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:

The Man Who Talked Too Much

Dr. Bob is a legend at Henderson State University in Arkadelphia, Arkansas, but if you go on campus to ask students where to find “Dr. Bob” the only people who will direct you to him will be those who are in the field of Communication. Dr. Bob, also known as Dr. Robert Steinmiller, presides over his class in a way that makes you think of Santa Claus. He looks like the jolly one, too – with a bright red nose, a round belly, and a full beard. He likes to laugh, tell stories, and is incredibly approachable.

Dr. Bob was my favorite teacher in college and as the debate coach he was a close mentor to me. Without debate and his encouragement, I probably would not have crawled out of my shell. Since I graduated from a small school, I took a lot of courses from the same professor – and Dr. Bob was always my choice. Dr. Bob was a story teller and a joke teller. For as wonderful and as amazing of a professor that he was, he had a tendency to get a little long winded – not that he wasn’t an amazing communicator, he just failed to miss the warning signs in his easily distracted college students.

Here are the warning signs that Dr. Bob should have been looking for:

  • Lots and lots of yawning.
  • No one is blinking (also known as “zoning out”)
  • Obviously working on something else.
  • Sleeping.

These are also warning signs you can look for in your next presentation to tell if you need to bring your points back into focus. Just like Dr. Bob, I bet you’re a great presenter, it’s just sometimes; we forget that when we are passionate about something, we might go on just a little bit too long. If you can recognize the warning signs early, you’ll be able to wrap up your story and get back on track.

Have you ever seen these signs when you’re in the middle of a presentation? Share in the comments and tell me what did to get everyone’s attention back. How did you get yourself back on track?

PS: Dr. Bob if you are reading this – you were always my favorite and you always will be.

Down With Being Boring

Have you ever seen the movie Down With Love?

I have seen it so many times. You have to look beyond the fact that it didn't get great reviews and see it as what it really is -- it a satirical piece that pokes gentle, but loving, fun at the rom-coms of the 60's. It happened to be on a couple of weeks ago and I watched it with a friend. (Sidenote: Movies like this should always be watched with your best friend. It makes them way more fun.)

The movie was so flawless in its satire - even right down to the over the top, wild hand gestures. David Hyde Pierce really has those down pat. My friend and I determined that everything should have big, over the top hand gestures. It makes things more exciting. Simply reading your lines in a movie and expecting a reaction is not going to be effective. The reason Down With Love works is because the actors and directors took special steps to make sure they moved and spoke in a way that would make the audience feel a certain way. The hand movements and camera angle were supposed to look cheesy -- so that I would remember my love of 60s rom-coms and giggle.

The next time you host an event or a web conference, think about how you are using the tools at your disposal to evoke emotions in your participants. Much like an actor, your tools are limited to your voice, movements, and facial expression. When you're without one or more of these elements, like on a conference call, it makes it harder to get the reactions you want and you could end up failing. Think about when Hollywood made the move to "talking pictures" rather than silent films, many of the faces that people had grown to love were no longer a viable part of Hollywood because they had really unattractive voices.

It's not really a shock, then, that I am often suggesting that you are aware of the way you sound. Which is where this title comes into play -- Down With Love has inspired me to advise to be Down With Being Boring.

  • Stop writing out all of your notes on a page and reading them word for word.
  • Stop standing behind a podium.
  • Stop mumbling.
  • Stop leaving your audience out of the presentation.

Instead....

  • Start making a bullet list so that you can follow a guide for your presentation instead of droning on and on. (People know when you're reading from a list)
  • Step out from behind the podium and walk around the stage during live presentations. Movements are natural.
  • Speak clearly and enunciate. Be sure you host a sound check with the conference call provider or the venue to have a sound check.
  • Leave plenty of time for a Q&A session. The information you're presenting will surely raise questions along the way -- questions that only you can answer.

On your next presentation or conference call, try taking the down with being boring approach and see how your feedback changes. What do you do to keep from being boring when you make presentations?

Make the Things You Hate Suck Less

Confession: I hate cucumbers and tomatoes. There is just something about the texture and that jelly like seed pod thing in the center that just grosses me out. I am such a picky eater in the first place, but you start trying to fancy up my salad with crap like cucumbers and cherry tomatoes, that just became the garbage cans lunch and I'm going hungry.

Second confession (two in one post!): I love pickles and bruschetta.

What is that? I had this realization about myself and my food choices last week and I simply can't understand it. Throw a cucumber in some vinegar or toss some Roma tomatoes with basil and garlic and I will be the happiest girl in the world. Why? Simple - someone took something I dislike and added a lot of things that I do like (salt, garlic, warm and toasty bread). Those simple additions can take something that would make me walk away from a meal and chow down.

It's a principal you can apply to one of the most hated things in all the lands - public speaking. Figure out the things you don't like and add elements of things you really look forward to. Here's a couple of examples:

  1. You hate being the center of attention, but love a team atmosphere. Instead of the typical 'stand in front of a room' presentation try doing a collaboration type of presentation. Let people make comments, ask questions, and build off a main idea that you have presented. Instead of doing a thirty minute presentation and then taking brief Q&A, do a five minute presentation and spend the rest of time getting your audiences input.
  2. You hate using a podium, but love attending round table meetings. In this case, consider setting up something more like a town hall meeting and using limited visuals if possible. Try to put yourself on the eye level of your audience by sitting down on a stool and shifting around as you speak to make eye contact.
  3. You hate using PowerPoint, but love a visual element in presentations. Try a different kind of visual presentation -- like using a short video or even the old school white board. PowerPoint, strangely enough, can make a lot of people uncomfortable so even though it might be considered "old school" to not use one, you have to find what works for you. Just remember that it is never okay to read from your presentation slides.

Just like cucumbers and tomatoes, public speaking can be considered a hated part of every day society, but by adding in some things you like, you might never think about the bad things.

Five Tips for a Happier Home Worker

A few weeks ago, we had an ice storm and record breaking cold weather that trapped most people in their homes for four days. I personally went a little crazy after two days and was ready to return to the office. I couldn’t imagine how people do that kind of thing every day – then I realized they probably weren’t thrown in to the middle of it like I was, nor are they sitting in front of their lap top in their living room because they don’t own a desk.

That week taught me a lot about what it takes to work from home and the things that would have made my four days in my living room a little more productive and a little less crazy. Here are five tips to being a little more productive at home and a little less distracted.

  1. Make a written schedule and include breaks. Plan out your day on paper and stick to it, but schedule yourself to have breaks away from your desk. I know you want to go change out a load of laundry – so put it on your schedule so it gets done and you can get back to work.
  2. Have a daily conference call to check in with your employees or co-workers. When you’re away from your desk and away from everyone, it can be hard to keep track of those that you work with. Check in with them daily and remind yourself of the people you work with.
  3. If you have an office to go to, schedule a day in the middle of the week to spend the day there. If not, grab your laptop or iPad so you can get out of the house for a little while.
  4. Shut the door when “work time” is over. Keep a separation between your work and home life by creating a work space that you can close the door to, that way, you won’t see the stack of papers on your desk that need to be finished. Out of sight and out of mind – enjoy time at home!
  5. Work with background noise that makes you comfortable. Some people work better with complete silence. Personally, I need some background tunes. In the office, you’ll rarely find me without my headphones on, and at home, I love the sound of the TV in the background. Take advantage of being at home and watch a violent slasher flick, if that’s what motivates you – just turn it off before you take a call or have a video conference.

I know a lot of you work from home – it’s a trend that we’ve seen on the increase over the last few years, and as someone who probably wouldn’t like it very much, I’m wondering if any of you ever felt the same. What did you do to make your day more productive at home? Did you hate it at first and now you love it? What happened to make you change your mind?

Turn Off Call Waiting and Other Tips

Attention to detail can make a world of difference. In a conference call, looking after the little details before and during can turn a good conference great, or at least keep it from going bad. There’s a list of 33 conference call tips from Corbin Ball that I recently read. Here’s a few of my favorites.

Call Waiting - On certain phones, the call waiting beep can be heard by the audience. And it’s especially annoying to the rest of the participants if you’re popular. Find out if your phone does this--usually the older landline models--and learn how to temporarily turn it off.

Identify Yourself - You can’t see your participants and they can’t see you--unless you’ve integrated the call with a video conference of course. Encourage everyone to say their name before speaking.

Identify Them - You’ve said your name, now say who you’re addressing. In a conversational or meeting type of conference call, it’s usually better to address a person than the group at large. So say your name, then say their name, then speak your piece.

Help Hotline - Unless you’re out-dialing, you have to distribute the dial-in number and conference code before a conference call. And even with out-dialing, you should make sure all participants have an external way to reach you--phone, fax, email, chat, carrier pigeon, etc--in case of any connection issues.

Rules at the Front - Even with old pros, it’s good to announce rules and basic etiquette at the beginning of a conference call. Some things to cover include identifying yourself and others, muting policy, time limits, pausing for rebuttals, no interrupting, and nice things like that.

Plus, it’s more genteel to do it at the beginning than to correct transgressions as they happen. So those are the tips that I thought were important enough to highlight. Which ones are your favorites? Have any tips you think should be on the list?