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Career and Interview Tips

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.

Call Etiquette

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!

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