One of my least favorite experiences of corporate life is the conference call. I am a visual learner, and very easily distracted, so staying engaged on a conference call either as the leader or participant is a real challenge for me. An Harvard Business Review study revealed what we all know: an high percentage of us are doing other work, cleaning the dishes or even going to the bathroom during a conference call. Yet, they are an essential communication tool in global corporations and in modern business where many workers may be working from somewhere other than the office.
I recently was engaged to serve as a trainer and coach in executive presence for some chiefs of staff at one of the world’s largest management consulting companies. For almost a year, we provided feedback to these professionals on their presence and impact in meetings and on conference calls. Below are a few tips that emerged from our sustained coaching program that might serve as a checklist for conference call effectiveness for you and your team:
BEFORE THE CALL
If you are the leader:
- Consider who should be in the meeting, and who should not be. If a person does not have a direct decision making role or a substantial interest in the meeting agenda, consider whether they should be asked to attend.
- Do not block an hour on someone’s calendar for a call that should only last 30 minutes or less.
- Intentionally make the meeting shorter than you would have otherwise, start on time, and end on time. Stay consistent with this practice.
- Send out call invites with this information: Who is coming, What the subject will be, Why you’re having the meeting (worded in a way that appeals to their interests), the Process for the meeting (logistics, duration, who will talk, questions etc), and the Result you are hoping to achieve on the call. Open your call with this information too.
- Send out any data, reports or decks to consider prior to the meeting so that you can spend your time on the call asking for questions and feedback rather than covering the content.
- Inform participants if you will be asking them to present information or report during the call.
- Get clear on your intent for the meeting. What do you want people to believe, do and feel after the call? If you are not clear on intent, wait to have the call. Running from call to call? Pause for 30 seconds before the next one to clarify your intent.
If you are a participant:
- Review pre-call reads. Ask the call leader if you should prepare anything for the call.
- Prepare 2 open ended thoughtful and strategic questions to ask during the call.
- 30 minutes to one hour prior to the call, ensure that you have accurate call info, and send out any reschedule or cancelation notices.
DURING THE CALL
If you are the leader:
- Arrive 5 minutes prior to the call to engage participants who arrive early.
- Use the minutes prior to the call to engage the team emotionally with small talk, check in on personal items like births or vacations, or ask what city everyone is in at the call time.
- Announce your name, and ask each participant to announce themselves quickly if it is a group that is limited in size (under 10 people). For monthly calls, a leader may want to consider asking each person to share one thing that is important to them personally and one thing that is important to them professionally in one minute or less to encourage team building for remote teams.
- Re-state the information from the call invite above in a conversational way that is less than one minute in length.
- If it is the first call of the team, lay out the ground rules or ask how the team would like to be engaged with each other on the call so that you form operating agreements for calls.
- Call out participants by name to encourage listening and engagement, and especially ask for the input of those who have been quiet on the call. Introverts and analytical types often need longer to process information and will share an opinion only if asked.
- Watch the time or ask a participant to monitor it for you. Start on time. End on time.
- Sign post your message by structuring your comments this way: “I have three points today that I hope will lead us to a decision on X. Those three points are 1, 2, 3” (tell me what you’re going to tell me), “Point one …. Point two … Point three … (“tell me”), and “Again, those three points are … ” (tell me what you told me).
- Pause for at least 3-5 seconds after each point. It allows people to interrupt you and ask questions without talking over you. Ask if there are comments or questions after each point. If you are managing up in the conversation, ask which points are most important to them and structure the call around their priority.
- Do not end the call without an outcome or the communication of next actions.
- If you are derailed by a comment or question from the topic at hand, refer back to the publicized topic, the operating agreements or ask if the person can follow up later offline.
- To maximize your credibility and influence, do not use filler words (“like”, “so”, “you know”, “right”, “um”, “uh”), use up talk (raising your pitch at the end of a sentence), raise your voice, or mumble off at the end of a sentence.
- Avoid diminishing words: “Kind of”, “to be honest”, “It’s just a small thing, but … .”
- Stand up when speaking, and smile. Both will bring energy and presence to your voice.
If you are a participant:
- Place your phone on mute, and do not multitask during the call. Move laptops and devices away from the call location to encourage full presence and engagement. There is difference between being “on”the call and being engaged with the call.
- Take notes during the call, even if you don’t need to do so for the sake of memory. It will help you stay engaged.
- Listen more than you talk. Be curious. Ask questions before offering an opinion. Don’t over talk. If you have been speaking more than 1-2 minutes, it most likely is too long. Time on the phone passes slower than in person, so others will perceive you as long-winded.
- Do not talk over someone or interrupt unless it is necessary to insert a salient point. In that case, apologize for interrupting and keep your question or point concise. Be sure it is related to the point being made and not a tangent.
- If you already have spoken once on the call, ask yourself whether you really need to speak again or could follow up on the issue off-line after the call.
- Ask thoughtful open ended questions.
- Stand up and smile when speaking. It will bring energy and presence to your voice.
AFTER THE CALL
If you are the leader:
- Email a summary of the meeting and outcomes. This allows those unable to attend the meeting to stay abreast of developments and decisions.
If you are the participant:
- Set a Task in Outlook or form an action plan for following through on action items from the call.
For any of us who spend our days on conference calls, I’m sure you can relate to this funny video on how conference calls would look in real life.