Making your calls more effective
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.
THE PURPOSE AND VALUE OF CONFERENCE CALLS NEED TO BE CLEAR
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:
FACILITATORS NEED TO PLAY A MORE DIRECTIVE ROLE
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
INVEST TIME IN FOLLOWING UP YOUR CONFERENCE CALLS
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?