Conference calls can provide a vital forum for the meeting of minds and getting important things done. This is especially true in an age where decentralized working environments are becoming more and more common. Yet, all too often, they end up accomplishing little and amount to nothing more than a waste of time.
If you stop and think about it, there could be some rather surprising reasons the conference calls you’ve attended or led didn’t produce the intended outcome. You felt something was awry, but just couldn’t put your finger on what it was. Or maybe you were so busy rushing off to jump on the next call to focus on trying to figure it out.
While recognition is the first step to curing your conference call blues, go beyond your Aha moment to solving the issue with the fix-it tips that follow:
Reason #1: Too Few People Do the Talking
In many conference calls, the conversation is dominated by only a few people. Louder voices drown out quieter ones, and true interactivity can be hard to come by. The 80/20 rule often comes into play — 80 percent of participants remain silent, while 20 percent do the talking.
The fix: Create a “pass the microphone” structure to the call that gives every participant an opportunity to speak. People who aren’t contributing should be excused from future calls.
Also, get people involved in meaningful ways and be positive, as this article on the Harvard Business review suggests. “Demonstrate that all ideas are valuable by restating important points. Thank people who are usually reticent for their comments.”
Reason #2: Participants Try to Get Too Much Done
Many times, participants will be checking messages, picking away at work, and fielding emails during the conference call. As a result, attention levels drop, and productive participation wanes.
The fix: Set ground rules, letting participants know their full attention is required and that multitasking is actually counter-productive.
Reason #3: It’s Difficult Giving Virtual Participants the Hook
A participant gets the floor and launches into a long-winded discourse about a topic at hand, eventually veering off into unrelated territory and boring everyone else to tears. Sound familiar? Chances are it does — this is one of the biggest problems with conference calls.
The fix: Use timers to set and enforce time limits for individual speakers.
Reason #4: Key Participants Don’t Show Up
Because conference calls don’t require a physical presence, key participants may duck out early or fail to show up at all. As a result, important decisions must be delayed, or made by people who aren’t fully qualified to make them.
The fix: Give key decision-makers a 10-minute scheduled slot to join the conference call. Use the slot to inform the executive of the main points of the discussion and allow him or her to make any necessary decisions.
Reason #5: They Are Too Congenial
The person who organized the conference call may not lead it, and the person who is supposed to lead it may not do a good job of it. Discussions then devolve into unfocused, unproductive sessions with no agenda and no direction.
The fix: Assign one person as the leader/facilitator and have him or her create and enforce an agenda. Rotate this role among all regular conference call participants.
Reason #6: They Are Too Short
Shorter is better, right? Well, not always. Forcing a conference call into a shorter length may not allow for enough time to discuss all the pertinent items of business. Rushing through a conference call makes it less likely that you will arrive at a decision or consensus.
The fix: Plan for fewer conference calls, but longer ones if you’re struggling to address everything you need to address. This is particularly important when you have virtual participants. Take the time to help people get to know each other as this WSJ article recommends.
Reason #7: The Wrong People Are Included
Some companies aim for inclusivity to a fault. In such cases, people who really have no business being part of the call are asked to participate, and they then feel like they have to contribute to the discussion. Nothing will derail a call agenda faster.
The fix: Only invite staff who have a direct bearing on the outcome or decisions to be made as a result of the call.
Reason #8: There’s No Follow-Up
While one-and-done meetings can be very productive, in many cases it is necessary to follow up on the discussion or key decisions which were reached. This follow-up session must be scheduled promptly, while the conference call is still fresh in everyone’s head.
The fix: Include the scheduled follow-up meeting in the initial agenda.
Reason #9: Participants Attend Sitting Down
Studies show that people are more attentive to group conversations when they are standing up. It’s easier for your mind to wander when you’re comfortably seated.
The fix: Ask participants to stand up for the duration of the conference — energy levels will be higher, and it’s healthier for everyone.
Applying these lessons to your virtual conferences will help everyone involved get more value out of the meeting and spell the end of calls that are a waste of time. You’ll boost productivity, and best of all, you’ll be enabling stronger teamwork and collaboration throughout your organization.
About the Author
Brad Volin is president of Adigo, a Denver-based audio, web and video conferencing service provider with a specialty in international call conferencing. He is passionate about optimized conferencing strategies and best practices for improved collaboration. He holds a BS in Mechanical Engineering from M.I.T. and an MBA from Harvard Business School.