Effective Conference Calls

Lets face it - if you're not having effective conference calls in your business you're probably not getting things done. With the decline of travel and the rise of the telecommuter, hosting conference calls are the best way to stay in touch with employees and customers to keep them updated on changes or notifications about a project. However, there is a resistance to conference calls that can easily be overcome by following a few simple rules. These are the things we have seen working for our clients and wanted to share them with you if you struggle with attendance or effectiveness with your conferences.

  • Start on Time - The most effective way to derail your entire conference call is by not starting it on time because it takes advantage of the time of the others that joined the call. You don't want to waste the time of employees, co-workers, and even customers who have taken time out of their daily work activities to join your conference. A few minutes here and there shouldn't be a problem but when you keep people waiting for ten or fifteen minutes, it bothers them and they are less likely to pay attention once the conference gets started.
  • Ask Questions & Get Feedback - Once you say something like and if there are any questions we'll handle those after the call you're giving permission to the attendees to give the conference less than their full attention. As long as they can follow up after to get clarification they will feel like they can multitask through the conference. Prompt for feedback throughout the call and ask specific open ended questions to specific people. There is a big difference between Is everyone okay with our new projections? and Dan, can you tell me what changes we can expect to see?
  • If You Hand Out Information Before Don't Read Directly From It - Anything you give out prior to the conference call should be a guide and not a copy of your speech. Once participants realize that they have a script in front of them, they will go back to doing something else and will half listen to the brilliant things you have to say.
  • Show Participants Respect - If you're asking them to refrain from checking email, taking a nap, or playing Angry Birds, you should be willing to do the same. Turn off your own email and give the conference call your full attention by chiming in, giving feedback, and asking questions to help further the collaborative spirit of the conference call.
  • End on Time - You have to give out a time to be sure that participants block out the right amount to join the conference but there is an idea of well, you're all here so we might as well discuss... and it shouldn't be like that. The truth is that when you give out a specific ending time, people will make plans for immediately following the conference call. End at the time you sent out or kindly notfiy participants on the invitation to schedule a little padding into their day, as the conference might run over.

Sadly, the truth is that there is little that can be done to solve the meetings suck feelings that tend to swarm around conference calls, but what you do have the power to control is how well you respect the time of your participants. Once you carry on a few effective conference calls, people will feel less trepidation about joining your conferences, because they know you're going to do what you promised. What are your rules for hosting effective conference calls?

4 Little Things That Matter

A lot of customer service happens through communication mediums that aren't the telephone. Most companies have recognized that and provide tons of ways for their customers to get in touch with them. (For example you can get us here, here, here, or here, and you can call us too!) While we still have a lot of customers that like to talk to us on the phone, there are many who prefer to contact us via email. Over the phone, it's easy to gain a connection to your customer by simply smiling or having a brief chat about something that's not related to the purpose of their call. Without your voice to back you up in an email it becomes even more important to do those "little things" to get close with your customer.

Spelling

Did you spell the customer’s name correctly? This might seem like an obvious common sense kind of thing, but I can speak from personal experience here. I have a unique spelling of my name and while I am usually pretty forgiving of the misspelling, I feel like an agency that gets my money should spell my name correctly. Email correspondence already loses some of your interaction with the customer, so make sure that the extra second is being taken to spell the customer’s name right.

Making The Offer

I'm not talking about additional products and services here, just the general let me know if there's anything else comment. The way we handle customer service is a policy where anyone can help a customer but we know there are customers who want one contact. By making the offer to help with anything, we let customers know that the person they are corresponding with can help them with any of their questions.

Please & Thank You

Losing the vocal connection with a customer means that they can't hear your tone. I've warned before in posts that one of the biggest concerns about email should be the lack of tone. A customer can infer what you're writing however they want and that can be good or bad for you. By using please and thank you in the email you're letting them know that you're asking them for more information. Don't overuse the phrases and end up sounding condescending.

Know When to Call

I've said it before and I'll say it again - if an email takes longer than two replies to resolve an issue or answer a question, pick up the phone and give the customer a call. Once you start firing a long chain of emails back and forth things are going to get very confusing. The third email you have to send to a customer should include the sentence When is a good time to give you a call so we can talk?

Customer service is something that needs to be available on all platforms that a customer might be using. Businesses are available on Twitter, Facebook, and other social networks because their customers are there, but in the end, it's mostly the main forms of communication that remain - customer service by phone and customer service by email. When you lose the phone portion of customer service you lose some of the connection with your customer. You can do a little more in your email correspondence to make sure the customer feels the same kind of connection. What other "little things" can you do to make sure that customer service is translating across email?

Charity Spotlight: Circle of Friends

Charity work is always important but at this time of year it always seems like there are just a few more things that need to be done. This is the time of year that you see the food bank donation boxes or happily drop a couple of extra dollars into the red kettle outside of your favorite store.

We want to tell you about a local charity doing great work here in our hometown of Fort Worth, Texas.

Circle of Friends is a children's charity that works in connection with Cook Children's Hospital to provide programs and aid to children and families diagnosed with cancer and other disorders in the Oncology and Hemotology departments.

Every year we get the chance to donate to Circle of Friends and help support their yearly events and fundraisers, including the Family Christmas Fund. This provides gift cards and wish list items for families who currently have children recieving treatment through Cook Children's.

Charity doesn't just stop once the holidays are over. Circle of Friends also has a number of other programs to support children and their families all year long:

  • Teen Survivors Retreat - Providing teen cancer paitents with a group that lets them interact with other paitents and share stories.
  • Paul Wallace Foundation - Continuing care providied through emergency assistance and outpaitent treatment programs.

Please visit their website this holiday season (or after!) and consider helping to support a chairity devoted to making the lives to children and families suffering from cancer and blood disorders. Check out their sweet hand painted pumpkins that are always a part of our fall decor.

Above all, we encourage you to find something to donate your time, energy, or (even) your money to this holiday - and after.

We hope everyone has an excellent and Happy Thanksgiving! Enjoy your time with friends and family.

Forget the Underwear

Remember that horrible piece of advice you got right before making one of your first public appearances?

Just picture everyone in their underwear.

I was 10 the first time I heard that advice. I'm 28 now and it still makes me want to shove my head in the sand (which is what I'm sure my reaction would be to a roomful of people in their skivvies.)

No, thank you.

The meaning behind the advice is great. The purpose of picturing everyone in their underwear is not to blind you or make you go run screaming from the mic, but instead to make you feel like everyone is on the same level. When you're on stage, you feel exposed and like you're bearing all for the world to see - so the underwear trick is supposed to make you feel like everyone else is exposed too.

There are some better ways to do that than picturing yourself as the grand marshal of the no-pants parade.

Meet & Greet.

Get to know some of the people who will be attending your presentation. Show up an hour early and shake hands with the people that come in. There is no better way to feel "on the same level" than to know what you have in common with your audience.

Remember: This Isn't High School.

Since we're adults now and don't have to face an auditorium full of people who are just looking for a reason to judge you, we can let everyone keep their pants on. Everyone in that room wants to hear what the professional and grown up version of you has to say so tell the teenage you to sit down and relax - their job is done, you'll take it from here.

Open With A Story.

This is a great presentation technique over all but it's especially effective when you're trying to find some common ground with your audience. Once people can relate to you and it feels like you've bonded, you'll feel more like you're having a conversation and less like you're lecturing people.

Picturing everyone in their underwear is going to very little, if anything, to boost your confidence. How are you connecting with your audience to calm your nerves. Remember to forget the underwear (except for yours... you should remember those...)

Speech Distractions & Being Prepared

History is filled with the people who can make a mark with their words. The great communicators in history are the ones that can connect with an audience, speak in a way the audience understands, and be able to keep calm in a possibly volatile environment. Typically, unless it's really bad those in our history who are not the best public speakers flit away and leave only lessons learned.

If you watched the MSNBC Iowa debates that were held on November 9th, then you know exactly where the inspiration for this post came from. As someone who lives in Texas and is proud of my state, I have to say it's been painful to watch Rick Perry struggle in his debates.

Politicians who struggle with public speaking may or may not be bad speakers and they simply could have just had a bad night. Here are some things that I think befuddle political speakers that can just as easily befuddle you in your next appearance.

Oh, look shiny things!

Losing your train of thought is probably the most frustrating thing that can happen in public speaking. Even the greatest public speaker or politician has a brain that can go off on its own when they need it to be focused.

Fix it by having an some index that cards that highlight your major points. In debate, you try to anticipate the kinds of questions that might arise based on the subject matter. Do what you can to anticipate what kinds of questions you might have and write down a short (no more than three bullet points) response to what questions you might encounter.

Second Guessing

Debate is a lot of flying by the seat of your pants. When someone asks you a question, you will probably answer with something that sounds pretty good but when your brain starts to dissect what every you just said, you can throw your entire flow off by overthinking how you answered the last question.

Fix it As long as you didn't say anything that is about to end your entire career, it's really not worth worrying about. What has been said is said and you can't rewind time and take it back. Instead of letting it distract what is happening now remember it for later so you can evaluate and make corrections.

Do Stretches, Not Shots

I'm not saying people get wasted before getting up to make a speech, I'm saying that the suggestion is out there to "have a drink or two" before a speech if you feel that your nerves are shot and you want to do something quick to calm down. I disagree with this before making a speech because you never know how your body will react to your drink of choice.

Fix It Instead, do some stretches. No, you don’t need to go all Jane Fonda in the middle of a conference room, but you can do some breathing exercises and simple stretches to make yourself feel more relaxed. (Check out this slide show from the Mayo Clinic for some ideas. These are also some office stretches you can do in the middle of a long day.)

Even politicians can have problems when it comes to making speeches and they are the same ones we come across. Rather than fall victim to the natural things that can derail our speeches, if you have a plan you can be ready to keep yourself on task and in control. What are some things you've seen politicians or have done yourself during a speech and how did you recover?

Small Talk Ice Breakers

It's not always easy to walk up to someone new and try to get some new connections. It's one of the things you have to do in business if you want to keep growing.

When I'm networking, I will do much better at making a great connection if someone will break the ice for me. (In fact, once you get me started talking I might not stop.)

Making connections goes well beyond asking someone "how's the weather". Here are some great ways to break the ice when you're simply trying to make small talk.

Are You From Around Here?

When attending conferences, this can be a great ice breaker. If you're visiting the city you and your new connection can share experiences at the airport or hotel opinions. This is even better if someone is visiting your city - you can offer them suggestions on places to see and go.

Comment On An Article of Clothing.

This works better for women, I'd imagine, but it's a great trick to get you and another person speaking to each other. Saying something like "I love your dress (or tie..)" can serve to break the ice. A compliment is nice to share because it makes you appear very nice and everyone loves a compliment.

Tech Talk.

Did you spot someone using the latest gadget or device that you've been wanting to get your hands on? Ask them about it. Feel free to jump in and ask them how they think it compares to a competitors device or something else that might be coming on the market soon. Boom - instant connection.

Small talk is my least favorite part of networking events. Once I can start talking with someone, I feel much better and can start getting to know someone. That breaking the ice part just always feels like the hardest thing. People who are good at small talk are that way because they have been doing it for a long time. What are some of the practices you use in breaking the ice to start making new conversations?

The Handy Dandy Notebook

Our intern, Laura, weighs in on how she stays organized in her busy life

As a student who has an internship, works 2 part time jobs, plays on a co-ed softball team and lives on her own with her boyfriend and a puppy, I often get questioned- how do you keep up? Sometimes I don’t know how I manage, but I couldn’t do it without my planner, or as I call it, my “Handy Dandy Notebook.” (Yes, I got that from Blue’s Clues)

While I don’t have much of a social life, I do get by somehow without my grades suffering. Here’s how I use my Handy Dandy Notebook to keep up with my busy life:

Carry it Around- I like for my planner to be small enough to carry in my purse so I can have it with me when I need to remember what’s on my to-do list or add something to it. However, it needs to be big enough so that I can see what I wrote clearly. I keep a paper clip on the current week so I can easily open it up and see what’s on my agenda for the day.

Plan Ahead- At the beginning of every semester, I take the syllabus from each class and write down all of the due dates in my planner. I know sometimes these dates change, but professors will let you know in advance when they do.

Give Yourself Time-Every week I look at what assignments are due for the next two weeks and make sure I give myself enough time to complete them without pulling an all-nighter the day before it’s due. This is especially important when taking an online class, because it’s easy to forget when you aren’t reminded when you meet in class every week.

Write Everything Down- In the past, I was bad about forgetting to pay some of my bills. I don’t even want to think about how much money I could have saved on late charges if I would have just remembered to pay on time. Even if it’s something that is due the same day every month, I write it down- and how much it is. I also write down how much my paychecks are and how much I make on the weekends as a waitress (it’s always different) – it helps me with budgeting. Once I pay the bill, I cross it out on my planner.

Check it Daily- Due dates will creep up on you quickly if you put it in the back of your mind. By checking my planner often, I remind myself of what I need to accomplish in the near future. If I ever feel like procrastinating, I remember one of my pre-Handy Dandy Notebook days where I took a midterm on 2 hours of sleep and then had to work till midnight. That experience was a big motivation to adopting the Handy Dandy Notebook and helps me remember to get things done.

As simple as it sounds, this really helps me keep up with my busy life. I like to see everything written out in one place that is easily accessible. What are some things that you do in order to stay organized and in control?

The Power of Words (And How We Destroy Them)

There are some words that are never used. In a post earlier, I wrote about the power of language and how our fear of it was hurting our exchange of ideas. Our fear of saying the wrong thing can put up a roadblock to changing the world and the way we see things. Writing that post made me think about the fact that while we hesitate to say things that may be seen as controversial we don't hesitate to let someone else know when we feel like they have crossed the line.

We use the "o" word liberally in communication. We ponder the ramifications before we say something and wonder if our statement will inspire someone to use the "o" word in response. What is the "o" word? Easy - offended .

When I was a kid, I loved to learn and use new words. When I learned the word hate my good Southern mama told me that I shouldn't use that word as liberally as I did. Hate had a strong connotation. Hating something meant that you wanted to see it disappear forever - so when I would get mad at my brother and tell him that I hated him, it meant I wanted to see him disappear, and I didn't really want to do that. Now, I'm sure that a lot of the other mothers out there have told you all the same thing and maybe you do the same thing with your children. It's a difficult balance to try to teach someone that there are certain words that have a stronger meaning than others.

Offended is one of those words to me and I'm concerned about how often I hear it tossed around in common language. Merriam-Webster defines offended very generally as "to cause dislike, anger, or vexation". This is a pretty broad definition, in my opinion, and maybe when we drop the "o" bomb we're not taking it too far, but that word has always meant more to me.

I've always felt like this word has too powerful of a tone for every time you disagree with something. I made a list of some times where I believe that offended is not always needed. Disagreement. Some people are not very good at debating or holding their own opinions. That's fine - not everyone can be a great debater. But the word "offended" is often thrown into a conversation simply to end it. Saying "That offends me" when it really doesn't isn't the proper use of the word. Instead, just simply say that you disagree and explain why you feel that way but remember the rules of debate and don't cross any lines. As a warning You know it's true but any time we start a sentence with "I don't want to offend anyone" the entire room immediately goes on edge and we all know you're about to say something really horrible. If you ever have to start a sentence like that - just don't.

The words we choose to use have a lot of power - they are designed to have power but when we over use a word it loses the power that it's been given. Just like the word "hate" the word offended is one of these words. Using it every time you feel wronged will only lessen the power of the word and when a truly offensive situation appears, the meaning will be lost. Do you think there are any powerful words in language that are overused? Does it worry you that these words will loose their meaning over time?

The 10 Minute Presentation Rule for Brains

We say a lot of things to ourselves to pump ourselves up for giving a presentation.

Don't trip. Don't stutter. Don't fall. Your slides look amazing. This is a great looking suit. Don't be boring.

Huh? What does don't be boring even mean? To many of us, it means that we are going to speak in a friendly tone - keeping our voices from getting monotone. It means that we have lively slides and we don't plan to read off them. Don't be boring means that we are going to make an excellent presentation and we are going to make sure that we provide information to our audience that they want and need. It should be as simple as that.

John Medina, the author of the book Brain Rules took a moment to remind us that simply reminding ourselves to not be boring isn't all it takes to be a great presenter. In his eBook, he discusses some rules to the brain and Rule #4 stood out to me. Rule #4 (paraphrasing here) states that our brains respond to emotion and in order to keep an audience engaged, we must provide them with something that will reinvest them emotionally into the presentation every ten minutes.

Not only is the 10 minute rule important psychologically, it's also important when you're dealing with an audience surrounded by smartphones, iPads, Facebook, Angry Birds, and the wonders of the Internet. You have to be prepared to make sure that you can draw them back when their distractions become too much. When your audience is in front of you it is a little easier to keep these kinds of distractions in check. Most members of an audience will do what they can to give a speaker the respect and attention they deserve - since the person is practically staring them in the face. When you're dealing with a conference call or web conference, it becomes even more difficult. Now you can't see what your audience is doing - and they can be easily distracted while "listening".

Here are some of the things that I think work well to reconnect with your audience through emotion in that 10 minute span.

  1. Tell a Story This is a best practice used by so many speakers. If you pay attention the next time you're listening to a presentation, you'll find that this is a common occurrence. A lot of speakers tell the story at the beginning and then launch into their information. I suggest you use a story every time you are shifting the focus from one idea to the next. This makes them invest emotionally into your presentation again. This gives them yet another reason why they can relate to the information presented.
  2. Raise Your Voice No, I am not advocating that you scream at your participants. What I'm suggesting is that you use emphasis to your advantage and put special notice on the words that might make a difference in the presentation. Instead of saying "I just really don't like..." put the emphasis on the "really" and wake your participants up. A change in pitch can make a world of difference to your participants. It's kind of like clapping your hands in a room full of children.
  3. Ask Questions. If you're running short on stories you can draw your audience back in by asking them questions every ten minutes. When you're running on a specific time limit, it's not always feasible to let everyone participate in an open Q&A session. What a question can do for participants is poke their brain with a stick and remind them that oh, hey, I need to be paying attention .

Reminding yourself to be entertaining and not boring is a great idea when you set out to make your presentation, but if you fail to operate within the psychology of our attention spans, you might lose your audience after the first ten minutes. How do you pull your audience back into the conversation and get their brains to engage with the subject being discussed?

Laura Interns at AccuConference {Week 3}

By: Laura

I'm officially in the swing of things at AccuConference. Each day I come to work, I know my duties and report to Maranda to see what is on my agenda. The awkward "new person" feeling has faded. I have learned a few more things about myself and work as well.

One of the assignments I was asked to do was to edit blogs from the past year. Usually, when I have projects for school or work, I like to work on it till it's done, even if it takes hours. I get distracted if I'm working on multiple projects simultaneously and feel like I'm not accomplishing anything, even though I am. When Maranda and Byrd found out I had been working on editing these blogs all day, they looked at me like I was crazy. I didn't see what was so crazy about it, because I had gotten a lot done.

Now I realize that it's best to break up your projects into sessions, and not to work on one thing for 6 straight hours. Not only can the monotony make you go cross-eyed, but the work you do is less efficient. I have no idea why I have always done things this way, but this is a lesson I need to carry over to my schoolwork. If I would have been breaking up assignments and readings instead of working only on what is due the next day, I would probably be better prepared for my test I have to take this evening and gotten more sleep last night.

I attended my first weekly meeting. They usually have their meetings on Thursdays while I'm in class, so they moved it to Wednesday so I could join. (Aren’t they sweet?) Although it was short, it caught me up on what's going on and what needs to be done.

My next big assignment is to write an article for the newsletter, including interviewing the client. I didn't know this would be the type of work I would be doing during my internship, but I'm glad they are trusting me with more and more responsibilities. This must mean I’m doing something right!