Telephone Skillsby Babs Moore
Making the best use of conference calls
The improvements in technology and the more global nature of business have increased the acceptance of conference calling as an efficient and cost-effective way of holding a short meeting, especially when geographical considerations make a face-to-face meeting impractical. Most of the points listed below are equally applicable to video and voice-only conference calls, but a few comments that apply specifically to video calls are given at the end of this page.
Plan and prepare (agenda and objectives)
To be effective, a conference call should be planned in the same way as a meeting (see Meetings) and everyone should know why they are on the call and what is expected of them. Mobile phones tend to echo more than land lines and create more noise for all on the line, even more so if someone is moving around while taking the call. The noise of a car engine or the sounds of footsteps is not conducive to a good call. As part of the preparation, ask everyone to use a land line if at all possible. If someone has no option but to take their call on a mobile, ask them to make sure that they are stationery at the time and somewhere quiet.
Have the correct people on the call
If you are going to hold people’s attention, the majority of the conference subject matter must be relevant to the majority of people for the majority of the time. Put some thought into this when you are organising the conference. Is there anyone who does not need to be on line for some or all of the call? Would it be possible to arrange the agenda so people only had to attend the relevant parts?
If long chunks of conversation do not seem to be particularly relevant or useful, people will start to do other things, particularly on voice-only calls. They might start emailing, for example: if you hear keyboards tapping in the background, you will know you are losing your audience. When this happens, of course, the same people may also miss relevant parts or ask for things to be repeated, as a result of which the effectiveness of the call to all is lost. When video conferencing, look out for visible signs of boredom, restlessness or changing audiences.
Start and finish on time and make sure that everyone knows the planned timing and is present on time. If the conference call facility is pre-booked, this may be a necessity anyway, but the timing is still important – it is better to finish in a controlled manner than have to rush at the end of proceedings.
If someone joins the call late, check that it is someone you were expecting and then move on; do not recap as this is unfair to others. Repeated checking as to who is on the line can also be very time-wasting. If the system is that everyone phones into a central number, it is advisable to ask people to phone in between, say, 10.00 and 10.05. Explain that the call will begin promptly at 10.05 and make sure the chair is on the phone from the very start, to check who joins.
Ensure that the majority of the content is relevant to all. Conference calls can sometimes be overused by managers. While it may be the best use of a manager’s time to speak in this way to a physically diverse team, it may be less appreciated by the team members.
A manager in my previous company thought the weekly update call was an excellent way for his team to let him and the rest of the team know what they were doing. The problem was that the calls lasted for up to 90 minutes and no-one was particularly interested in what the others were doing, as there was little overlap between jobs. This only came to light during a training session on an unrelated subject.
Once the manager had recognised the problem, the calls were used for short weekly briefing sessions after he had spoken to each individual in turn.
Be realistic about what can be achieved in this format
A conference call, whether video or voice only, is not a good format for asking a lot of detailed questions, the answers to which may only be relevant to some of those attending. If people feel obliged to ask questions, they will do so, but without necessarily adding value to the call. For example, a certain company conducted product training by video conferencing and then went around the sales offices one-by-one, via the video call, asking for questions. These were rarely relevant and took as long as the call itself. The UK office took to focusing the camera on the office nameplate and leaving only one person in turn to sit through this section of the call!
A conference call is useful for some things:
- The short concise delivery of specific information or news – for example, announcing the company results internally – especially if backed up with email copies of data
- A quick meeting on one or two specific topics.
The system works best if people have had the opportunity to get to know each other face to face at some point, so that group dynamics are well understood. For an effective call, it is also important to have a strong chairperson. If someone tries to dominate the call with their own agenda, this needs to be controlled firmly by the chairperson.
A conference call is not a good brainstorming environment.
Use of visual aids
If things will be better understood if seen and if diagrams are an essential part of the call, this can be covered in a variety of ways.
- Use video conferencing, if available, in preference to voice only.
- To complement a voice-only call, use PC link up, so everyone can remotely see one screen via a web link.
- If neither of above is possible, send clearly-numbered diagrams ahead of the meeting and make sure everyone is aware that the diagrams will be needed on the call.
Give fair time to all, especially those remote from the chairperson. If some people are in the same room as the chairperson and can thus communicate in ways not possible to those who are remote, it is particularly important that the chair makes sure everyone feels a part of the call and has an equal chance to contribute. Also, any comments made in the room with the chairperson should be sufficiently loud and clear for all on the line to hear.
Have an interruption policy
It is generally not a good idea to poll around the participants for questions or inputs just for the sake of it. On the other hand, it is important that all important questions or points are raised. At the beginning of the call, state or agree a policy to cover interruptions. For instance, someone who wishes to interject should state their name and location, then pause and allow the chair to bring people in to speak in turn.
The mute button is very effective if you need a quick discussion on your end of the phone with a colleague before agreeing to something. Tell the person or people on the other end that you are going to use the mute button and then use it. This sounds much more professional than whispering or the rustle of paper as notes are passed to and fro.
Summarise the outcome and agree actions
As in any meeting, time should be taken to summarise the outcome at the end of the meeting, reiterating the main points and agreeing on any actions taken or to be taken.
Is this the best form of meeting?
Before organising a conference call, consider whether the telephone is the most appropriate/practical format for the topic under discussion. If people are geographically close, a face-to-face meeting may well be preferable to a conference call, unless the topic is fairly simple, short and urgent. The more diverse the locations, the increasingly likely it becomes that a conference call will be used. However, care must be taken not to try and do too much, too often and with too many people on conference calls or enthusiasm for this medium will wane and its effectiveness will be reduced.
It is essential to know how to use the equipment well before chairing video conference calls. If necessary, practise beforehand. If two screens (or a split screen) will be used to show data and the speaker, ensure that you know how to look professional and in control. Limit the complexity of video aids – they may not be as visible at the other end as you might hope. Body language can be seen on a video conference, especially when it is only a matter of people in one location talking to people in another, but it is always a little stilted and unnatural compared with face-to-face meetings. Talking into a camera and looking natural, warm and friendly is an art form (and something that should be practised if you want to be an accomplished user).
Do not make the meeting too long, as it is harder to concentrate on conference calls than at a face-to-face meeting. In addition, during a conference call, natural breaks and movement can be interpreted as showing a lack of interest. This may be the case, but not necessarily. Someone getting up to pour a drink in a meeting room while continuing to carry on a conversation would not unduly bother most people; someone going out of camera shot during a conference call can be unintentionally off-putting.