by Steve Adubato, PhD
People in the workplace love conference calls. If done the right way they can be huge time savers. Conference calls can get several people communicating on an important issue and allow for critical decisions to be made in a timely fashion. That's what conference calls CAN be, but too often they are not. They wind up being chaotic time wasters that cause many participants to be frustrated, confused and downright bored.
Recently a colleague told me about a conference call she was on with a business associate. The call was going along just fine but as they were wrapping up and deciding on what needed to be done, another voice came out of the blue--a voice that hadn't been heard during the entire call. Who was this and why wasn't he identified earlier in the call? Was he listening the whole time? What role was he playing? Finally, what level of trust can you have with someone that doesn't even tell you that there is another person in on the call?
This is just one instance where people in business use conference calls in a counterproductive fashion. Next time you are thinking about organizing one of these calls consider the following tips:
Treat a conference call the same way you would treat an important meeting. Make sure everyone has a clear, itemized agenda. Have the conference call start on time and end when you have committed to ending it.
Limit the number of people on the call to 4 (maximum 5). Anything over that borders on chaotic. It becomes extremely difficult to keep track of who is talking, plus, when you have too many people on the call, it is an invitation for people to go on automatic pilot. Some of us have even pressed the mute button and start multi-tasking.
Don't multi-task when on a conference call. If you THINK you can answer your e-mail and participate in the conference call you are kidding yourself. Things are going to get missed when you do that. You wouldn't respond to your e-mail if you were in a meeting, so you shouldn't do it if you are on a conference call.
As the organizer of the conference call, have everyone introduce himself or herself up front. Then ask for people to state who they are before they speak. They don't have to do it every time, but it is important for people who don't know each other's voices especially well to become familiar as quickly as possible.
Try not to interrupt. Hold your tongue and wait for the appropriate time to jump in. One big difference between a meeting and a conference call is that there is no non-verbal communication over the telephone. Other participants can't see that you are looking to get in. Frankly, you have to be a much better listener and your concentration level has to be higher over the phone than in person.
If you come into a conference call after it starts, try to make sure that people know you are there. If you are the organizer of the conference call and this happens, seek an opportunity to introduce that person and then quickly review any key decisions that have been made.
--Finally, as the organizer of the conference call, wrap up the meeting with a recap of what has been accomplished and agreed upon. Also, identify issues or questions that must be explored further. Make sure you thank everyone for his or her participation and say good-bye.
Write to me about a recent conference call experience that left an impression.