What Makes a Conference Call Succeed or Fail?

Like any business meeting, teleconferences are either heralded by groans or cheers. The response your teleconference receives depends largely on how effectively you orchestrate the meeting. Knowing what participants hate or like most about teleconferences can help you avoid the pitfalls and hold an effective and productive conference.

The four things people like most about conference calls are:

  1. They encourage group members to participate and share ideas openly.
  2. They foster commitment to the organization by investing participants in the decision-making process.
  3. They produce superior solutions through group participation and effort.
  4. They create a feeling of organizational unity.

The four things people hate most about conference calls are:

  1. They fail to begin or end on time.
  2. They accomplish little for the amount of time invested.
  3. They fail to reach a consensus or accomplish their goal.
  4. They are dominated by a few participants.

Make an effort to plan conference call that will create positive synergy for your business. Avoid holding conferences that are boring, repetitive or fail to accomplish their goals. You should strive to conduct a conference call that follows a specific stated agenda, starts and ends on time, is conducted fairly with an opportunity for all to express their views, and accomplishes its stated goals.

Make Your Introduction Tight and Leave Your Notes Loose

When preparing for a conference call, a speaker often spends a lot of time poring over what they will say and trying to get their planned remarks just right. Then they just leave their introduction up to chance. If you are engaged to speak as part of a conference call that is being sponsored by another organization, it is likely that someone else will be introducing you to the audience.

If it all possible, you should write your own introduction. Why? While there are no guarantees that it will be delivered as written, it may be very helpful.

You will prevent a rambling introduction that can take away time from the actual conference call.

It allows you to decide which parts of your career you want to highlight. You know which part of your experience is most relevant to the audience. It will also give you the opportunity to promote parts of your business that you really want to push.

On the other hand, you don't want to deliver your remarks as if you are reading them word for word from your notes. You want to sound informed, but conversational. So your notes should include all of the important points you want to make, but you shouldn't try to write down every single phrase you expect to say.

A Video Conference Can Bring Characters to Life

During the holiday season, some schools beamed Santa into classrooms all the way from the North Pole via video conference. Students were excited to have the opportunity to actually speak with Santa and discuss their Christmas gift lists.

Besides asking about gifts, they also had all kinds of logistical questions to ask. For example, one child asked if the reindeer get sick. The video conference also gave them time to debate that age old question: Does Santa really exist.

But it wasn't all fun and games. In addition to the fun of Santa's video visit, the children got to practice their interviewing and critical thinking skills. Thinking and asking critical questions is an important part of any child's education.

The holidays are over, but if you are a teacher or instructor, you too can use video conference technology to enhance the classroom experience. Just think about it: if you are studying literature or a particular story, why not bring the characters to life? Sure you could bring someone into the classroom, but a video conference will allow the character to be interviewed in their own habitat or milieu.

Your students will be thrilled with the experience of preparing for and participating in a video press conference with Tom Sawyer, Jo from Little Women, or Peter Cottontail.

Clear Communication Is the Hallmark of Effective Leadership

"If a leader can't get a message across clearly and motivate others to act on it, then having a message doesn't even matter," Gilbert Amelio, former CEO of National Semiconductor and Apple Computer, once said.

In a Right Management Consultants survey of 133 organizations, 40% of managers and executives were found to exhibit strong leadership characteristics. However, of that 40%, fully one-third lacked the communication skills to effectively manage employees. In the business world, an effective leader needs to be a strong communicator. It is not enough to have vision; you must be able to communicate that vision to your employees.

Not surprisingly, effective communication skills topped the list of traits considered most valuable in a manager. In order of greatest importance, the following are the skills companies seek in a successful manager:

  • 47% Good communication skills
  • 44% Sense of vision
  • 32% Honesty
  • 31% Decisiveness
  • 26% Favorable workplace relationships
  • 23% Intelligence
  • 22% Creativity
  • 21% Attention to detail

When you consider the best managers that you have known how do they measure on this list. The ability to lead is tied very closely to the ability to communicate and the ability to motivate others.

When to Schedule a Conference Call or Video Conference

Modern technology can make holding a conference call or video conference a breeze. But there's still a fair amount of work and organization involved in planning and holding an effective conference. Before you decide to invest your time (and money), you should examine your reasons for wanting to schedule a conference call or video conference. If your reason is listed below, you're on the right track.

  • You need the interaction of ideas and opinions to create a plan, program or fully realized concept.
  • You want to encourage a positive group dynamic or build team spirit.
  • You have only a short time to build consensus or reach an agreement.
  • You need to explain a complex subject or introduce a new concept or product.

You're wasting your time (and everyone else's) if your reason for holding a conference call or video conference is among the following:

  • All necessary participants cannot be available at the same time.
  • You or the other participants don't have time to properly prepare.
  • Participants cannot be available for the time required to properly discuss and consider the issue.
  • You have a simple message to deliver or question to answer.
  • You are imparting information that does not require discussion or an immediate response.

Body Language "Speaks" Volumes During Video Conference

If you and your staff are new to video conferencing, you might want to take a refresher course in the importance of proper body language. During a video conference, if your mouth is saying one thing but your body is saying something else, viewers are going to be confused about your message. The non-verbal cues we give and receive during a conversation can have a powerful impact on the message we take away from a meeting. It's important that your body language reinforces what you are saying during a video conference.

Here are a few tips for projecting good non-verbal cues and reading the body language of others:

  • Eye contact holds the listener's attention and expresses interest, sincerity and confidence.
  • Lack of eye contact implies dishonesty, furtiveness, discomfort or lack of confidence.
  • Smiling when you speak focuses attention on you. People respond positively to smiling faces. Smiling also decreases tension and projects friendliness, acceptance and cooperation.
  • A furrowed brow or frown indicates disagreement, tension, discomfort or confusion.
  • Relaxed arms and open palms suggest honesty, acceptance and a desire to negotiate.
  • Crossed arms or balled fists indicate disagreement, tension, refusal or anger.
  • Leaning forward signals concentration, interest, concern, acceptance and approval.
  • Leaning backward signals resistance, doubt, disinterest or dismissal.

Tips for Encouraging Participation During a Conference Call

To ensure a successful conference call, you need to create an atmosphere that encourages participation. Here's how:

  1. Keep an open mind. Leave your preconceptions behind and open your mind to new thoughts and ideas.
  2. Be friendly. Begin the conference call with a smile and a greeting.
  3. Respect differences. You will encounter many different personality types and personal styles. Look for the positive aspects in each and harness them to reach the group goal. Make an effort to allow every voice to be heard.
  4. Recognize individuals. Let individuals shine within the group. Acknowledge and seek out people with special expertise or talents to share.
  5. Give credit. Thank and recognize the ideas of others. Acknowledging the contributions of others fosters trust and confidence.
  6. Accept challenge. Accept criticism without getting defensive. If your ideas or opinions are challenged, meet that challenge with explanation, discussion and persuasion.
  7. Be yourself. Be sincere. There's no need to play a role or try to be what you're not. Be content to be yourself.
  8. Be responsive. Watch the participants for verbal and nonverbal signals and respond. Look for signs of inattention or boredom which may indicate that the meeting has gone on too long or that one person or view has become too dominant. Lack of eye content or a high-pitched voice can signal anxiety. Ask what the person is feeling and why. Use these signals to keep the group focused and on task.

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.