Conference calls are a fact of life. When a conference call goes well, it scores points for convenience and efficiency. But when a conference call goes off the rails, it's a waste of time and resources. It's up to the person who initiates the call to understand how to have a good team meeting, and that, says Mary Abbajay, is the crux of the problem. “Most people don't know how to lead conference calls," she says.
Abbajay, who is president and CEO of Careerstone Group, a managing consulting firm based in Washington, D.C., has led thousands of virtual meetings and participated in more bad conference calls than she cares to count. She says the answer to how to run an effective conference call is taking charge: “It's all about taking control," says Abbajay, who is also author of the book Managing Up: How to Move Up, Win at Work, and Succeed With Any Type of Boss.
When conference calls are done well, everyone involved benefits. I asked Abbajay and Dana Brownlee, who is author of The Unwritten Rules of Managing Up: Project Management Techniques From the Trenches, as well as a keynote speaker, corporate trainer and president of Professionalism Matters in Atlanta, Georgia, to share conference call best practices. Here are their tips for effective conference calls.
1. Share an agenda in advance of the call.
On that agenda, include anything that people should know. For example, is it a phone call or a video call? Who will be on the call? What is the purpose of the call? How long will it last? What is the dial-in information? Abbajay says the agenda should outline the objectives for the call, as well. “Let's say we're going to plan a party. Objective No. 1 is let's determine a date. No. 2, who's coming? No. 3, we're going to talk about the food," she says. The objectives help map the call out, so that participants know what to expect and can prepare.
2. Master the technology.
Whether you're using a dial-in number, a video service or calling from a device in the conference room, make sure you know how to use it. Brownlee suggests enhancing the call with other tech tools, such as support polling, file sharing and chat options in order to improve the quality of discussion, keep people on track and minimize distracting temptations. “Anything you can do to augment the effectiveness of the communication will benefit the meeting," she says.
It's so important to be respectful of people's time by structuring meetings that engage everyone or allow them to just participate for their relevant portion, then just drop off.
—Dana Brownlee, president, Professionalism Matters
3. Send a notification, call in early and take control right away.
Abbajay says that whoever's leading the call should schedule a notification to go out to participants 15 minutes before the meeting begins, so that the dial-in info is at their fingertips. The leader should make sure to be dialed in at least two minutes ahead of time, so that they can set the tone from the start—and avoid any small talk as people call in. “What's going to happen is if you and I start chitchatting, all these people just start beeping in and then it's just a cluster," she says.
Instead, she says that each time a new person beeps in, the leader should ask their name (and write it down), thank them for being there and let them know that the meeting will begin in two minutes. When it's time for the meeting to begin, she says the leader should go down the list of names and call each of them out, and then asked if anyone else has joined the call. That'll give any latecomers a chance to introduce themselves, without causing any disruption.
4. Set the ground rules.
Before the meeting progresses, it can be helpful to set ground rules. Brownlee, for example, empowers participants in calls to chime in—literally—if someone is rambling or gets off topic: she tells them to hit the # sign on their phone keyboard. “Usually, attendees hesitate to speak up verbally because we've all been taught it's rude to interrupt, and unfortunately, that's exactly what you'd be doing most of the time—interrupting to get things back on track," she says. But the # sign technique makes the interrupter anonymous, while keeping the meeting moving. “We don't want others to take it personally if we ask them to curtail their comments and move on, so this process acts as a shield of sorts to allow team members to redirect conversation when needed without being inhibited by those natural fears," she says. When Abbajay sets the ground rules, she asks everyone on the call to say their name every time they speak. If the call will be dominated by the leader, she encourages participants to put their phone on mute to eliminate distracting noises.
5. If a connection is bad, say something.
When someone has a static-y connection, is in a loud environment or their phone keeps cutting out, it's frustrating and annoying for everyone on the call. Abbajay says it's necessary for the leader to intervene. “It's uncomfortable for someone to do this, but when someone has a bad connection you do need to ask them to call back in on a better connection. Because that is really distracting," she says.
6. Be respectful of people's time.
If a person isn't needed for the entire call, Brownlee makes sure to allow them to participate in the beginning and then hop off when their portion is done. “Let's face it, most people hate meetings, and one reason for that is too often participants end up wasting a lot of time, either because the meeting wasn't well run, or because they were only needed for a tiny portion, if that. It's so important to be respectful of people's time by structuring meetings that engage everyone or allow them to just participate for their relevant portion, then just drop off. It isn't always possible or practical, but that should be the goal," she says. Abbajay adds that an hour should be the limit on a call. If it seems like it's going to run longer, she suggests scheduling two calls rather than one long one. “It's a reality that we have to do conference calls," says Abbajay. “But they don't have to be time-sucks."
Leading a conference call is something of an art form. Abbajay says the difference between a good conference call and a bad conference call is in a good call, the leader understands their role and facilitates throughout. “You are the emcee. You are the ringleader. You are all those things," she says. “And really great conference calls are calls where someone is in charge."
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