Whether you call them conference calls or telecons or excruciatingly dull time-wasters, multi-participant phone conversations are as important to most web workers as email. If you can’t meet face to face or arrange video conferencing, the conference call is the next best thing. But just as with email and instant messaging, people don’t always agree on how to use them as effectively as possible as a tool for collaboration.
Try these tips for your next telecon whether you’re the leader of the call or just a participant. And share your own ideas for making conference calls worthwhile and productive in the comments.
1. Get the dial in. If you’re leading the call, it’s your job to make it easy on the people calling in by setting up a dial-in or otherwise getting everyone together on the phone. If you’re an employee, your company may have already chosen a conference calling service for you to use. Otherwise, you can use a variety of online services including foonz, FreeConference.com, and LiveOffice.
These services and others like them allow you to set up a conference dial-in for free, but long distance charges will apply. They also provide premium services such as toll-free numbers for US and Canadian callers. For example, FreeConference.com will provide a toll-free conference dial-in number for $0.10 a minute per caller.
2. Try VoIP if all the callers are techies. Skype, Gizmo, and other voice over IP services provide a completely free alternative for conference calls if all your attendees are equipped with the software and hardware required to make the call.
3. Or use your phone’s flash button for a three-way call. If your landline service supports three-way calling, you can use the flash button to put your first caller on hold, dial another person, and hit “flash” again to join parties together. This is handy for small spur-of-the-moment calls.
4. Consider distributing an agenda. If your conference call is a one-off meeting to discuss a specific subject, you may not need an agenda. But if you are running a regularly scheduled call such as what we recommend for virtual teams, it’s helpful to have an agenda.
An agenda ensures that the meeting doesn’t devolve into idle chitchat or witty banter at the expense of covering important topics. With an agenda, you’re less likely to forget what you need to discuss. Plus, it can ensure that everyone gets his or her say–sometimes it’s hard for less talkative members of a team to get their concerns addressed.
5. Try a headset. A decent speakerphone might be all you need for your conference calls, but a headset with microphone that plugs into your phone (or into your computer if you’re using VoIP) provides some great benefits. It keeps other people from hearing your phone conversation, overrides the annoying mute button beep that so many cheap speakerphones make, and eliminates the speakerphone cave effect.
What should you look for in a headset? A wireless Bluetooth model would be great if you can afford it. A mute button is a must-have, and a built-in volume control lets you adjust to your low-talking and loud-talking coworkers. Be sure to look for a headset that provides a mute indicator in the form of a flashing light or sliding switch.
Plantronics seems to be a popular supplier of headsets to web workers. WWD writer Judi Sohn likes this over-the-head model that works for mobile or cordless phones. Jason Calacanis recommends the DSP 400 USB model for podcasting, but of course it’s great for VoIP calls too, and it folds up nicely so you can take it on the road. And here’s a BlueTooth model you can use with both your laptop and your mobile phone–nice.
6. Share your phone between your computer and your landline. If you make Skype and POTS calls frequently, you might find it easiest to use one phone for both. The D-Link DPH-50U Skype USB Phone Adapter lets you make and receive regular and Skype calls on the same phone.
7. Use web conferencing software. Forrester Research likes Adobe Breeze (now Adobe Acrobat Connect Professional) best of all the web conferencing software for its flexibility and ease of use, but there are many options to choose from including GoToMeeting, Microsoft Office Live Meeting, and WebEx. You might not have heard of Glance, but it gets good reviews for its simplicity and reliability for doing web demos and presentations without heavyweight collaboration features.
If you’re in charge, be sure to try out the software far ahead of time and check that it’s accessible with whatever operating system and web browser combination your attendees will be using. If you’re just attending the call, try to log in at least a few minutes early if you can so you have time to troubleshoot problems.
8. Make it a podcast or just record it for your own use. If you’ve got some interesting people on the phone who are willing to go on record with their opinions, it’s not too hard to record it and then publish it for everyone on the Internet to listen and learn. Or maybe you might need to refer to it again yourself, so a recording would come in handy.
Gizmo supports one-button recording, so if you’re using that for your conference call, you’re all set. Audio Hijack Pro for Mac OS X provides a fairly easy way to record Skype calls and there are Windows packages too for Skype recording. Some of the online conferencing services support recording of your call. If none of those will work for you, check out these tips.
9. Dial in on time. Whether you’re the leader or just an attendee, you should dial in on time. I’m assuming you’re not a high-up executive who needs to show the world how important you are. You aren’t any more important than anyone else… so be careful of other people’s time, and get on that call when you said you would. If you must be late for some reason, IM or email another participant if possible and give them an ETA for when you’ll be on.
10. Start on time. If you’re the leader, especially of a regularly-scheduled conference call, make it a habit to start on time. Stragglers will soon learn they should be on time if they want to know what’s going on. You can even give participants forewarning of your punctuality in the email invite to the call: tell them “the conference call is scheduled for 10 am and begins promptly at 10:02.” Then keep your word.
11. Identify yourself. No, you don’t have to actually say your name if the conference calling service demands it–in fact, you might not want to, because some of those same services will replay your name if you want to surreptitiously hang up. But do announce yourself upon joining, as soon as there’s a break in the chitchat or someone asks, “who just joined?”
12. Don’t assume someone’s not on the call just because you didn’t hear their name. You can’t count on knowing who’s on the call. Don’t say something assuming that Joe isn’t on, because Joe might have announced himself before you came on or might have dialed-in late and decided against announcing himself and breaking the flow of conversation.
13. State up front if you’ll be getting off the call early. That way you don’t have to interrupt the call if everyone’s heatedly discussing some important topic. It will also give the organizer a chance to make sure any topics needing your input can be addressed before you have to hang up.
14. Know when you should cancel and reschedule due to no-shows. If the most important people don’t call in, at what point can you call the whole thing off? A quick survey of my telecon tips panel suggested that ten minutes is reasonable unless the person in question is very important. You should probably stay on the call for the fully-scheduled time and perhaps even longer if you’re waiting for the CEO of a Fortune 500 company. Ideally, shoot off a quick email or IM to the laggard and see if they’re still planning to attend.
Discuss Amongst Yourselves
15. Use the mute button appropriately and judiciously. How could we live without a mute button? But it’s not entirely a good thing either. If everyone’s on mute while one person is talking, the presenter might not get any feedback in the form of “mmm hmmm” or “that’s right” because everyone’s just nodding their heads… mutely.
What’s more important? Preventing your co-workers and potential customers from hearing the My Little Pony video that’s babysitting your children? Or ensuring that your every pithy comment and trenchant thought is unfettered by a mute button? You’ll have to make that decision on the fly.
16. Careful what you say even when using the mute button. It’s so important to have a mute indicator on your phone or headset because before you yell at your spouse or say something cynical about your coworker to your cat, you need to know that phone is on mute. Better yet, try to avoid saying anything even on mute that you’d be embarrassed to have heard. It may not be worth the risk.
17. Say who you are before your first few comments. If you’re on a conference call with people who don’t know you very well, you might want to say “this is Jane” before the first few comments you make. That can help people associate your voice with your name. It’s really frustrating to be trying to follow a conference call and have no idea who’s talking.
18. Don’t worry too much about household sounds. It’s getting more and more acceptable to work out of your house, so don’t feel bad if your doorbell’s ringing and the dog’s barking.
An audible toilet flush is never acceptable, so if you feel you must take a bio-break during the call without missing a single comment, make sure your BlueTooth headset and mute button are functioning properly.
19. Be productive but not distracted during the call. If you’re on the call as a sort of “just-in-case” advisor as opposed to being a central participant, you’ll want to find something to do that allows you to keep track of the conversation while moving your own projects forward.
Some people might be able to check their email and listen at the same time, but I find anything language-based distracts me from what people are saying. So what might you do? Straighten and dust your desk, do some yoga stretches or sit-ups, file and paint your nails, pet the dog, or fold your laundry.
20. Have a ready-made excuse in case you do get distracted. I know, you are checking your email, aren’t you? And you don’t know what they’re talking about when they asked for your opinion.
Be ready with a likely-sounding excuse. “My secretary just came in and asked me something” is not very believable for the home-based web worker. How about, “I had to pick up an urgent call on my cell phone” or “sorry, I was just looking up a blog post that I thought would be relevant to the discussion.” And then add, “what did you want my comment on?”
Don’t call attention to the fact that you work at home though. Excuses like “I was just cleaning my toilet” or “my chili needed stirring” don’t portray you as the most dedicated pencil in the cup.
21. Take notes to keep yourself focused. If you do find yourself daydreaming and losing track of the discussion, try taking notes. I use a simple text editor to take notes. Some people like to do mind mapping. Pen and paper can be fun, if you like the tactile sensation of writing and the ability to doodle–though doodling can be distracting too.
22. Use instant messaging as a backchannel to get the most out of the call. It’s not rude to instant message your colleagues while on a call. In fact, it can ensure that you get the most you can out of the discussions. It can be a good way of checking out things before saying them (if you’re a subordinate member of the team) and also a way of letting the organizer or the person who talks the most know that you want to say something.
23. Don’t use a “clicky” keyboard. Sometimes you’ll need to use the backchannel and talk at the same time. If your keyboard is too loud people will hear you typing, which is not ideal (though not rude either, because taking notes during a con call is always acceptable). My Microsoft wireless keyboard is quite loud, so I switch to my MacBook Pro’s built-in keyboard during conference calls.
24. Don’t be afraid of interrupting. The conversational dynamic of conference calls can be difficult, lacking as it is in body language cues as to who wants to talk or who might have some disagreement with what’s being said. Though ideally discussion will take place with regular turn-taking you’ll sometimes have to talk over people to make your point. Wait for a pause, if you can, but if the discussion is moving on, speak up–add an “excuse me” if you need to–and make sure your mute button is off, or you’ll feel really frustrated.
Goodbye, Talk to You Soon
25. Close with a summary of action items. If the conference leader doesn’t do this and you are a bold sort, you might want to summarize what happens next before everyone hangs up.
26. Follow up by email. On the scale of intimacy, conference calls are probably below email and just above a comment on a blog. You were talking to these people for a reason… if you might want to connect with them in the future, send a quick thank you note or ask a clarification question after the conference call to make the relationship more real.
27. Look forward to the future of teleconferencing. In the future, we’ll not only see companies and soloists saving money by choosing the VoIP route, we’ll also see a unification of voice and web conferencing. Imagine the cost savings you’ll achieve when everyone has VoIP. Imagine much better cues (via your computer) about who is talking at a given time and who is waiting to speak. Imagine being able to transparently switch from your mobile phone onto your PC during a conference call.
What is your favorite gear for conference calls? Favorite software? How do you ensure you get as much out of conference calls as possible?