25- The Golden Rule of conference calls
We are living in the information age. The world is connected and becoming more so every day. One of the great advantages of this connectivity is that teams have the ability to meet in real-time, regardless of their geographic location. For example, I recently met a woman who works in New York City, but whose clients are vineyard owners in France. To discuss upcoming marketing initiatives and sales forecasts she uses conference and video calling to interact with them. Like her, there are many people around the world using a conference or video call right now, to take their business farther. Using these technologies allows you to reach people quickly and have meaningful meetings without physically being in the same place. However, if you don’t use technology wisely, it can hinder your progress and increase your stress level. Conference calls have been used for 100 years, and in a recent poll, most professionals have 1-4 calls per week, yet most people don’t know how to participate in them efficiently. If you agree to use The Golden Rule of Conference Calls: Treat conference calls just like you would any other meeting, you will get the most value out of your time, and be a conference call expert.
One of the best ways to ensure a meeting is productive, is to have an agenda and stick to it. Publish this agenda prior to the meeting and have copies of it available during the meeting. When an agenda is published before the meeting, each attendee knows what they should be prepared to discuss and it creates agreement from the team on what topics will be covered during the call. Having the agenda available throughout the meeting focuses your team and it is a tool to keep the meeting on track. When you agree to an agenda, you also make an agreement to follow it and keep unrelated topics “off of the table.” If you find that the meeting is getting off-track because of unrelated topics, speak up and suggest that the group tackle that issue later.
Assuming you have an agenda, the most important thing you can do is be prepared. If you are participating in the call it means that you are expected to provide input to the group. Spend a few minutes before the call going over relevant information. For example, if it is a weekly project call, you should review your notes and meeting minutes from the previous call and be prepared to tell everyone where you stand on your assigned action items. Do not wait until you are on the call to search for this information. If everyone is prepared, it will be a less stressful and more productive meeting.
Show your colleagues how prepared you are by dialing into the meeting on time. Dialing into a conference call only to find that some of the participants have not arrived can be frustrating for everyone involved. If you are on the conference call, you are needed and you should be on time and respectful of your colleague’s time. The next step to starting a conference call off successfully is for the leader to introduce everyone, go over the agenda, and let people know what they should do with items that are not on the agenda. For example, the leader may say, “If anyone has urgent business that is off-topic, please hold it until the end and we can discuss open items. Does the agenda look good to everyone?” If you find that off-topic items that consistently arise during a standing call, you may consider adding a line item on the agenda for Other Business. However, if adding this topic, be sure to allot a finite time for it as this is a fast way to derail the call’s schedule. By gaining agreement on the agenda and making introductions, the meeting will be set up for success as everyone knows who is on the call and what the focus of the time will be.
It is not enough to be on time. The next part of the golden rule is perhaps the most important: Be attentive. One of the downsides to having a conference call is that you are more likely to be distracted by other events, people, or technology. When you are in the same room as the other attendees, it is easier to focus your attention. To keep your focus during a call, you should take it in a quiet place, and visualize the call as if it was a meeting in an actual room. Picture the people you are meeting with when you hear them talking, close your eyes if you need to. Of course, if you don’t know all of the people on the call this might be difficult, but try your best. If you are taking the call from a home office, you may also consider turning off that second computer monitor and/or your cell phone to minimize digital distractions. The best way I have found to keep from being distracted is to take notes. By taking notes, you will be attentive to the group and focused on the information being shared. Don’t forget while you are taking notes to flag action items that you have been assigned so that you can follow up on them in a timely manner.
Just like in a face-to-face meeting, if you are distracted during the conference call, the other attendees will notice it. However, it is not enough to simply limit your distractions, you need to take precautions not to distract others. If you’ve ever heard the “wind woosh” on the other end of a call because the person is driving, or whispering between people in the background, you know what I’m talking about. If you can, use a good connection, typically a land-line or a voice over internet system work better than a call phone. If you find that your connection has too much static or is not clear, use your mute button when you are not speaking to limit background noise. If you are part of a group taking the call in an office where the speakerphone is being used, eliminate side conversations and be careful not to rustle paper and such to limit background noise when you can’t use the mute button.
If you are unable to find a quiet place to take the conference call, take the time to explain the situation to your colleagues. For example, due to a recent call being rescheduled, I had to be on it while traveling on a train. I started the call by explaining that the background noise was unavoidable and that although the situation was not ideal, I would be able to actively participate.
While it is impossible to completely limit distractions, if you are aware of your surroundings you will be better equipped to actively participate on the call. An often-overlooked part of being aware of your surroundings is being aware of any computer webcam connected to a conference call. Many companies are switching to video conferencing for their meetings so that participants can see each other in the virtual meeting. Remember, even if your office is not set up to have a visual connection, if your computer has one, your picture might be on the screen.
A recent story I heard goes like this, “This morning, Ken, one of our product owners was telling us that he was taking a call at 8pm his time (Barcelona) and he decided to do the conference on his patio while having a beer. Apparently, he entered the virtual conference room but didn’t turn off his camera. So there he was, drinking a beer and shirtless on his patio. One girl said ‘Ken? Where are you? What’s that behind you? Why aren’t you wearing a shirt?’”. Don’t be like Ken. You need to be constantly aware of what setting your web camera is on before connecting to the call.
To be successful, you need to remember the golden rule and give a conference call the same respect as an in-person meeting. Make a good impression on your colleagues by having and following an agenda, being respectful, limiting distractions, and being aware of your surroundings.
What are your tips for participating in a successful conference call?