10 Strategies for Effective, Efficient, and Enjoyable Conference Calls

I know - "Enjoyable Conference calls" sounds like an oxymoron.  

That's going to change.  

From my own experience and having seen the same patterns repeat when working with international teams, below are quick-fire strategies that when implemented will improve EVERYBODY's opinion about conference calls, as well as increase their effectiveness. 

10 Guidelines for Effective, Efficient, and Enjoyable Conference Calls

1. Only invite people who really need to be there.  

If you need to keep others in the loop for their information, that's what email is for. You can help your manager stop micro-managing and free up his / her agenda by sending him / her the notes. He / she will thank you for it. 

2. Figure out an agenda and stick to it.

If that means the call only has to be 15 minutes - great! Stay on topic, and cut people off when their time is up. Yes, this will take some getting used to, but everybody will get to practice their prioritization skills.

Consider adding "sticking to allotted times" as a performance review goal for those who need extra encouragement. 

3a. Share the agenda at least 24 hours in advance.  

People are different - some like to improvise, some like to avoid uncertainty and plan ahead. Some like to think out loud, some like to read up or reflect prior. Respect people's cultural and personality type differences and create an environment where everyone can shine and play to their strengths - that included knowing and sharing an agenda in advance.  

Yes, this may be in conflict with #2, because communication styles are not always direct and to the point, but you can circumvent that by making yourself available for people to contact you with their comments when they're ready to do so.  

3b. If necessary, separate "information gathering", "processing", and "decision-making" calls with sufficient lead / think times in between.

Since you're now sticking to agenda points, the whole conference call time will probably be the same as if trying to fit it all into one hour anyway - with better results, because everyone had time to reflect and review. 

4. Convene and cancel conference calls with at least 3 hours notice. 

This will probably make you chuckle, and I know it's not always doable, but trust me - not respecting your team members' time is a sure-fire way to get on their naughty list. Don't schedule or cancel calls willy-nilly, it's disrespectful. They prepared for that call, they maybe got up early or stayed late for that call, so not showing up or five-minute-warning oopsies should NOT be an option. 

Perhaps institute a "cancel jar" - everyone who cancels meetings fewer than x hours in advance has to get healthy snacks for local team members or buy the first round at Karaoke or something. Have some fun with that.  

5. Consider having video conferences instead. 

Especially when working with remote or international teams, seeing everybody's faces helps  

a) increase a sense of connection, and  

b) commitment to individuals' action items.  

You need to see that who you're dealing with is a person. Remember my post on in-groups and how dopamine and oxytocin make you more likely to collaborate with strangers? If you don't know your colleagues offshore, it's easy to think of them as robot-chickens. They're people, too. With families. And dinner dates. 

6. Rotate inconvenient times.

The world is a large place and time zones suck - it's always early morning or middle of the night time for one of you. Show some respect and appreciation and check timeanddate.com before you keep putting others out. Share the burden. And while we're at it:

7. Check with your internal calendars whether people are available in the first place. 

Give your team mates access to see what you've got going on - you don't want them to have to choose between three dates during the same 30 minutes, because we all know MULTITASKING DOESN'T WORK.  

Can't find a time slot that fits for everyone? CALL THEM and ask if they can switch something around.  

8. Do everyone a favor and be in a quiet environment. 

Don't commute and call. (Tweet this.)

People abroad will have a hard time hearing you over the background noise. If you're conference calling with people whose first language isn't English, they'll have a hard enough time as it is trying to follow everything you're saying.  

9. Speak slowly and enunciate.  

Agree on the language the call should be held in, and if it's English, which is likely, see 8. Be nice. Remember to ask open-ended questions to get everybody's feedback. "Does that make sense?" and "Everyone agreed?" will only ever get you a "Yes, of course." And then you're surprised if stuff doesn't get done. 

How about trying to lay out the goal, agree on the goal, and let people tell you how they can get there? Take a coaching approach and ask how you can support them and when they'd like you to check in for progress reports. They'll feel more in charge and autonomous in the process.  

10. Alert individuals when they're about to be on.  

In the real world, even though multi-tasking is a myth, people are busy and they will likely check email or fiddle with spread sheets or power-points while listening in. When you're about to call on them, say their name and alert them to the fact that they are about to be asked for input.  

I know, this will also get some getting used to, but our brains need a little heads-up to bring our focus back to the task at hand. Start doing that for one another, and your team will work more smoothly.  


Now all YOU have to do is decide which of these strategies to implement when, and whether you're going to stick to them!  Share in the comments, and add any points that have worked for you. 

Thanks to Per-Olof Forsberg for the creative commons flickr pic.