Telephone meetings: The naked truth

Conference call

The laptop battery finally conked out on my flight to Gothenburg and I turned to the in-flight mag.

Once I got past the reviews of all the great places I wouldn’t get time to visit, I got to the business section and my eye was caught by some stats about telephone meetings attributed to Kevan Hall’s book Speed Lead.

Apparently, a lowly 23% of participants say they give their full attention. On top of that, 27% do other work while supposedly taking part, 13% surf the web and 8% are not even fully dressed! Does any of that sound familiar? (By the way, the full findings are on AV provider IVCi’s website – with thanks to Neville Eden who pointed me to them.)

All this got me thinking that few of us have ever been taught to run face to face meetings, let alone virtual meetings such as telephone conferences.

The results, as we all know, can be horrible. Not long ago, I was in a one-hour global call with 14 others, and by the time we’d sorted out tech issues and everyone had introduced themselves – painfully slowly – we were out of time! On another call, the leader droned on for 50 minutes, then asked for any questions. The silence was deafening, then everyone spoke at the same time, then it went silent again. And then we had to stop. A near total waste of time on both occasions.

Even so, pressure on travel budgets and carbon footprints, as well as the rise of global working and virtual teams, mean remote meetings are here to stay. So how do you really engage people and make the whole experience more productive – and enjoyable?

My big tip is to run the meeting as if you were hosting a radio phone-in.

For a start, always name-check the person you want to speak next so everyone is clear whose turn it is and who they’re listening to. It sounds basic, but it’s amazing how many times it gets forgotten and the meeting starts to lose momentum.

When you want some wider response or interaction, avoid lines like: “Is everybody with me so far?” or “Has anyone got any questions?” That can lead to excruciating silences because everyone assumes someone else is going to go first. Or you get an incoherent babble. Neither of them good radio! Instead, queue participants up to respond – and don’t be afraid to be directive: “Jack, I’ll come to your team in the US in a minute so hold that thought for a moment. First, I want to bring in a view from Borneo. Jill, I’m sure there are some reflections and challenges from you guys?”

Next time you’re listening to a radio news programme or phone-in, tune into how the presenter runs it. Whether it’s one of the big names on national radio or your humble local radio DJ, a lot of their techniques can be applied to running effective telephone meetings.

Beyond that, there are a few basics that often get overlooked:

  • Agree and circulate the agenda in advance.
  • Check the tech beforehand. And get the mobile number of your meeting support/technical person. S/he just became your new best friend!
  • When you get people to introduce themselves, get them to say what they want from the meeting and how they can help deliver that (just a sentence on each). It gives them some ‘skin in the game.’
  • Draw a diagram of who is on the call and where they are. Keep it in front of you to help you make sure you’re including everyone, not just those who might be with you in person.
  • Use your voice to best effect – it’s all you’ve got on an audio call. Vary your tone and pace. Use an upward inflection to signal a question and a downward inflection to give a command. Your voice quality can communicate concern, disappointment, enthusiasm, energy, humour.
  • Oh, and get dressed. Just in case this turns out to be a video conference!

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