How to Be an Effective Conference Call Participant

Conference callI’ve mentioned before that the virtual world at Affinity Express means we have many conference calls on a range of topics all week long. In another post, I suggested ways to structure and lead these sessions to produce results as the organizer or facilitator. Today, I wanted to take a different angle and cover ways to improve the experience for you as a participant and for the rest of the team.

Prepare

Read agendas, project lists and other documentation sent out ahead of the meeting. Scanning material while trying to listen means you are not giving your full attention to the conversation and you missed the opportunity to ask questions or get clarifications prior to everyone dialing in. That wastes time and leads to longer, repetitive calls that waste everyone else’s time. Recently, I was in a meeting where a salesperson brought up a new product that was under consideration for development. It was clear he did not listen the last time or read the minutes because he was actively selling it when we de-prioritized the offering. We had to “remind” him that we were not moving forward. That was ten minutes of our lives we’ll never get back!

You should also write down questions in advance that you want to ask or points you want to see addressed even if you’re not the meeting coordinator. This ensures that you will get what you need out of the meeting.

Listen

It is very tempting when you are on a conference call and no one can see you to tackle pressing emails, respond to instant messages, or even jot down some things you need to pick up at the store. But when you are multi-tasking like this, you might as well not participate because you are getting so little from the session and the rest of the team is not benefiting from your insight. How often have you heard someone who is asked a question respond with, “could you repeat that”—a dead giveaway they weren’t tuned in at all. Sometimes it is a matter of call quality and I’ve heard people try to brazen through and give an answer that had little to do with the question that was asked—don’t be that person.

Take Notes

One tactic to stay engaged is to take notes. It’s like when you were in school and knew there was an upcoming test. Jotting things down helps you pay attention, file important points away in your brain and have a record if you do forget a task or a comment. I always document the conference calls I run, but I don’t rely on others to do the same and find the ability to look back invaluable. Also, when there are multiple people talking, you might not be able to break in right away. Taking notes ensures your can interject these comments when there is a break so they won’t be lost.

Form Opinions

Another way to listen actively is to imagine the facilitator is going to call you out to provide an opinion on each topic. When you think you are going to be questioned, it’s amazing how much more you hear what is being said and the intent behind it. In my case, I’m often asked later by other members of our senior business team about facts or deadlines and, if any of us was not listening it means we need another meeting! Furthermore, when you approach calls this way, you will contribute more and come across professionally to your colleagues, clients or prospects. These sessions are supposed to be interactive—no one wants a bunch of silent, inattentive people on a call or they could simply send out a memo and call it a day.

Act Respectfully

Aside from contributing to the meeting, there is standard etiquette for conference calls but it is surprising how many people do not follow it.

  • Mute Your Phone: Mute your phone when you are not speaking. We have a lot of frequent flyers on our team who dial into calls and keep talking until the flight attendants tell them to turn off their phones. The rest of us “enjoy” all the announcements in the airport and the directions broadcast on the airplanes. What little we hear tends to get lost in the frustration of trying to filter out all the noise. Then there are the loud typists (who are working on other things) and heavy breathers. How about those dedicated folks that take other calls while using a speaker phone?
  • Introduce Yourself: It’s a good practice to introduce yourself when you speak. “Excuse me, Tom. This is Kelly and I’d like to point out that we need to document those quality control measures.” You don’t have to do this every time and the need to do this depends on how often you communicate with the group, whether there are new attendees and how easy it is to distinguish who is speaking. On our Marketing conference calls, we have very few people who all have distinct accents because we’re in three different countries. But when we have product development call, there are at least 20 people, some of which are together on speaker phones and I don’t know all the voices. If you aren’t sure who said something, it is perfectly acceptable to ask (e.g., “That’s a great idea! Was that Dennis or Mark?”).
  • Have One Conversation: Along the same lines, if you are with others in a conference room or office while listening to the call, it’s tremendously unproductive to have side conversations. Doing so means that several people miss content that could be valuable to them. And chances are that you are not discussing something that would contribute or you would un-mute and say it to everyone.
  • Don’t Go on Tangents: Time is short and there is a defined purpose for the conversation. Try not to bring up side topics or waste the group’s energy on minutia. If you want to get something on the table, you can raise a point and ask for a separate conversation to discuss it. And if it is not clear to you that you are taking the group off-track, respond to the facilitator when he or she says “we are going to put that topic in the parking lot and will set up a separate time to discuss it” and drop the topic.
  • Let Others Speak: It’s rude to monopolize a conversation (it’s a conference call, not a speech) and interrupt others. When more than one person is talking, participants can’t really hear anyone. Err on the side of courtesy and allow a colleague to go first and then claim the floor. Without the visual clues in a traditional face-to-face meeting, where you can see whether someone is just taking a breath before continuing or has completed their thought, interruptions will happen (Unmana and I often experience this). Plus, there are often slight time lags. In either case, be courteous and either ask to finish your thought or cede the floor. There are no extra points for speaking the longest but everyone wins when the call produces results.
  • Keep Your Cool: Healthy debate is essential to productive meetings. But you should never get personal or lose your temper. When this happens, the focus shifts to the drama and away from solutions (e.g., “That was a low blow! I wonder how Sheila will strike back now!”). It doesn’t have to be name-calling or insults; getting loud or defensive is equally unacceptable in a discussion among professionals

Follow Up

Lastly, once the call is over, make sure you understand what is expected of you. Is a list of action items or minutes distributed? If so, be sure that you review them. Sometimes information is captured inaccurately or tasks are assigned afterward. You don’t want to show up to the next session without having completed critical tasks. In an extreme example, I was named as the owner of a key initiative in a completely unrelated area. This was a strategic project for which I would be accountable to our Board of Directors. If I hadn’t read the detail I would have been measured and my compensation would have been tied to something outside my influence. Instead, I raised the point with my CEO and the matter was quickly resolved and reassigned.

Frequent conference calls are a reality in doing business today and we all know they can be incredibly ineffective, boring and unproductive. However, if you (and other participants) put these tips into practice, you could look forward to these sessions as opportunities to solve problems and build teamwork, allowing you to view them not as a time-suck but as a very productive use of your time. Why not set the example for your team and give these suggestions a try?

If you found other ways to enhance these kinds of communications at your company, please let me know. We periodically release “conference call best practices” internally and I’d love to add some great new ideas.

About Kelly Glass
Kelly has been vice president of Marketing at Affinity Express for nine years now. She drives company strategy and all marketing activities.

2 Responses to How to Be an Effective Conference Call Participant

  1. Pingback: 3 Ways to Get Noticed and Promoted at your Job « dan gold, esq.

  2. Pingback: 3 Ways to Get Noticed and Promoted at your Job | DEG Consulting

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