There good and bad parts to every job and in my role, the bad is Conference Calls! Now, I know that many people have to participate in or host Conference Calls on a weekly basis, and for a distributed workforce they are an essential communication tool. However, in my experience hosting and running a call that doesn't turn into “Death by Conference Call” is a challenge for a lot of organisations! 

The symptoms of “Death by Conference Call” are confusion, misunderstanding, confusion, frustration, confusion, annoyance, confusion….. (You can see where I’m going with this). Most of these side effects steam from lack of preparation, no agenda, no structure, no rules and no acknowledgement of fact that while people love to talk, they don’t particularly like taking part in a conversation with 8 other people all at the same time! Add background noise, mobile phone static and half a second delay into the mix and what you have is a call consisting of complete chaos! (I once spent an entire call listening to ABBA as someone on the call didn’t realise they were broadcasting their music of choice to the entire group!)

I know I’m being slightly over the top, but in general I very rarely come off a Conference Call thinking ‘that was a really great use of my time.’ After participating in hundreds of international conference calls over the years I have created a list of tips that have helped me to host and run calls in a successful way and I would like to share them with you in this post.  

                                                 

Tip 1: Create a clear Agenda and take control.

The best way to have a successful Conference Call is to have a very clear Agenda. This is a very easy document to create; it’s basically a series of bullet points on a Word Document that is distributed to all those taking part prior to the actual Conference Call. It details the order of the different topics that are set to be discussed.  

In my experience, it works best when the person who creates the Agenda and distributes it, is also the person who hosts the call. People can add to the Agenda prior to the call by sending the topics they’d like to include to the host person who adds them to the final list. Prior to the conference call the person hosting the call sends out the final version of the Agenda to everyone. (And everyone is quite literally on the same page!)

In my experience it doesn’t really matter who the host person is, or what rank of importance they have on the particular project. What the host person delivers is structure and discipline. They set out the Agenda, stick to the rules, and keep an eye on the time to ensure that all the agreed points are covered and discussed during the call.

So imagine everyone is now on the call (and they’re all saying ‘hello, hello, hello, hello…). If I were the host person I would now introduce myself with the following phrase; ‘To make the best use of everyone’s time can I firstly check that we have everyone on the call.’ I would then read off the names of those expected to join to check everyone is present before starting with the first point on the agenda.

 

Tip 2: Keep the background noise to a minimum.

The start of the call is the ideal opportunity to introduce the Mute button and ask that everyone uses it when they’re not making a contribution. No one wants to hear everyone’s office noise, the doorbell, or the dog barking. (I was on a very early call to the Far East a while back and was at home sitting in my office. I didn’t see the cat wander in and lie down beside my chair. When I moved my seat (which is on wheels) the cat made an almighty racket which was sent down the phone line to everyone! Cue frantic chat about who, what and where was the cat! Live it, learn it!) I would also ask that people either turn off or move their mobiles, or move them away from the telephone as continuous static on a call will really get on peoples nerves and become a major distraction.

Tip 3: Stick to the Agenda and share the outcomes of the call with all participants once it is finished.

Assuming everyone is on the call I would then say; ‘I emailed everyone an Agenda for the call, and I suggest we now go through each point on the Agenda. If there are any other points you’d like to discuss please make a note of them and we’ll go through them at the end.’

Prior to the Conference Call I would ask one of the other callers, or a colleague, to take notes during the call. I don’t mean mammoth pages reciting every work spoken; I mean points that were agreed and next actions. (To make it easier I use the Agenda and make notes next to the points that are discussed.)

After the call this can then be typed up and sent to all the attendees to confirm what was discussed and the actions that need to take place before the next call. Importantly, I would also put initials or names next to each action so it’s very clear what was agreed and who needs to complete which task or point. Also included in this document is the next call time and date. We call this a Contact Report. You can download our Contact Report Template using this link and you might find it useful when you are planning your next Conference Call.

These tips are for simple telephone Conference Calls. I’m aware they don’t cover LiveMeeting and Video Conferencing, but quite frankly I’ve blocked those horrendous experiences from my memory so couldn’t possibly blog about them anyway!

I know this all sounds very bossy, but that’s the host person’s job and people will be thankful for it! You will also have far more effective and successful calls which will be a good thing for everyone involved.

Finally, there is always some element of chaos; it’s the nature of the beast. Good luck!

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Rachel Willis
Rachel@VirtualStudio.TV