Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Seven Simple Ways to Improve your Conference Calls

Trust me, I've sat through my fair share of conference calls...training calls, product roll-out calls, quarterly meetings, and some extended product chit-chat sessions. There were some high points, but we all know how painful conference calls can be without some attention to detail. From these arduous hours, I've gathered seven simple ways to improve your conference calls, whether you're a host or a participant.

1. Send an Agenda
Sending the call's agenda in advance allows the participants to prepare for the specific points you'll be covering. It also helps you to make sure that you're not trying to cover more than you can squeeze into your call time. You can attach any relevant documents, presentations, or other visuals to this email as well; remember that it takes about three passes for information to sink in, so rather than ruining the suspense (or attendance) of the call, you'll actually be improving your productivity.

2. Stick to the Agenda
Restate the main points of the agenda at the beginning of the call - this convinces everyone that you'll be staying on task. This is also a good time to deliver some basic conference call reminders, like to mute your phone when not speaking so that your clacking keyboard isn't the star of the call.

3. Speak Well
I've conferenced with a whole host of Batman villians: there's the Muffler, the Droner, and my personal favorite, Captain Bellows, with his trusty sidekick Cellphone Distortion. My point? Make sure you speak at a good pace and volume (you might even consider asking for feedback at the beginning of the call to make sure you're being heard clearly). It's harder for most people to pay attention when there's no live visuals to accompany the meeting, so try to keep your tone as engaging as your subject matter will allow.

4. Introduce Yourself
It's not time for your life story, but saying your name before you speak is the only way to be sure that everyone knows who you are. If you're not the main presenter, you may want to offer more information. Just a simple "John here," or "This is Jody from Accounting," keeps everyone together and adds a nice touch of humanity.

5. Be Specific
Call on people by name and ask specific questions. How many times do you get a response to "Any questions on that?" It's much better to offer something like "I'll hear from Joanne, then Mike, then Ted," or "How does that protocol sound to the Marketing department?" so that people are encouraged (though not forced) to respond. It's easy to feel lost in a conference call, especially a large one. You may even wish to ask everyone to prepare an answer to a specific question in advance (maybe on that agenda you sent out?).

6. Pay Attention
It seems obvious, but I don't know anyone who's not guilty of this: if you wouldn't do it in a "real" meeting, don't do it in a conference call. Conference calls aren't time to check your email, catch up on your fantasy sports league, or chat up the intern. I always take notes during calls to make sure I don't miss key points or forget any questions that come up...and to avoid the temptation to see what's going on at lifehack.

7. Follow Up
If you stuck to your agenda, the follow-up email should be pretty simple to create. This email is a chance to reiterate your key points and to address task assignments/actionable items. Additional documents and presentations can be sent along with the follow-up email. You might want to ask for feedback on the call as well - just a simple "What can be better next time?" can go a long way, especially if the calls will be frequent.

I'm assuming you already know that if you're hosting the call you should join at least 15 minutes before your scheduled start time, and if you're participating you should call in at least 5 minutes early. I also hope you know to offer short "bio" breaks if your call runs more than 90 minutes, and to consider splitting up the speaking duties amongst several key presenters to avoid boredom on long calls.

But never forget the most golden rule: mute that phone. You don't want to be the example that proves this rule - I've heard lunch orders, side commentary about the call, and video game noises. Don't put your call on hold, either, unless you're sure that your hold music is cool enough to entertain all of the other call participants while you're gone.

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