Chances are high that, even if your company hasn’t yet explored web conferencing, you’ve sat in your share of conference calls, rolling your eyes (no one can see you!) when the call cuts out, waiting for the facilitator to figure out his controls, trying not to rustle papers or breathe too loudly, fighting distractions, and wondering if the other participants have forgotten about you. No longer! Whether you’re an office manager, a working-from-home sales rep, or on-the-go executive, here are a few suggestions to make your next group call a quick, effective success.
Conference calls have been in existence since the World’s Fair in New York in 1964, and in heavy use by businesses since the late 1980s. They are cost-effective and efficient, eliminating the need for participants to travel for an in-person meeting, which would cost money, take time, and increase conference room usage. Added benefits include connecting otherwise distant departments, warehouses, and suppliers that would not traditionally be included in executive meetings, and making geographic expansion a practical option for growing businesses. Additionally, as increasing numbers of employees work from home, conferencing will soon become necessary across all fields.
First, just as with any meeting, craft an agenda. A concise agenda helps keep the conversation on task and help each attendee follow along, since they may not be able to use visual cues. Send the agenda to each participant the day before the meeting, and be sure to include clear information on how to call in.
Be prepared. If you will be the meeting facilitator, prepare to be a troubleshooting resource if participants have difficulty connecting to the call. There is some wise advice here to practice with the system if you don’t know it. And as usual, gather and organize your agenda and all your notes in order to save time and present a professional face in the meeting.
You may not need to reserve your office’s large meeting room if there will only be a few people physically present, but choose a quiet place, ideally a small conference room or an office, in which to have your meeting. And avoid multitasking; be fully present for this call as a courtesy to your colleagues. If you wouldn’t send an unrelated email, check your text messages or file your nails during an in-person meeting, don’t do it on a conference call. Have someone else handle business while you’re on the call.
Use high quality equipment. Sound quality is an important consideration, and any investment your company makes in higher quality audio visual equipment will bring immediate returns when you don’t have to waste time asking callers to repeat themselves. Lower quality phone lines present the risk of the call being lost altogether, wasting time and patience. Similarly, avoid the use of cell phones, which risks dropped calls. Use land lines whenever possible. Ask your IT staff or AV systems experts for their recommendations
It’s an old rule, but still a good one: Start on time. Expect participants to call in on time as well.
Set expectations upfront. Identify yourself and all the participants. Share the outline of the meeting and make sure everyone on the call knows how to mute and unmute (more about this below). Be clear about whether there will be time for questions at the end, and remind others of the etiquette of speaking in turn. Stay on the call from start to finish. If you (or other participants) cannot stay on the call, state that information at the beginning of the call.
Use the ‘mute’ function except when talking. Any conference software will allow any attendee to mute their audio, and unless a person is speaking to the group, they should mute their line. This prevents any unnecessary or inappropriate conversation to make it into the meeting, but also makes the central conversation clearer by filtering out small sounds like rustling papers, squeaky office chairs, or background office noise. When you are ready to contribute, unmute your line, wait for the current speaker to finish his or her thought, and then identify yourself before giving your input. The meeting leader can facilitate this by calling on participants by name, ensuring everyone has input and the time to speak. But don’t confuse ‘mute’ with ‘hold,’ which may flood the call with the music!
Just as in a face-to-face meeting, observe standard meeting etiquette, and be polite and patient. Follow the agenda to keep the meeting on track. Let everyone contribute while guiding the conversation. As noted above, wait for one person to finish before speaking; otherwise, comments will be muddled or cut off on speakerphones.
Do a recap, taking time for final comments and questions. Make sure to thank everyone, and remind them of the next meeting time. The meeting facilitator should provide contact information for any additional questions.
After the call is over, follow up: Distribute minutes and a list of action items to everyone who was involved in the meeting.
Conference calls and video conferencing present slightly different challenges than an in-person meeting does, and can never completely substitute for face-to-face contact, but these key ideas will help bridge that gap. Happy conferencing!