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5 secrets to effective conference calls

It’s easy to fool ourselves into the illusion that “just having a conference call,” instead of a face-to-face meeting or one-on-one, will save time. In fact, it’s that kind of thinking that leaves many managers moving from call to call with little time to connect with their team.

In an attempt to salvage some productivity in their day, they put the phone on mute and try to get real work done at the same time—and don’t pay close attention to much as a result.

A Quick Rant Against Conference Calls

Perhaps you’ve been on one of these soul sucking calls. A direct report stops by, and, grateful for a distraction, you mouth “Oh it’s just our regular update call,” put the phone on mute and attempt to a have a meaningful conversation.

Just when you’re fist-bumping yourself for being a high-energy multi-tasker, you hear your name mentioned…twice. Oh crap. You quickly take the phone off mute, apologize and say, “I was speaking to the mute button,” which of course is technically true. The opinion you offer next is nowhere near as salient as it would have been if you had been paying attention. Your peer IMs you, “What are you doing, aren’t you going to bring up the idea we agreed to last week?” Oh boy, now you’ve ticked her off, and stumble awkwardly into, “Oh, I forgot I do have one more thing to add. You see Janet and I were thinking…” Awkward.

Think Like an Entrepreneur

One thing has been conspicuously missing this past year as I started my own business–no wasteful conference calls. Why? Well first, the last thing I want to charge my clients for is any time that will not add absolute value to them and their bottom line. Second, I don’t want to pay my contractors for a minute of wasted effort that could be working productively to advance our mission of growing leaders around the world. The next time you have a conference call, try thinking like an entrepreneur. Estimate the hourly rate of those attending the call, and see if there’s a more efficient use of their time to get to the result you need.

Big Rules

Look them in the eye

Honestly, one of the biggest reasons my “conference calls” have become so productive is that they’re almost always done over video–for free. Zoom (my favorite), Skype, Go to Meeting, or Google Hangouts all work. You can see facial expressions and get a better read on emotions AND it takes multi-tasking off the table.

Articulate outcomes

Meetings are meant for two things, to move results forward or to build relationships. Be clear on your objectives. Are you there to make a specific decision? Are you working to gain buy-in to a change? Knowing why you have each item on the agenda will go a long way to keeping the call on track.

Invite only necessary players

When you’re considering flying people in for a meeting,  you take a lot of thought to the time out of the field and the expense involved. Don’t let “It’s just a conference call” suck you into a trap of over-inclusion. That kind of thinking compounds quickly.

Segmentize discussion

Use a narrowing agenda. Arrange the more general topics up front and then let people drop off as the topics become more specific. Explain what you’re doing and why in advance, so you don’t get people riled up about secret meetings. Be sure that it’s not always the same people invited to drop first.

End standing calls early and often

I get nervous about weekly check-in calls, mostly because discussion expands to fill the time, when a briefer discussion could do. If a regularly scheduled call is important for your team or project, craft the agenda and estimate the time you think you will need. State that intention up front. “If we keep to our agenda, I think today’s call should only last about 37 minutes. Let’s be as productive as possible so we can all have some time back.”

Done well, conference calls can be an effective and efficient way to get the results you need. A little extra planning can save hours of lost time and productivity.

Are you looking to help your team streamline efforts and produce better results, please call me at 443-750-1249 for a free consultation.

Your turn. What are your suggestions for making conference calls more effective?
Filed Under:   Communication
 
 
Karin Hurt
Karin Hurt
Karin Hurt helps leaders around the world achieve breakthrough results, without losing their soul. A former Verizon Wireless executive, she has over two decades of experience in sales, customer service, and HR. She was recently named on Inc's list of 100 Great Leadership Speakers, AMA's 50 Leaders to Watch in 2015, & Top Thought Leader in Trust by Trust Across America. She’s the author of 2 books: Winning Well: A Manager's Guide to Getting Results-Without Losing Your Soul and Overcoming an Imperfect Boss.
 

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What People Are Saying

Steve Borek   |   06 July 2015   |   Reply

Make each call meaningful and fun.

Create calls where you get everyone involved in the discussion.

Last, set it up so people walk away with something they didn’t have before.

Karin Hurt   |   06 July 2015   |   Reply

Steve, Excellent. Can you imagine the possibilities if every call was meaningful and fun?

James McKey (@jmckey)   |   06 July 2015   |   Reply

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been frustrated to be invited to a meeting with not only no detailed agenda but not even a descriptive title to help me know if it even makes sense for me to attend. As I’ve gotten older and more confident that such meetings more often waste my time that allow me to effectively contribute, I will reply back to the invite request and ask for what the desired outcomes are and if there is a chance we could shorten the mtg to 30 minutes (assuming we’ve all already been introduced and know the topic on hand).

I also agree that making mtgs virtually face-to-face is WAY better but in some corporate environments I’ve been in (particularly with older folks), that can a hard method to push for. How do you accomplish that when you sense resistance to video enabled chat?

Karin Hurt   |   06 July 2015   |   Reply

James, that’s a great bet practice to ask for more detail. Even it annoys people a little bit, if said with the right tone and intent, you will likely save everyone a lot of time and the meeting will be more productive.

I’ve found the folks most resistant to video calls are the same ones who will take a conference call in their office (sitting next door to someone on the same call taking it in THEIR office). My theory is that these guys don’t want to leave their comfort zone because they want to be able to multi-task.

I think the best way to persuade them is to plan a few great ones and let them feel the difference.

Terri Klass   |   06 July 2015   |   Reply

One of the biggest wastes of time is being part of a call that really isn’t critical for me to be on. When working with managers I always remind them to just invite the necessary people not extras.

I also prefer face to face calls and I actually think they are more efficient because facial expressions can be factored in to the responses. When we see how someone really feels with their faces, we can quickly respond or adjust.

Great post, Karin!

Karin Hurt   |   06 July 2015   |   Reply

Terri, I agree. I think so often people are worried about exclusion and they over include. Most people do not want to be on more calls than necessary. Thanks as always for your great insights.

LaRae Quy   |   07 July 2015   |   Reply

I love how you get to the chase so quickly—bottom line: people prefer conference calls and email updates sp we don’t have to deal with the sticky issue of people and conversations…

I admit that I often prefer the email form of information distribution instead of face-to-face because it’s faster and can be answered at the leisure (to some degree) of the recipient.But it doesn’t satisfy in those situations where real discussions need to take place. It’s OK where orders or deadlines need to be barked, but when we need genuine interaction to produce creativity, it’s less than satisfactory.

I agree…skype, google hangouts, or other forms of interactions where real people can be observed are highly valuable, especially when time zones make a difference. We learn so much via body language!

Great article, Karin!

Karin Hurt   |   08 July 2015   |   Reply

LaRae, Thanks so much. I agree with you, if an email will do than do the email. Meetings whether by phone, skype or face-to-face should have at least one of 2 purposes: make a decision or improve the relationship. If it’s just a data dump, there are other ways to go.

Alli Polin   |   07 July 2015   |   Reply

I’m with you! I don’t know anyone who can’t relate to your example. When I was still working within an organization a few years ago and was promoted to VP, my conference call invites exploded. My managers and directors were invited to the call, but somehow, I still merited an invite because they wanted all “decision makers” on the call. I needed to make it clear that the managers and directors on my team were indeed empowered decision makers.

Days filled with conference calls and long nights of after-hours work is something I definitley don’t miss!

Karin Hurt   |   08 July 2015   |   Reply

Alli, Yikes! Been there. One of my MBA students last night introduced himself and his job by saying, I’m the finance director at ___. I sit on conference calls. Oh boy….