“At the sound of the tone, please state your name and press the pound or hash key . . .” That phrase fills me with dread.
Working on large collaborative projects with people located in many different parts of the world, I spend a lot of time on conference calls with 5-10 other participants. Sometimes very, very early in the morning. As a consequence, I also spend a lot of time wishing those conference calls were more productive and satisfying as a means of communication. Too often the organizers and participants seem at sea, not knowing when to speak, or who’s talking, or where the conversation is going. Without the cues of an in-person meeting, it’s easy to lose focus or miss an opportunity to make a key point. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Here are some tips harvested from some of the best conference calls I’ve been on.
If you are leading the call:
- Send the call-in information with the invitation.
- For high-stakes decision making, do pre-calls with key participants to understand where agreement may be difficult. Shape the agenda to permit time for discussion where it’s required. Minimize presentation time and maximize discussion time.
- Send the agenda at least two working days before the call, and include the call-in information along with instructions on how to access background materials. Make sure the agenda is clear about the objectives, the time for each item, and any decision points. The fact that this meeting is taking place on the phone rather than in person makes it more important that the reason for having it is clear to everyone, not less.
- Open the call a couple of minutes early so you are on when people join.
- Formally start no more than five minutes late, even if some participants have not yet joined. Take attendance by stating who you believe is on the line and asking for a quick response. Then ask anyone not named to introduce themselves.
- Start every call with the following statement: “If you are not speaking, please put your phone on mute. At each point where comments or questions are requested, I will ask each person (or location) in turn, in the following order: [state the order, starting with the person who, because of time zones, is most inconvenienced by the time of the call]. If you have no comments, please feel free to simply pass to the next person. At the conclusion of a round of comments, I may open it up again. At that point, speak up if you have additional points to make. Please state your name each time you speak.” This system may seem overly formal, but it will reduce the problems of dead air/everyone speaking/people turning to their email instead of listening, and it will give everyone a chance to participate if they wish.
- Invite any additions or changes to the agenda; note if there is an “any other business” section at the end. Reassure participants that they can contact you off-line to suggest topics that need to be covered in a future call or through a round of emails.
- Have someone else take notes so you can attend to the difficult business of moderating the discussion and managing the time with a firm hand. Your note-taker can also quickly email the agenda and background materials to any participants who do not have them handy.
- Make sure stacked-up comments get addressed, and stay attuned to emerging points of consensus or discontent; circle back to them as needed before the section ends to solicit additional thoughts.
- Clearly state at the end what the conclusions are, including any decisions or next steps. Also indicate when notes will be circulated and if you will be asking for comments on them.
- Plan to end a little early because people often drop off before the scheduled end.
If you are a participant on the call:
- Ask in advance for an agenda with the relevant information if it’s not sent around within two days of the call. Test any links in advance so you don’t waste everyone’s time fumbling with technology.
- Prepare for the call with talking points you think you will want to raise for each agenda item so you make the most of the time and don’t ramble. You may want to use these as the basis for a follow-up note, to make sure your points were understood.
- Join promptly. If you must join late, wait until a pause to quickly introduce yourself and don’t expect anyone to recap the conversation for you.
- Mute yourself when you are not speaking.
- Introduce yourself each time you speak and indicate when you have finished your intervention. (“I’ll turn it back to you now.”)
- Respect the agenda and order of discussion topics—limit your comments and questions to the points currently under discussion. If there are additional topics you think need to be covered, consider suggesting a follow-up call rather than trying to crowd a single call.
- Assume there are other people listening who have not introduced themselves.
- Be careful about sounding negative. As in email, without the cues of an in-person interaction, negative comments are often over-interpreted.
- Stick around until the end of the call.
- After the call, review any call notes promptly.
If this sounds like a lot of work, let me reassure you it’s less work than struggling through unproductive calls and then trying to make sense of the result. Let’s make the world a better place – one conference call at a time.