Running productive teleconferences

Your marketing team is based in Chicago, and you work from your home office in Denver, and the salespeople work from remote field sites all over the globe.  You need to connect voice-to-voice to discuss next quarter’s sales efforts and don’t have the budget to travel to a central location.  It takes a great deal of energy attempting to connect with each person individually.  Teleconference, to the rescue! 

Teleconferences can be a great way to connect virtual teams from around the world.  They are less expensive than face-to-face meetings, often take less time, and allow teams to communicate more informally, ask questions, and solve problems better than through email.

Holding one should be a no-brainer.  What can be so hard about a group of people talking on the phone?  All you have to do is connect everyone on the phone and make decisions as if you were in person, right?  That’s exactly the dilemma: this is NOT your normal phone call.  A teleconference is a meeting.  To pull it off, you’ll have to do more than pick up the phone.  You’ll have to prepare for it in the same way you would a meeting, with a few extra details.  It’s especially complex if some participants are meeting face-to-face while others are remote.

To make sure your next teleconference is successful and the least energy-draining as possible, follow these guidelines:

·       Since you’re coordinating the calendars of several busy people, scheduling a teleconference can take many days.  Give yourself at least one week before the desired meeting day to find a time convenient for all. 

·       A teleconference can become unmanageable with more than ten people, so try to limit the number of participants to those whose presence is truly required.  Include people who can make a significant contribution to the discussion, and copy people “who need to know what’s happening” on the minutes following the call. 

·       One week prior to the meeting, solicit input for items to add to the agenda.  Send out a detailed meeting agenda at least two days prior to the call, specifying the meeting objective and decisions to be made.  Don’t forget to send all documents, notes, and pre-work or reading required prior to the call.  Keep the process simple and the schedule short.  Most people can’t pay attention while listening and looking out into space for more than about thirty minutes.  If you have more issues than time, plan several teleconferences to discuss different goals.

·       Include the teleconference phone number and PIN number with the messages one week before, two days before, and the day of the meeting.

·       Test out the teleconferencing equipment days prior to the actual meeting.  Conduct a few trial runs with the other locations, to ensure you can hear them and they you.  Surprises are not fun on the day of the meeting and frustrated participants have to sit around while you troubleshoot the equipment.

·       The person who calls the meeting can act as the “voice traffic controller,” or another person may be appointed.  The facilitator is responsible for keeping the meeting moving and on track.  The facilitator notes the topic to be discussed based upon the timed agenda and asks specific people to report out.

·       Before you speak, remember some people may not recognize your voice.  Even if you think “everyone knows me,” always begin with “This is Laura,” and then speak.  When you pick up the conversation again, repeat, “This is Laura again.”

·       Don’t be afraid of silence.  Because the phone is devoid of facial expressions, you can’t always read emotion.  Someone may be formulating a question in his or her mind and need another minute to chime in.  Silence doesn’t always imply consent.  Make sure someone has finished speaking before you begin, lest you interrupt others mid-sentence.

·       If a group of people are meeting in the same room, with other remote sites dialing in, try to make the virtual participants feel included.  If someone cracks a joke and busts the group up with laughter, let the others know who said what and repeat the joke.

·       Use the “mute” feature of the phone when you’re not speaking, so participants can’t hear your background music or barking dog.  Some systems allow the facilitator to “mute all” participants, taking them off mute at selected times to ask or respond to questions.

·       Be present.  “I’m sorry, I wasn’t paying attention; could you repeat the question?” is an all-too-common phrase heard during calls.  Don’t risk looking unprofessional.  Stay focused.  As good as you think you are at multi-tasking, the conscious mind is not capable of reading email and listening to a speaker at exactly the same time.  Surfing the net or pressing the mute button so you can carry on another conversation effectively removes you from the meeting.

·       Keep side conversations to a minimum.  It’s frustrating as a remote teleconference participant to hear “babbling” in the background.  It’s difficult to distinguish the actual speaker from the other noise and sounds like a constant echo on the line.

·       Read all pre-work and be prepared to participate actively in the conversation.  Just because no one can see you doesn’t mean your voice won’t be missed if you’re silent.

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