17 (+4) Tips For More Productive Conference Calls

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).

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!

  1. Circulate an Agenda.  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.
     
  2. Get familiar with each other. 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.
     
  3. Give the conference a 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.
     
  4. Have conference calls only when you need to. 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.
     
  5. Establish meeting timing. This includes 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.
     
  6. Focus on the conference. Limit "electronic grazing" to 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.
     
  7. 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.
     
  8. Delegate roles. 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.
     
  9. 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.
     
  10. Welcome late arrivals. 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.)
     
  11. Meetings won't run themselves. 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.
     
  12. Stick to the point. 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.
     
  13. Get through the agenda first. 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.
     
  14. Invite only the people that need to be on the conference. 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.
     
  15. Limit the Chaos. 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."
     
  16. Wait your turn to speak. 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.
     
  17. 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.
     
  18. Practice makes perfect. 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. 
     
  19. 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. 
     
  20. Pay attention. 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. 
     
  21. 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 ...


Looking for ways to improve your speaking abilities? Here are four more resources:

Improving Communication Skills {Part One}

Part One: Define Exactly What You Want to Improve

The umbrella of “communication skills” encompasses quite a bit. It can come down to every aspect of how another person receives a message from you and this can be everything from your nonverbal cues to the tone in which you use to speak to someone. For me a skill is something that can always be improved and should be evaluated periodically. For example, I’m a good writer, but I just started a writing improvement course, because writing is a skill. I need to practice, define some strengths, identify weaknesses, and work to improve them in a practical way that I can incorporate to my daily life.

Communication skills are the same. Even the seasoned and experienced public speaker or presenter can find things that they can improve on. A lot of speakers chose to tape their events and much like a coach or player on a sports team, will go back after the game and see where they could use improvement. No one is going to be 100% perfect every single time and professionals know that.

So if you’re looking to improve your communication skills you have to first be able to define exactly what needs to be improved, otherwise you’re simply going to be all over the place. A pitcher will work on getting his fast ball perfected, then his slider, and so forth. He won’t try to perfect all of his pitches at once and any skill that needs to be improved needs to be approached in the same way.

I recommend recording your recent speeches or presentations and then reviewing them so that you can spot areas of improvement. Some things to be on the lookout for when you’re watching your video:

  • Are you reading the text from your PowerPoint slides? This should be avoided because it doesn’t encourage the audience to listen to your every word. There’s no fear that they might miss something amazing because you’re just reading something they could read on their own. Use your slides to enhance your presentation but don’t let it steal the show from you.
  • Watch to see if you’re standing in one place or dancing around like an extra from The Nutcracker. If you’re not moving enough then you’re not doing enough to visually stimulate your participant’s brain. If you’re moving around too much then you make it difficult for the audience members to keep up with you. There needs to be a happy medium between the two.
  • On a conference call or a webinar the power to stimulate your audience visually is almost completely gone. If you’re lucky you have your PowerPoint slides to back you up, but it could all come down to the way you sound when you speak. Do you speak too fast and make it difficult for participants to understand you? Are you speaking in a monotone and boring voice that almost always guarantees your audience is going to do something else? When the audience can’t see you, you have to use your voice to mimic the same kinds of movements they would be exposed to – and too much or too little of a good thing is never a good idea.
  • What’s going on non-verbally? The way your body looks on stage or on a video conference can be a huge factor in how much your audience retains. You want your body to be open to the audience and you want your arms to move in a comfortable fashion. If you are standing in front of the audience with your arms crossed over your chest, you’re basically throwing up a wall between you and them and indicating that you don’t care if they listen or not.

Those are just some of the communication improvements that you might notice you need to address. The next part of this series will talk about identifying your strengths and weaknesses within what you want to change so that you’ll know exactly what needs to be fixed. And I’ll tell you what I’m going to work on improving.

What are you going to work on?

{Image Credit to West Point Public Affairs on Flickr}

Communication Pitfalls

I love to talk – and truthfully, sometimes I do it too much. It’s not that I can’t shut up it’s just that I love to be a part of conversations and I have a lot of opinions. Sometimes, it doesn’t always promote great communication between me and the people I am speaking with. I came across this really great set of tips of 10 mistakes we make in conversation and after reading through them, I feel pretty bad, because I’m guilty of all of these at one point or another. Truthfully, everyone is and we usually notice it at some point during the conversation. This is a really great compilation of the kinds of mistakes and communication pitfalls we can run into when we’re trying to talk to people, but what happens when you realize that you’re feet first into a conversation and you’ve been breaking all the rules?

When you feel the conversation breaking the rules, how can you refocus and gain control of yourself so that you can walk away feeling like everyone involved in the conversation was able to contribute instead of just listening to you? Here are three tips to correcting the mistakes you might be committing in polite conversation.

Let’s take the having to be right mistake that a lot of us make. We can easily mistake discussion for debate and feel like we have to win a conversation in order to sound convicted in our principals. Instead of defending your own position, try to understand the other person. Ask open ended questions about why they feel the way they do – you’ll gain another person’s perspective, you’ll be sharing information, and you might learn something about the other person in the process.

Many of us are guilty of not listening when engaged with others. It’s not necessarily that we are actively disengaged; rather, it could be something as simple as the human brain is guilty of being distracted by our own silly train of thought or something shiny. There is never any guarantee that you won’t lose listening to the other party, but there are some things you can do to keep your focus, like always keeping eye contact with the other party. If you don’t look at the shiny stuff, you’re less likely to get distracted by the shiny stuff.

Who hasn’t been boring a time or two in conversation? I’m certain I’ve bored the pants off people and I freely admit it (ask my husband). It comes from the need to speak, to seem engaged in conversation that there can be no such thing as a comfortable silence and we must speak. So with this need, we speak about anything we can think of from our cats to the state of our shoes and frankly – that can be painfully boring for some. If you find yourself talking to someone who is obviously bored out of their mind (falling asleep while standing up is a good indication) do one simple thing: be quiet. Finish up your story in one sentence and then immediately move to the next subject. Here’s a thought: ask the other party a question that would encourage them to contribute.

The truth is that when it comes to communications, we all make mistakes. Everyone who is reading this has been guilty at one time or another of one of Henrik Edberg’s wonderful list of mistakes. The difference is that people who don’t recognize the signs of these mistakes being committed, they usually keep making more. What communication mistakes are you guilty of making and how have you corrected the behavior in the middle of the conversation to get things back on track?