We’ve all been on a conference call and heard someone apologize for being on mute and ask to have the question repeated. This baffles me. There is nothing associated with being on mute that impedes an individual’s ability to hear a question. So, what are they really saying? That they weren’t listening. Why? Because the call was probably boring, was only tangentially related to their work and they decided they could better use their time by replying to e-mails. This is a colossal failure to use communication effectively, and yet it plays out thousands of times a day around the world. Conference calls constitute a major part of our professional lives and yet there are some real questions as to how effective they are. The internet is full of tips on how to run more efficient calls, along with some very funny videos parodying them. Many of these tips are useful (start on time; make sure your dog is outside before joining the call), but they tend to treat the symptoms rather than the underlying cause. I am going to suggest a more basic approach to having more effective conference calls: be interesting and don’t waste people’s time.
My experience with my clients is that they are professionals who want to do a good job. The reason they aren’t engaged on calls is that the calls are seen as a waste of time. If you use people’s time well, I guarantee you will have more lively, interactive and productive calls. Here are some suggestions on how to make your conference calls more valuable:
- Send out a substantive agenda in advance;
- Only invite the people who truly need to be on the call;
- Start off the call with an interesting opener;
- Have a point to the call, not just topics and updates;
- Speak with energy;
- Ask direct questions.
Send out a substantive agenda in advance
A good agenda isn’t just a list of bullet points of topics to be discussed. It should clearly articulate the reason for the call and the desired outcome. This is true even of standing meetings. Your agenda is your first point of contact with the call participants and as such it is the first opportunity to let them know that this will be a valuable use of their time. It also allows people to come to the call prepared, already having formed some thoughts about how they can contribute. When people come to the call prepared, calls tend to both shorter and more lively. And by ‘in advance’, I mean at least the day before, not ten minutes prior to dialling in.
Only invite the people who truly need to be on the call
Nothing will make people tune out more quickly than the realization that there are too many people on the call. For a call to be meaningful, the participants need to be limited to the individuals who truly have a stake in what is being discussed. Anything else will be construed as a download and people will be disengaged. One trick to achieving this is to manually invite people to the call, rather than simply clicking on a distribution list. It will force you to genuinely consider if each person truly needs to be on the call. Time is perhaps the most valuable thing we have in our professional lives. If you use people’s time well, they will be grateful and will reward you with their full attention.
Start off the call with an interesting opener
When I work with clients on structuring talks, I spend a lot of time discussing the opener. This is true regardless of whether it is a presentation or a performance review or a conference call. The first thing we hear affects how we listen to everything that comes after. We all listen through filters and we make up our minds about things very quickly. Once we have made up our minds, they are very hard to change. If I go into a performance review and have decided that my manager has it in for me, there isn’t much she’s going to be able to provide in her content that I will be willing to accept. Likewise, if I have decided that this call is going to be a waste of time, I am going to be very disengaged, and may well miss content that would be of interest to me.
So, the opener is our first and best opportunity to shape the audience’s perception of everything that is to come. Unfortunately, most of us don’t even think about the opener and so throw away a golden opportunity to draw the audience in. Most conference calls start with the usual combination of small talk, interspersed by chimes announcing that ‘Sarah has joined the call’. Once enough people have signed in and we’ve pinged the people who haven’t yet joined, we finally get going by jumping right into the content, usually some kind of implicit apology: “Hi everybody, I appreciate you taking time out of your busy calendars to be here. The purpose of this call is to…” It’s polite, but not inspiring. What if, instead, the person chairing the call started off by saying, “Hi everyone. Before we jump right in, I just wanted to relay a conversation I had with a customer yesterday. Funny story, but I think it relates to what we are here to discuss. I was doing a site-tour and…” I bet everyone would be listening. Story time! Meeting hasn’t started yet! If you are able to frame the discussion with something interesting (and succinct), people will be more engaged when you move into the content, and you will have offered the participants a lens through which to think about the content of the call.
Have a point to the call, not just topics and updates
I argue that every communication should have a point, a main idea that the speaker is trying to persuade the audience of. I use the word thesis, but most of the world uses the word message. Conference calls often have a purpose, but this is different from having a point. When people articulate the purpose of a call, it is often just a veiled excuse for an information dump. When the purpose of a call is “to gain strategic alignment on marketing initiative roll-out”, it really means it’s an update on milestones and timelines. But the point of such a call might be that, “We urgently need to get various parts of the business signed off before we can begin rolling out the marketing initiative.” The purpose might come across as quite passive but having a clear point will ensure that the call is active. If you want people on the call to be engaged, there needs to be a clear point. Usually at this point, my clients will furrow their brows, think for a minute, and then ask, “But what if I really am just sharing information?” And my response is always, “You need to figure out why they should care. Because otherwise they won’t.”
Speak with energy
One of the most basic and obvious challenges associated with conference calls is that you can’t see the people you’re talking to. Good speaking requires energy. This is even more true when we don’t have body language and facial expressions to read and react to. Call centres often have mirrors next to the employees’ monitors to remind them that they are speaking to human beings and that a smile can be heard in their voices. Before a call, if I haven’t met the people I will be speaking with, I always look online for photographs of the people who will be on the call.
A lot of it comes down to simply choosing to speak with energy. I remember once being hired to conduct a three-hour workshop on the art of listening. At the last minute, the company had put a travel freeze in place, but the team still wanted to conduct the workshop and wondered if I could do it via conference call – three hours on the art of listening via conference call! If anyone had seen me talking on the phone that day, they might have wondered what was going on – I was incredibly animated. My hands were going crazy (hands are connected to voice). But after the call, the participants said it was one of the few three-hour calls they had ever stayed engaged in for the entire duration – and I breathed a sigh of relief!
Ask directed questions
What typically happens when you ask, “So, any questions or comments?” on a call? Crickets, right? Silence. Does that mean that everything covered on the call was so immanently clear that there are no resulting questions? Or does it mean no one was paying attention? Or that there are too many people on the call and no one feels it is their place to interject? We have no way of knowing. I often tell my clients that the worst way of generating questions is by asking, “Are there any questions?” When teaching, I only ask that question when I don’t want there to be any questions but want to check in before moving on. When I want to generate discussion, I will ask directed questions, like “Rahim, I suspect there will be some challenges in implementing this with your team. What do you think the biggest pushback will be?” Directed questions will tend to generate much better discussion than throwing out open-ended requests for questions or ideas. It’s a good idea to think of a few questions you want to ask prior to the call.
Conference calls are a fact of life and they take up an enormous amount of our time. There are some people we interact with exclusively over conference calls. If we can improve the effectiveness of these calls, we can save time, build better relationships and do a better job at getting things done. Much of the discussion I have seen on the topic is very much focused on the frustrating aspects of calls, but don’t really deal with the underlying root causes. The above suggestions around making your calls more lively are built around a simple principle: if you are interesting and use people’s time well, you will have more successful calls. These things are incredibly easy to do and take next to no time. I suspect you have to stop reading now because you have to jump on a call. Why not use that call as an opportunity to practice some of these ideas?