Dear conference call organizer,
We know your intentions are good. You want to save time. You want to avoid the headaches of travel. You want to open the lines of communication, keep everyone informed, and gather valuable input.
But far too often, these expectations fall short. Sometimes way short. We’ve all been on hour-long conference calls (or even longer) that are bordering on useless. Instead of being time savers, they end up being time sucks, momentum killers and energy drainers.
We’ve all used conference calls to multi-task: to respond to e-mails, write a memo, catch up on reading and perhaps conduct unsavory activities that should never be disclosed.
We must realize that the conference call is a different beast than an in-person meeting or even a chain of e-mails. Its audio-only format comes with a number of limitations that should force us to approach it differently to derive maximum value.
Here are some thoughts to consider before you schedule that next conference call.
- If you’re the call leader, you need to be an active moderator. Take charge of the meeting verbally. You don’t have the benefit of visual cues, which means you need to work twice as hard to keep the meeting in order.
- Provide a detailed agenda with specific expectations. Indicate what will be discussed, when it will be discussed and who is expected to contribute to the discussion. People on the conference call with nothing to contribute are reinforcing the premise that contributing is optional.
- Keep agendas short and keep them moving. Try not to spend more than 15-20 minutes on any single topic. You’re bound to lose people if topics drag on longer.
- Limit (or, ideally, eliminate) open questions with groups of more than four. Avoid asking, “So what does everyone think?” No one wants to be first to respond – then to break the silence three people jump in at once. (Sound familiar?) If you have more than five participants in addition to the leader, break the group into subgroups of 3-4 people ahead of time. (Plan ahead; see #2 above). Assign specific people to each group, then when asking for input or feedback, go group by group. People will speak up when they think it’s their turn. But they won’t if they think it’s everyone’s turn.
- Take a roll call for input and votes: As the moderator, ask specific people for input or their decision. You need to use your voice to “look around the room.”
- If the discussion requires interaction, do it via video or (gasp) face-to-face. Not every group interaction can be accomplished with a conference call. Communications that are highly visual or sensitive almost demand the ability to witness non-verbal communication of participants.
- If you’re just going to talk at people, put it in e-mail. Send us a report that we can read at our convenience with our full attention and ask for comments separately. Or use a “whiteboard” type digital app where participants can reply and interact to what they’ve read – thus avoiding the dreaded “reply all” function.
- Please, do not permit group copyediting. It’s painful enough in person. It’s doubly painful via teleconference. Identify 2-3 people at most and tackle the editing separately offline.
- Close the loop. Quickly issue a report (not just a transcript; that’s lazy) from the conference call along with clearly defined expectations, deliverables and next steps. It will convey that the conference call was worthwhile and ensure that participants know what they need to do next.
Again, this is not a criticism of you personally. Very few (if any of us) have been trained on how to conduct conference calls. But instead of lamenting about their ineffectiveness, let’s enact several of the suggestions above and turn a waste of time into a valuable communications tool.
P.S. If you have your own ideas or tips on how to improve the effectiveness of conference calls, let’s hear them!