Con­fer­ence calls

Mak­ing your calls more ef­fec­tive

Business Spotlight - - CONTENTS -

Vir­tual com­mu­ni­ca­tion has a bad name in busi­ness to­day. Con­fer­ence calls, in par­tic­u­lar, are of­ten seen as an in­ef­fi­cient and in­ef­fec­tive chan­nel of com­mu­ni­ca­tion. But vir­tual work­ing is be­com­ing in­creas­ingly em­bed­ded in mod­ern work­ing life, and the abil­ity to com­mu­ni­cate vir­tu­ally is now a core com­pe­tence. In this ar­ti­cle, we look at a num­ber of ways to make your au­dio con­fer­ences more ef­fec­tive and pro­vide tips on how to con­duct more en­gag­ing and pro­duc­tive vir­tual meet­ings.

1. Is vir­tual work­ing al­ways bad?

The con­ven­tional wis­dom is that face-to­face com­mu­ni­ca­tion is in­her­ently eas­ier and more pro­duc­tive than com­mu­ni­ca­tion con­ducted via elec­tronic com­mu­ni­ca­tion chan­nels such as email, au­dio con­fer­ences and video­con­fer­ences. But there is now some ev­i­dence that, for ex­am­ple, video-based com­mu­ni­ca­tion can be even more ef­fec­tive than face-to-face meet­ings in some con­texts, par­tic­u­larly when there are pos­i­tive re­la­tion­ships and clear tasks and pro­to­cols (see also Busi­ness Spot­light 4/2016).

But the cost of pro­fes­sional video­con­fer­enc­ing re­mains pro­hib­i­tively high for many or­ga­ni­za­tions, mean­ing that au­dio rather than video­con­fer­enc­ing is of­ten nec­es­sary. And this brings with it many po­ten­tial prob­lems, in­clud­ing the lack of vis­ual clues, the ex­tra dif­fi­cul­ties (es­pe­cially for non-na­tive speak­ers) of un­der­stand­ing what is be­ing said, and the be­hav­iour of par­tic­i­pants, which of­ten in­volves a lack of prepa­ra­tion and con­cen­tra­tion.

If we want to run ef­fec­tive au­dio con­fer­ence calls that en­gage peo­ple in a cre­ative ex­change of ideas and deliver clear out­comes, we need to deal with these po­ten­tial prob­lems. This in­volves the careful plan­ning, con­duct­ing and fol­low­ing up of con­fer­ence calls.

2. Pre­par­ing for con­fer­ence calls

Be­cause the at­ten­tion span and en­gage­ment of par­tic­i­pants are chal­lenged more eas­ily dur­ing con­fer­ence calls, the pur­pose and value of such calls need to be clear. You can achieve this in the fol­low­ing ways:

Draft an agenda in clear lan­guage that de­fines pre­cisely the rel­e­vant ben­e­fits and de­ci­sions needed. For ex­am­ple, rather than just list­ing “Point 1: Customer events”, you could write “Point 1: Defin­ing two en­gag­ing customer events for the first half year”.

Re­duce the time of meet­ings to en­sure that the dis­cus­sion has to be crisp and dy­namic.


Make per­sonal calls to in­di­vid­u­als in ad­vance of im­por­tant meet­ings in or­der to get peo­ple to un­der­stand what is to be dis­cussed and have them com­mit their at­ten­tion and en­ergy to the de­sired out­comes.

Re­duce the num­ber of peo­ple in­vited

to the calls. Once you go be­yond eight peo­ple, it can be dif­fi­cult to main­tain a sense of team dis­cus­sion.

Spec­ify the in­ter­ac­tion pro­to­cols

(“rules of the game”). For ex­am­ple, you might spec­ify that ev­ery­one needs to ac­tively con­trib­ute ideas and to ver­bal­ize their opin­ions of oth­ers’ ideas by say­ing “I agree” or “I dis­agree” rather than hav­ing am­bigu­ous si­lences. Also, peo­ple could be asked to speak for no longer than two min­utes be­fore hand­ing over to some­one else.

You also need to think about lo­gis­tics. Au­dio con­fer­ence calls of­ten fail be­cause of very ba­sic or­ga­ni­za­tional as­pects, for ex­am­ple peo­ple di­alling in from a noisy en­vi­ron­ment or from a lo­ca­tion with a weak or in­ter­mit­tent mo­bile phone con­nec­tion.

Dif­fi­cult group dy­nam­ics can un­bal­ance the dis­cus­sion, par­tic­u­larly when in­di­vid­u­als call into meet­ings dur­ing which most of the other par­tic­i­pants are sit­ting to­gether in the same room. And tim­ing is­sues need to be thought through, as it is of­ten more chal­leng­ing for those call­ing into meet­ings at the end of a long day than for those ar­riv­ing fresh with their first cof­fee of the day in hand.

3. Fa­cil­i­tat­ing con­fer­ence calls

Be­cause you can’t see oth­ers and gauge their lev­els of un­der­stand­ing and agree­ment — or their de­sire to con­trib­ute — it can be more chal­leng­ing for fa­cil­i­ta­tors to man­age au­dio calls than face-to-face meet­ings. Fa­cil­i­ta­tors, there­fore, need to take a more di­rec­tive role, guid­ing peo­ple through the dif­fer­ent phases of dis­cus­sion.

This starts from the mo­ment the call be­gins, with the fa­cil­i­ta­tor ac­tively greet­ing par­tic­i­pants and set­ting the tone and at­mos­phere by invit­ing small talk and par­tic­i­pant in­ter­ac­tion. And once the meet­ing starts, this di­rec­tion con­tin­ues with the fa­cil­i­ta­tor ex­plain­ing what and how things will be dis­cussed, con­trol­ling the con­ver­sa­tion by invit­ing named in­di­vid­u­als to speak, and step­ping in to stop and re­di­rect the flow of the dis­cus­sion if nec­es­sary.

Of course, all groups are dif­fer­ent and need their own spe­cific type of fa­cil­i­ta­tion, de­pend­ing on the na­ture of the re­la­tion­ships among the par­tic­i­pants, the com­plex­ity of the dis­cus­sion and so on. Take a look at the box with ten fa­cil­i­ta­tor tech­niques and think about which you think might be most use­ful for your con­fer­ence calls. You will find ex­am­ples of the lan­guage you can use to per­form these ten steps on page 46.

It is also es­sen­tial to move clearly from dis­cus­sion to ac­tions, to make clear who will do what by when. And you should con­firm the next meet­ing and make clear your ex­pec­ta­tions of what will be pre­sented and agreed at that next meet­ing. If pos­si­ble, spend five min­utes at the end of the con­fer­ence call cel­e­brat­ing what went well and iden­ti­fy­ing one or two things that could be im­proved for the next call.

4. Participating in con­fer­ence calls

Fa­cil­i­tat­ing in­ter­na­tional con­fer­ence calls can be very de­mand­ing. As a par­tic­i­pant, you can make the fa­cil­i­ta­tor’s life much eas­ier if you fol­low a few ba­sic prin­ci­ples:


Speak only when nec­es­sary and “keep it short and sim­ple” (KISS).

Al­ways say your name be­fore speak­ing, es­pe­cially on calls with large num­bers of peo­ple who don’t know you.

If you are a na­tive speaker, ex­er­cise con­trol and speak slowly and clearly. Also, en­cour­age peo­ple to in­ter­rupt you if they don’t un­der­stand any­thing or if you are speak­ing too quickly.

Ex­press your pos­i­tive mo­ti­va­tion and your re­spect and ap­pre­ci­a­tion for oth­ers. Take re­spon­si­bil­ity for en­gag­ing other peo­ple in the call.

Speak up if some­thing is not clear. Be brave and help your­self and oth­ers; if you don’t un­der­stand some­thing, it’s likely that oth­ers don’t ei­ther.

5. Fol­low­ing up con­fer­ence calls

It is of­ten said that the big­gest risk for com­mu­ni­ca­tion is the il­lu­sion that it has taken place. When clos­ing an au­dio con­fer­ence call, the fa­cil­i­ta­tor can be sure of two things: some peo­ple didn’t un­der­stand what was agreed, and some peo­ple weren’t happy with what was agreed but didn’t say so. It is there­fore es­sen­tial that the fa­cil­i­ta­tor should have short one-toone calls with key par­tic­i­pants af­ter the meet­ing. The aim of these calls is to check un­der­stand­ing and com­mit­ment, and to


en­sure that the de­ci­sions of the meet­ing will be im­ple­mented. Nei­ther for­mal nor in­for­mal min­utes will achieve this fully. In­vest­ing time in fur­ther con­ver­sa­tion is there­fore highly rec­om­mended.

6. A process, not an event

Au­dio con­fer­ence calls should be seen less as in­di­vid­ual com­mu­ni­ca­tion events and more as part of a con­tin­u­ous com­mu­ni­ca­tion process. Par­tic­i­pants need to be prop­erly pre­pared in ad­vance of a dis­cus­sion, di­rected dur­ing the dis­cus­sion and then con­sulted af­ter­wards. This process then feeds into the next meet­ing — vir­tual or face-to-face — and so on.

The key chal­lenge, of course, is that this all takes time. But the ques­tion you need to ask your­self is what the cost will be — in time, money and mis­un­der­stand­ing — if you don’t in­vest this time. As Jeanpierre dis­cov­ered in our case study (see page 42), fail­ing to in­vest time in the man­age­ment of the com­mu­ni­ca­tion process of­ten causes sig­nif­i­cant dam­age. Why take that risk?

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