CB radios first appeared in the late forties after World War II. What gave CB radios the edge was low price and ease of use offered by its hardware. For the first time, one didn’t need to be a specialist to chat with people over the radio. Similar to cutting edge technologies today, governing bodies at first tried to establish laws to regulate the new medium, but with users widely ignoring these regulations, most of these laws were eventually dropped. As with communication over the internet, a genre of slang has formed for CB radio use. Terms such as "bear" for police officers and derivatives of FCC recommended "10 codes" such as 10-4 are still used today. As can be expected though, CB radio’s popularity has waned in recent years obviously due to newer technologies such as mobile phones and the internet itself. Looking at the full story of CB radios however, it’s easy to consider that group communication over the internet is nothing more than just a little bit of history repeating.

Text Messaging

On December 3rd 1992, the very first commercial text message ever was sent in Great Britain from a personal computer to a phone on the Vodaphone network. Soon after, in 1993, the very first phone to phone text message was sent by a engineering student at Nokia in Finland. Today in Europe, 85% of all mobile phone customers utilize text messaging. In the United States that number is 40% but quickly growing. While the ability to send a short message of text from one user to another can be seen as a great convenience, it is in group communication that text messaging absolutely shines. Text messaging has been used to mobilize everything from urban militias, to instant protest mobs. Some executives in Hollywood have even blamed text messaging for supposed "box office slumps", since audience members can now spread word before the movie has even finished as to whether or not the movie is worth seeing. On the positive side, text messaging has been utilized in rescue efforts, and for virtual "town hall meetings" when members of a community have found themselves scattered by a natural disaster. With usage steadily on the rise, one can only imagine what the world’s most popular use of mobile group communication will be able to accomplish in the future. Government elections are a definite possibility.

While inventions such as the wheel, metal alloy, and the harnessing of fire are often mentioned as mile markers in our technology, it’s interesting to note that all along this time man has strived to improve his capability for group communication. If the technology continues on its current course, virtual telepathy may be the ultimate goal. Perhaps though, the greatest breakthrough has already happened: the ability to now be part of a limitless group while, at the same time, still maintaining our individual solidarity.