The downturn in travel budgets has sparked an increase in the number of conference calls among those collaborating across distributed environments. Unfortunately, a lot of those calls are poorly handled, by both leaders and participants. These pointers will help keep your calls on track.

Given the distributed nature of our offices, and our need to stay in touch with each other, we all hold regular conference calls with our colleagues and peers. I have seen examples of really effective calls, as well as the opposite: dire calls that leave you feeling demotivated and annoyed and generally make you feel like you have wasted your time.

The content of either of these types of calls is not in question here, but rather what we can all do to make our conference calls as effective as possible, both as leaders and as participants.

Note: This article is also available as a PDF download.

If you are leading a call:

1: Make sure you are clearly identified as the leader

Conference calls with too many leaders (or worse, no clear leader) can quickly descend into a mess. One person should be welcoming participants, moving the meeting along, and ensuring that the meeting ends on time. Under normal circumstances, whoever sets up the call is the leader, although that may not always be the case. The leader can also carry out a roll call at the start of the meeting to identify all of the callers.

2: Be prepared

Send out the call details to all participants in plenty of time. In addition, establishing a clear agenda helps your participants prepare for the call accordingly.

3: Start the call on time, but…

Be aware that some people may have difficulties connecting to the conference bridge, especially in the case of international callers. Use the first few minutes of the call for small talk and ice breaking, but be clear about when you are starting the call.

4: Control the call

Sometimes, the conversation can go off track or even get out of hand. Try and recognise when this might be happening and request that the topic be taken up offline. This is imperative if you wish to finish the call on time.

If you’re participating in a call:

5: Join on time

Don’t join late and expect the topic you were interested in be covered again. If you come in late, wait for a suitable break in the conversation and announce that you have joined the call –although normally the call leader will ask who has joined.

6: Focus!

Focus on the call. Don’t read emails, surf the internet or carry out other jobs. If you can, move to a separate room or area to take the call, away from your desk. When this isn’t possible (e.g., for those working in front-line help desk situations), inform the call leader. Where possible, swap with a colleague to cover for you.

7: Mute

Whenever you aren’t talking, mute your phone. This will reduce background noise interference (as well as some loud breathing). Just don’t forget to come off mute when you try to talk!

8: Announce yourself

Remember that a conference call is not like a regular meeting; people can’t see who is talking, and voices often sound different over the phone, especially on speaker phones. This is particularly important early in the call, if it is the first time you have spoken or if a large number of people are on the call. A simple, “This is Jack…” will suffice.

9: Don’t sidetrack

Sidetracking a conversation (or “hijacking” it) is strictly forbidden, as well as rude. If you wish to talk at length on a topic, make sure it is on the agenda or schedule other discussions accordingly. If you feel it is pertinent to follow a particular conversation thread that is outside of the boundaries of the call, ask permission from the call leader.

10: Participate

Poor conference calls are often the result of poor participation. The call is often your opportunity to raise topics of interest or concern, so be prepared to speak openly and clearly. When the call leader asks for a response, silence is both confusing and disempowering. Speak up and state your agreement (or otherwise); remember, a nodding head does not work over the phone.

Good calls, bad calls

What tricks have you used to make your conference calls more successful? Have you sat through any calls that went completely off the rails? Join the discussion and share your experiences with other members.

Thom Langford is a senior manager at a leading international global services company. He is a Chartered IT Professional of the British Computer Society with more than 15 years of experience in the IT industry. Thom has worked in a number of roles, including professional services consultancy, IT management, service and support, and IT project management. He is currently focusing on information and operational security and governance.