Chairing Effective Phone Meetings
Have you ever attended a teleconference that was frustrating and unproductive? You probably know how many things can go wrong – the technology is confusing or inadequate, there are too many people on the call, you don't know who else is on the phone, mute buttons click on and off, new people enter the call and interrupt the meeting, and people talk over one another.
With all this confusion, there's often a lack of clarity and closure on any issue, all of which reduces the effectiveness of this potentially invaluable – travel-time- and environment-saving – communications tool.
In a face-to-face meeting, we often rely on "body language" and other visual tools to help us manage participants. But these don't exist in a teleconference, so it can be easy for the chair to seem disorganized and lose control, or otherwise cause the experience to be less than satisfactory. This is irritating for all involved, and it's clearly frustrating when these failures mean that the meeting fails to achieve its objectives. So, what can you do to ensure that the teleconferences you manage are productive and effective?
Our article on Running Effective Meetings gives simple rules and skills for running an in-person meeting. You'll need the same skills to run a teleconference, but you may have to emphasize or slightly change some areas.
Making the Teleconference Effective
When you set up a teleconference, follow two general rules:
Keep the meeting short – The shorter the meeting, the better. Brief, energetic meetings tend to be more productive and less costly than longer ones. Also, people attend them more enthusiastically and evaluate them more highly.
As well as this, your agenda should be relevant and meaningful. Make sure you can reasonably address the intended purpose in the given time frame, and specifically define your expectations. This will increase the chances of a successful meeting.
Limit the number of attendees – Keep your teleconferences to the minimum number of participants that you absolutely need. If there are too many people on the call, you won't make the best use of everyone's time. While you may routinely involve all team members in regular meetings, for teleconferences, invite only those who are truly necessary to achieve the meeting's goal.
There may be people who want to simply listen in on a meeting to know what's happening. However, if they can't add to the process and they don't actively participate, consider asking them to read minutes or a transcript afterwards, rather than "attend." (You can point out that this will typically take much less time!)
Outsourced transcription agencies can often be surprisingly quick and cost-effective, if you choose to record the call.
We'll now look at some details you need to plan for your teleconference.
Before the Teleconference
Consider these areas before your teleconference begins:
- Scheduling – Unlike face-to-face meetings, your teleconference participants may be in different time zones. Check for this when you schedule the meeting (www.timeanddate.com has some very useful features here.)
- Agenda – Share your agenda in advance. This is even more crucial for teleconferences than for in-person meetings. Allow plenty of time for participants to respond if they'd like to change any agenda items.
- Technical directions – Clearly communicate to all participants how to access the teleconference. Also, set up and test equipment well in advance. And make a backup plan for technical problems.
- Meeting protocols and rules – For teleconferencing, this is a big issue. Communicate to each attendee your policies on the following:
- Introductions – You may simply have all participants give their names, or you may need to introduce people: your attendees really want to know who else is on the call! You might also add some sort of introductory remarks to help everyone focus on the meeting.
- "Latecomers" – Insist on promptness, and don't spend any time reviewing topics if someone "arrives" late. Teleconference systems often include an announcement of who has just joined the meeting, and this can be extremely disruptive if people are late. In some situations (for example, where issues being discussed aren't confidential), consider turning this off, if you can.
- Phone "mute" button – Turning on and off a mute button can disrupt the meeting. But if participants have something else going on in their offices, it's important for them to use the mute button so others don't hear it. Where they have one, ask people to use the mute button on their phones instead, or get people to mute and "unmute" their phones at the same time.
- Multitasking by participants – Ask people to avoid doing other things during the meeting. You can't control their behavior, since you're not in the room with them, but a teleconference requires solid focus. Try to structure the meeting tightly, so participants keep their attention on the call and don't start checking emails or doing other work. If you're teleconferencing between teams, with several people on one phone, it may be best to set up a special room with the teleconferencing equipment. This ensures that the team has quiet surroundings and few distractions.
- Structure for communicating – Do you allow each team member a certain amount of time to speak? Is there a sequence of speakers, and then an open discussion – or is the discussion open at all times? How will people know it's OK for them to speak? Inform participants of the structure and process in advance.
During the Teleconference
Before looking at specific suggestions, let's consider the personality of the chair or moderator. The best teleconference meeting managers are those with engaging voices, and those with the strength of character to engage everyone on the call and quickly win their trust. Maintaining active participation is key to obtaining your goals: a boring "lecture" by the chair can quickly cause participants to lose interest.
Note that this doesn't mean you have to be loud or too lively. You just need to do the following:
- Consider the comfort, buy-in, and enthusiasm of the participants. A teleconference – even more than an in-person meeting – must hold their attention and offer variation in content and form.
- Practice your speaking – you need clarity, enough volume, and variety both in your tone and in the rhythm of your speech.
- Consider ways to make participants feel safe and respected.
- Follow your own rules, and be consistent in providing summaries of what has just been discussed or decided.
- After the meeting, ask for an evaluation of your work – from a few participants, or a trusted colleague.
Once everyone is connected and you've started the meeting, keep a few basics in mind:
- Have people state their names – Where appropriate, say your name before you speak, and ask others to do the same.
- Interrupt when necessary – Depending on your policy on time limits, you may not want people to talk for a long time. In a teleconference, the chair sometimes has to politely interrupt: "Bill, can you quickly summarize your points?" or "Susan, we're running out of time on this topic, so please make the point, if you can." After the person has finished, it can be wise to thank the speaker, and make a positive connection between his or her statements and the topic under discussion. This way, you show respect for his contribution. If you frequently have participants who talk for too long, you may want to assign someone to monitor each speaker's allotted time.
- Allow everyone to speak – It's easy for some people to listen to a teleconference without contributing, so be sure to call on everyone. Of course, if dozens of people are involved, this may be impossible. Again, try to keep your teleconferences to a reasonable number of people. Eight or ten participants can be a sensible maximum, unless you're running a session like a teleseminar, where one speaker is talking for much of the time.
- Be calm – Sometimes a discussion can get out of control, with everyone speaking at once. It's unhelpful when people – including you – start shouting to be heard. Speak in a calm voice, and ask for order. Repeat your request as many times as necessary. Eventually, the group should settle down.
- Take minutes – Record the proceedings or assign someone to take minutes. It's important to have this documentation. If someone takes minutes, check periodically during the meeting to be sure that she is keeping up.
After the Teleconference
Once the meeting ends, follow these steps:
- Send all participants a copy of the minutes or the transcript.
- Give all participants a way to give you feedback on the meeting's process and achievements. Ask for comments on technical aspects of the teleconference. Then, don't forget about their suggestions – try to use the helpful ideas in your next meeting.
- Think about ways to assign team members to work on action items in pairs or small groups. This promotes unity and helps team members get to know one another between meetings – which can make the next teleconference easier.
Running effective teleconferences takes the same skills as any successful meeting. But you must make some changes to areas such as scheduling, sharing the agenda and meeting rules, and managing the "virtual" discussion.
Limit your teleconferences to small groups and short time spans. This helps participants focus more effectively and be more productive – and it saves you money. A strong teleconference chair is calm, perceptive, engaging, and in control. This quickly wins the trust of participants and keeps the group interested.