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!
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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."
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
Four Incredibly Helpful Bonus Tips!
- 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.
- 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.
- Know what your purpose is.By knowing the purpose of the conference call, you can breeze through the information. Sometimes a more informal and open conference suits the needs of the host, but sometimes, it's more about getting on the line and saying what needs to be said.
- Use tools at your disposal. I know it may seem "rude" to mute everyone on the conference and manage Q&A on a one by one basis, but it does help to keep everyone moving along. Don't be afraid to use the conference call features that you have available.
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:
This week, I've been working closely with a new customer about setting up a large event. He’s never done an event like this before and wasn't entirely sure where he should begin his conference. Introducing your company is likely high on your list of things to cover on your conference call, and here is the approach I suggested to my customer. You only have two minutes to get the attention of an audience, so you want to give an overview of yourself in quick, yet succinct manner.
Answering three simple questions will help you introduce your company without taking up a lot of time.
What’s Your History?
Remember those two minutes? Start by giving your participants a brief understanding of who you are. Tell your audience about your beginnings. How was your company formed? What was the idea? Your company story is the key to getting an audience to understand who you are, where you came from, and what you faced to build.
What Do You Solve?
If I were to tell you what we do, it would be that we help people communicate. It’s not about web conferencing, audio conferences, and the other products we sell when introducing ourselves – it’s about how we make things easier for you. Instead of telling your participants that you sell something, tell them what you do. People will be more receptive to this approach rather than feeling like the entire conference was an opportunity for a sales pitch.
What Sets You Apart?
When you’re introducing you’re company, be sure to mention what sets you apart. Whenever I have the chance to introduce AccuConference to someone new, I mention our customer service philosophy, because that is the center of what we do differently. In order to memorable, you need to define the company’s special qualities so that you can be the first thought when your services are needed.
You can tailor these questions to introduce your company whether it’s your next large conference call or a cocktail party. By setting up your company and explaining how you solve problems for your customer will peak the interest of anyone who needs a company like yours.
How do you introduce your company in a presentation?
Conference calls are held for a number of reasons. Using conference services for board meetings is incredibly popular and sometimes, you need to hold a vote on these kinds of calls. The difference is that you can’t just ask for a “show of hands”. Now you need a way to take votes in an orderly manner on your conference call. Here are some of the unique ways we have observed our customers using our conference systems to take official votes from board members.
On the live call screen, you have the ability to click beside a person’s name and put a little “flag” beside their name. We developed this feature for a client who wanted a way to keep track of participants who had already had an opportunity to ask a question so that everyone got a chance. Use the live call screen to flag people who have voted either up or down on an issue.
With web conferencing, you can send out a poll throughout the conference to take votes on your suggestions, issues, or just to get a feeling about how your participants feel. You can edit them to ask any kind of question and select any kind of responses. If you’re using a PowerPoint to show your clients some different options they have in a web page design or product marketing efforts, you can allow them to vote on which one they want by using the polling system within the conference service. (Bonus: The polls can be preloaded so that you have them ready to go.)
When we talk about using Q&A sessions on your conference, it’s usually it the context of, well, asking questions. But you can use the Q&A feature to poll your audio participants. Ask them to press *1 to put themselves in line to vote and then you can take their vote one at a time. If you record your conference call, you can have all of these votes on record for review or to recount at a later date.
Voting sessions can easily be done through a conference without having to cost a lot of time and you can easily keep a record of these votes using some of these options.
Last month, we rolled out our completely revamped web conferencing software. If you read our blog post about the announcement, you know we’re very excited about it. If not, you should, it’s a great introduction to the web conference system.
Since more of our new and current customers are calling us to ask about the program, I’ve noticed that we all have different ways of explaining things. I put together a useful tool to help you understand the terms that we’re using as they apply to our web conference system.
Webinar - Lots of people use this term differently, but to us a webinar is simply where you’re having a conference with a visual element.
Application Sharing – From the list of opened programs on your computer you can select any one of those programs to share with your participants. It limits the exposure of your computer screen and any notifications you get while sharing.
Audio Over the Web – Participants can now choose the option to listen to the audio streaming over the web. If they choose this option, they will not be able to participate in the audio portion of the conference, like raising their hand for questions.
Moderators – A moderator is a person who will control the aspects of the conference call. This includes the audio portions and sharing information.
Speaker - A speaker is different from a moderator in the sense that they can only share their programs and applications. They cannot remove participants or control the audio portions of the conference call. It’s a great way to invite different people to your conference line without having to give out your moderator code.
Conference Controls – There are two different sets of controls on web conferencing. One set of controls is for your sharing of information, like your desktop or video. The other will help you control and moderate your audio portions of your web conference.
Desktop Sharing – Different from application sharing, this option will share your entire display. It’s an easy choice when you have a lot of different things that you need to show. There is some risk with desktop sharing because anything that is on your computer will be shown to participants – including instant messages, email alerts, or web browsing.
Those are just some of the terms that you might hear one of our operators going over with you. If you want to know more about our web conferencing options give us a call and we can answer any of your questions about these options and more.
Until today, I had never heard of ICEPAC, but this acronym stands for the steps of creating a great presentation. Whether you have weeks to craft, or get handed the project last minute, this acronym--and the other tips in the article--break down a presentation into easy-made parts.
Interest - If no one cares about a subject, then why bother with a web conference? If they’re supposed to care, then it’s your job to make them care. Think about how your message will affect your participants daily lives and business, and emphasize the more interesting points.
Comprehension - There’s such a thing as too much detail, especially if your participants will get information overload. Keep data to bite sized chunks, avoid jargon, and cater to their--not your--expertise.
Emphasis - The main message is the whole point of your presentation, so emphasize it. Put key information on its own slide. Pause after saying a main point, or even precede it with, “This is important.”
Participation - Getting your participants involved creates more investment on their part. Utilize Q&A often, or ask impromptu, “soft ball” questions. Use the Socratic Method to draw people out, and praise highly when it works.
Accomplishment - For people to be more open to ideas, they have to like the ideas. And the best way of getting them to like ideas is for them to be a part of their creation. With good participation, you’re halfway there, but the web conference as a whole should be satisfying with something completed, decided on, or improved.
Confirmation - This is more than follow-up after the conference, it includes during as well. Q&A throughout is good to make sure you’re on track. And it never hurts to get participants to repeat their assignments so you know they understand.
Try ICEPAC when you create your next presentation and let us know how it worked for you.