Improving Conference Calls

By: John Mehrmann

Do you find yourself frustrated by long and unproductive conference calls? What reputation do you have for managing conference calls? Establish expectations and a reputation for short and effective conference calls. Get your time back for other activities.

ESTABLISH EXPECTATIONS UP FRONT
If you are the moderator scheduling the conference call, send out a list in advance with pertinent information. This information should contain the purpose of the call, dial number with PIN code if necessary, the moderator, the start time, the end time, list of participants and specific agenda items. Attached relevant documents to email invitations for the conference call so the participants can prepare in advance. If documents are required from other participants to review on the call, make sure that these are coordinated and completed in advance. The more prepared you are for the call, the more productive the time can be and the better able that you will be to stay on schedule.

PURPOSE
List the purpose or topic of the call clearly and succinctly. This should be the goal or objective of the call. Typically a conference call should be limited to one or two specific goals. This enables you to keep the conference call focused and succinct.

In some cases it may be more difficult to keep a conference call focused on a specific topic. For example, when reviewing the schedule for a large project there may be multiple topics that are relevant to time milestones in the project. If this is the case, keep the call focused on specific milestones that are due or relative to the point in the schedule.

Sometimes, conference calls are used to gather information from many people in the field. These group calls can be effective if the purpose is for a moderator or manager to disperse information to several people simultaneously. However, if the call is used to gather information from several different individuals as a weekly update to management, is it really an effective use of time for anyone other than the manager? Is it really a good use of time to interrupt the schedules of many people to conduct a social town hall discussion in which each person waits in silent anticipation for peers to give a weekly update? Consider how much more effective it would be to obtain a written weekly report in lieu of a conference call. A written report can be read at convenience, creates a reference document for discussion if necessary and enables the manager to work with priority or confidential communications in an appropriate manner. If you are already using both weekly reports and conference calls, then it is time to do some soul searching to determine if any of the communication is being treated with value or if it has just become a meaningless routine.

DIAL IN and PIN NUMBER
Always include the conference call Dial In Number and PIN Number on the invitation and any scheduled reminders. Make it easy to find the number. It can be a distraction to have people dial into the conference call late because they could not find the phone number.

MODERATOR
Every conference call should have one identified and assigned moderator. If there is a group of peers, it may be appropriate to rotate the role of moderator from time to time with repeating calls. Typically, the individual creating the invitation is the moderator. The moderator is responsible for making sure that the call starts and stops on time. The moderator is responsible for keeping the call on track and gently guiding individuals back on track in the event that conversation begins to run away on a tangent. The moderator may also be responsible for controlling emotional responses or maintaining a professional level of courteous communications. It may be necessary to encourage some individuals to participate, or discourage some individuals who may have a tendency to filibuster. It is the responsibility of the moderator to keep the call on schedule and focused on the purpose of the call.

It is the role of the moderator to reduce or eliminate distractions or interruptions. It is the role of the participants to remain quiet and respectful unless there is something useful and relevant to add to the conversation. Distractions may sometimes appear as opinions, jokes, anecdotes or personal stories that contribute very little to the progress of the conversation. It is the responsibility of the moderator to control the call and keep it focused.

START TIME and END TIME
Schedule the call to start five minutes past the hour. Most calls are scheduled to start precisely on the hour and the first five minutes of the call are wasted while waiting for some individuals to dial into the call. Sometimes it is difficult to start on the hour because a previous call or meeting may be ending precisely on the hour. Schedule your call to start five minutes past the hour and start precisely at the scheduled time. If you always start at the scheduled time, you will develop a reputation for being precise and the participants will plan accordingly. If you always start late or consistently spend the first five minutes waiting for participants to join the call, then the other participants will become accustomed to this delay. Schedule the call to start five minutes past the hour and start the call on time every time.

Schedule a precise End Time for the call and stick to it. Develop a reputation for ending your calls on time. It will create a sense of urgency and a rhythm for the conference calls as people realize that the purpose of the call must be met in a designated amount of time. It will enable the participants to schedule other activities after the call with confidence. It will keep the call focused. Complete the call with a summary of highlights and action items. If there are follow-up items or if additional time is required, schedule the next phone call and use the summary highlights and action items as the agenda for the next conference call. Every action item should have name or names of associated owners to complete, or there is no purpose for the list of action items.

ROLL CALL
Conduct a time check near the end of the call and reserve the last few minutes for summary wrap-up and roll call. What? A roll call at the end of the call? Yes, do your roll call at the end of the call, not at the beginning. It is inevitable that some individuals may join the call late. Avoid the temptation to wait for participants to join or to introduce distractions and interruptions by late arrivals. Start the call on time and get right to the purpose of the call. Conduct your roll call at the end when everyone has had a chance to join.

YOUR NEXT CALL
Example: Schedule a conference call to start five minutes past the hour and start precisely on time. Schedule the call for 40 minutes, unlike most calls that are scheduled for one hour. The shorter period of time and specific start and stop times will get the attention of the participants. There will be a sense of urgency since the call will not consume an entire hour, regardless of the topic. Do a time check at 30 minutes into the call, reminding participants that the call will have a hard stop at 40 minutes. At 35 minutes begin the wrap-up of the call, restate the highlights or commitments and use this to establish the agenda for the next call. Finish your call with a roll call of attendees and terminate the call at 40 minutes as planned. If you do this consistently, the other participants will prepare appropriately in advance of the call for the fast paced rhythm of the call and focus on purpose. Side conversations and distractions will diminish, participants will be timely and everyone will benefit from better use of time.

Conference Call Pricing
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