How To Run A Conference Call Without Driving Everyone Else Crazy
Conference calls are a fact of life in a distributed team environment, Robert Duffy VP of Engineering at Time Inc. talks to PowerToFly about how to survive them.
With a team distributed across three continents, we make heavy use of audio and video conferencing, it’s part of the daily rhythm of business. In any meeting that requires a group of people gathering you want to make sure that things go smoothly, and that the least amount of time is spent messing with technology or running the meeting. Conference calls are no exception and there are a couple of things you can do to help.
Equipment is key.
Buy the best audio equipment you can afford. Conference calls are about audio and the difference it makes being on a good line vs a bad line is well worth the extra spend. If you are hard to hear it can lose you business or credibility. There is nothing more frustrating than someone on a conference call that sounds like they are talking to you from the inside of a potato. If you are calling from a cell phone the biggest difference you can make is just using the manufacturer’s supplied headphones that have a mic built in.
Trial Run New Technology.
Always do a dry run of new technology before your calls. You don’t want to start using something and have it not work. If you are switching any piece of technology like a new phone, new headset or new conference line, get with a friend or colleague before your calls and try it out. It’s important to find out how you sound using the new equipment, so compare it to the old equipment. We’ve found that different voices work better on different devices, so even if a piece of technology is working for one person it might not work for others.
Speak up, and stay close to speaker phones.
Only use the speaker-phone on your cell phone as a last resort. It’s hard to listen to in a group setting and the microphone doesn’t pick up nearly as much of the conversation as you think it does. If you are going to be on conference calls frequently invest in some of the polycom gear, it’s really good.
Know Who is Driving
If your conference calls are anything like mine, you have a short time to get a lot done. It’s important to quickly identify who is driving the call and who will keep people on track. The leader should tell everyone what is going to happen, the call should happen and then the leader summarizes the actions.
If you are the leader, be early and take roll call. Know in advance who needs to be on the call to get the outcome you need. Wait for a quorum but then know you can get started early. If you have enough people on the call, ask someone to chase late-comers down while you make small talk.
Always summarize the next steps on the call and in a follow up email and make sure every action has an owner.
Have Your Intro Nailed.
Most conference calls with new people meeting each other start with “a round of intros”. Have a quick (less than 30s) intro in your back pocket and you’ll be prepared for this if it comes up. Keep your intro short and tailor it to the audience and project. I always like to let people know why I’m interested in the meeting and what I’m looking for.
Stay on mute, until you don’t need to.
Remember to place yourself on mute. There is nothing worse that trying to listen to someone speak while some other caller is typing, driving or trying to eat lunch. If someone else doesn’t mute and disrupts the call, it’s perfectly OK to say “can everyone go on mute when they are not talking”. Remember to take yourself off mute and don’t disrupt the flow of the call by fumbling for the unmute button.
Learn how to Interrupt, Let Others Interrupt You.
Interrupting in person is a bad thing, on the phone it’s a necessity because you can not always read the other person’s body languages. If you are speaking pause often enough for questions so people can ask them.
Beware of group questions.
As a rule of thumb don’t ask group questions when there are more than 5 people. Group questions, that require a round robin response are difficult to coordinate. If you do want to do this, pay attention at roll-call and ask specific people questions rather than “is everyone OK with that plan”, “how is everyone doing this morning”, etc.
Smile, Even When Not On Camera
If you are on an audio-only call it’s even more important to smile. Smiling has a surprisingly large impact in the way you speak. Get in the habit of smiling on the phone, even when you are off camera, haven’t had coffee and it’s 5am. Others on the call will subconsciously hear the difference and perceive you as being friendly and collaborative.
Don’t be Afraid to Ask
Always ask people to speak up, stop having side conversations or stop typing. I once asked a group of executives to spend the next 30 seconds clearing their lunch rather than have the call be disrupted by people shuffling sandwiches and chip bags. Don’t be afraid to ask people to stop doing something or start doing something else — of course do it politely with a smile on your face.
Make Notes of Questions You Have
Cross them off if they are answered so you don’t repeat questions. The odds are high that other people listening on the call will have the same questions as you.
And as always, have fun!
It's been six years since Sarah Cooper graced us with her 10 Tricks to Appear Smart in Meetings. But how on earth can we appear smart in our new virtual world, in which for many of us, going to work is just sitting in one long series of probably-not-necessary Zoom meetings?
1. Dial in.<p>Dialing in rather than joining via the link instantly boosts your credibility. Who calls into Zoom meetings? People who are still busy and important enough to be leaving their houses! But you needn't actually be one of those people, or even more than a foot away from your computer to pull off this maneuver. (Remember, this article is called *seeming* smart, not being smart.)</p><p><strong></strong><em>Bonus: </em>If it's a large meeting at which attendance will be taken, the person running the meeting will inevitably ask, "Who's calling in from 443-322-2121?" That's when you raise your metaphorical hand, jump off mute, and say "[Your name] here. Really looking forward to hearing your perspective on [meeting topic]." And voila! You've stolen the meeting spotlight.</p>
2. Don't come on camera—ever.<img lazy-loadable="true" src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMzQ0ODU5OS9vcmlnaW4ucG5nIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYzNjMwNjI3OX0.4fLyq2CvkZAJ7n_03esZepY37mOdyGdDdTEUYt5XEU0/img.png?width=980" id="bc7e6" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="fbbf21cc5d8c863b30654ae6993b04f5" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" /><p><br></p><p>Much like the "dial in," this technique works because it makes you appear aloof. If <em>The Crown has </em>taught me anything, it's that the key to maintaining a sense of mystique and prestige is to keep people at arm's length—and if you absolutely <em>must</em> touch them, wear a glove.</p>
3. Only communicate via chat.<p>Once you've mastered the art of staying off camera, you can level up by communicating exclusively via the chat box. Don't come off mute at all, even if the speaker asks your opinion. You are the elusive chatter and you will not be forced into actually participating in said meeting.</p>
4. Ask to share your screen.<p>Being aloof is great, but it's all about balance. Sprinkling in some active participation will really shock and impress your colleagues if you catch them off guard, so save this technique for when you've strategically <em>not </em>participated in a string of meetings.</p><p>Spend a few minutes prior to the meeting prepping a few inspirational slides with words like "synergy," "optimization," and "redefining 'culture'", or spend a few minutes poking around in Google Analytics. </p><p>Then wait for the opportune moment to say, "Can I just share my screen for a moment? I have some really interesting data I'd like to share...." and BAM — brilliance established.</p>
5. Show off your Zoom-saviness.<p>Try saying, "You know you can mute people, right?" to the host when they beg whoever's got the lawn mower and crying baby in the background to put themselves on mute for the nth time.<br></p>
6. Create an alter ego.<p>This tactic requires commitment, but the pay off is certainly worth it. Join the Zoom meeting from your normal account + name, and then join it again on a second device from an alias. Have your alter-ego ask some probing or stat-based questions in the chat and have the answers ready ahead of time. It should work something like this:</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;"><strong>Your alter ego Charlene</strong><strong>:</strong> "Does anyone know what percentage conversion rates increased by in Q2?"</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;"><strong>Real you</strong>: *doesn't miss a beat* "It looks like Charlene has a question in the chat. That would be 36%."</p><div>Never mind that no one on your team knows who Charlene is or why she's at this meeting, they'll be too blown away by your brilliance to notice. (Bonus points if you use this strategy in conjunction with techniques 1, 2, 3 or 4!)</div>
7. Place an obscure object in your background that exudes intelligence.<img lazy-loadable="true" src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMzQ0ODYxOC9vcmlnaW4ucG5nIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYwNzk5Njg2Mn0.V9_-3Ij3v_QndseqlrXRt5Nn39EJ97-itjls5zzYPf8/img.png?width=980" id="a369d" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="604a2f04b53c2e3bc801bfa5256f367b" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" /><p><br></p><p>We're talking a telescope, or perhaps a hardcover copy of <em>War & Peace </em>(no one need know that its only purpose in your life is as a makeshift yoga block).</p><p>If you don't have any suitable props at your disposal, do not despair: download some screenshots of Sheldon's apartment from <em>Big Bang Theory </em>or the chalkboard in <em>Good Will Hunting </em>and use those as a virtual background.</p>
8. Ask "Is this really the best course of action given the current climate?"<p>Economic collapse, COVID, racism… No need to specify whether you're referring to one or all of the above; just sit back and watch your boss squirm amidst the ambiguity.</p><p>This strategy pairs very well with techniques 2 and 3. You can prep additional vague-but-probing questions ahead of time and pepper them into the chat box throughout the meeting:</p><ul><li>How will this scale?</li><li>Do we really have the bandwidth for this right now?</li><li>What's the value-add here?</li></ul>
9. Remind everyone that you have a paid Zoom account.<p>"Oh, it looks like we're getting the 40-minute warning. I have a paid account, do you want to switch to my room?" It's helpful, with just a touch of condescension. Everyone knows condescending people are smart. And everyone knows that people with paid Zoom accounts are super important.</p>
10. Tell everyone you have a hard stop.<p>When pressed for details, share your philosophy on "work-from-home" balance and how committed you are to getting up once an hour to walk to your refrigerator.</p>
11. Ask the screensharer/host to "pull something up" for everyone.<p>Ask the presenter to navigate to a screen that only you know how to navigate well. Laugh maniacally while they suffer from crippling performance anxiety. Let them struggle for as long as is tolerable before saying, "Oh you know what? I can just share my screen if you want. That would probably be easier." BAM you're the hero. Don't worry, no one will even pause to consider that you could have proposed this course of action from the start.</p>
12. Say Zoom fatigue as many times as possible.<p>If you're too tired to employ any of the other strategies, just say "I know everyone is experiencing a lot of Zoom fatigue, so we can keep this meeting short." Then hang up as quickly as possible. Meeting averted! </p><p>After all, there's no better way to demonstrate your intelligence in a virtual meeting than to demonstrate why it wasn't really necessary in the first place. </p>
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