How to Lead Conference Calls for Optimum Participation and Results

As a business professional, you will probably be called upon to plan and conduct meetings via conference call. While these conference calls will never fully replace the need for the face-to-face meeting, they are a necessary tool for communication and decision making in a faced paced project environment.

Meeting Success Starts with Leadership

We may all be more comfortable within the setting of a traditional meeting, where visual clues can help us charter a course through conflict and internal politics, but if managed properly, the conference call can also be an effective form of project communication.

Preparation is the key to managing any productive meeting, but thorough preparation is vital to the success of any conference call. The road to preparation begins with the agenda. In addition to ensuring the very quality and structure of agenda itself, the conference call leader must also have the agenda ready in sufficient time for advance distribution. In a conference call situation, you cannot simply dash into the conference room at the last minute, agenda copies in hand, fresh off the copier or printer. You must set aside sufficient time to place the agenda online, or to fax or e-mail copies to all meeting participants well in advance of the meeting start time. And, to ensure full participation and attendance, your agenda should include all vital statistics about the call, including dial-in numbers, passcodes and related information. You can almost guarantee that your call will get off on the wrong foot if participants lack the correct information to join in on the meeting. 

"A picture is worth more than 1,000 words".  Get an illustrated view of meeting planning with our informative infographics Recipe for Meeting Agenda Productivity and Tools for Committee Action (Meetings, Motions and Minutes).

Meetings Matter: Getting Ready to Lead

As the leader of a conference call, it is your obligation to ensure that all participants are aware of the expected conference call etiquette. Have you ever been part of a conference call where effective communication is interrupted by "music on hold" or those "clicks" that can only be typing sounds. This can be frustrating to all parties, but with the creation of ground rules for call participation, you can achieve a more productive, courteous and timely meeting. 

Here are a few meeting guideline examples….

  • Call in on time, and announce yourself as you join.
  • Do not interrupt the call if you are late, wait for a break and then announce yourself.
  • No cell phones or music on hold.
  • Put your phone on mute to block any noise when you are not speaking.
  • State your name before speaking.
  • Be prepared for the meeting with copies of the agenda and any other relevant materials.
  • Be courteous, do not talk over the voices of others and be mindful of meeting timelines.
  • Make your comments and questions brief, relevant, and to the point.

Level the Playing Field: Participant Locations

As you prepare to plan and lead your conference call, be mindful of the impact that physical location can have upon call dynamics. For example, if all participants in the call are remote, then as the leader, you are just another link in the call chain. In this configuration, all participants are on equal footing, and you can employ one set of call management techniques. However, project and logistical circumstances may dictate a different call configuration. As a call leader, you may find yourself in the challenging position of having some participants in the same location as you, while other participants are in various remote locations, tied in via phone. The leader is the cog in the meeting wheel. The remote participants are the spokes.

What to do when everyone is on the phone….

Maintaining control and momentum in a meeting where all participants are remote is a challenge for a call leader, but at least, everyone is on equal footing. The key to success is to establish control at the very start by reviewing the agenda, and then by sticking to it.

  • Introduce yourself as the leader, and allow all other participants to announce themselves. And, be sure to enforce the rules of conference call etiquette.
  • Always start the call on time, and conduct a roll call. Expect some late arrivals, but do not interrupt a positive flow by interrupting the discussion for anyone who joins in late. Instead, pick a logical break point to allow late arrivals to introduce themselves and to officially join the call.
  • Beyond introductions and agendas, the success of a conference call will largely depend upon the structure and purpose of the meeting, and your ability to manage the flow. Without the benefit of visual clues, such as the raised eyebrow, folded arms, rolling eyes, or the occasional exaggerated toss of a pen, a leader must rely on other indicators to keep a conference call moving along the right path.
  • The key to this strategy is to know your participants and to listen. It is dangerous to assume that silence equals agreement or understanding. You must actively ask for feedback, not from the group, but from the individuals involved. The lack of physical interaction and solitude may cause participants to become distracted. Some may feel awkward about jumping in with their own comments for fear that they may interrupt someone else who has been waiting to speak. As the call leader, it is your job to directly request feedback, structuring the call so that all voices can be heard, polling participants as needed, and challenging others to stimulate further discussion. Without visual clues, the leader must be able to sense disinterest or intimidation, and continually press forward for increased participation.

What to do when only some people are on the phone…..

Whenever the call leader and any number of participants are in one central location, and all other participants are in one or more remote locations, extra attention must be paid to those who are remote. In this scenario, the call leader must battle the exclusion factor – wherein remote participants can inadvertently be made to feel alone and alienated.

  • As the call leader, your primary obligation is to ensure that all remote participants receive copies of any and all meeting materials.
  • Have all "central" participants introduce themselves, and follow suit with all remote participants. As the call progresses, make sure all "central" participants state their names before speaking, and ensure that they speak loudly and clearly.
  • If you are in a large room, and must move the speakerphone so that someone can be heard, do not allow the person to speak while the phone is being moved. Your attempt at consideration will be lost, as remote participants are likely to hear little more than the phone in transit.
  • And, if need be, as the call leader, you need to take note of key questions and comments, and repeat them as needed for the benefit of all participants. Without meaning to, central meeting participants can easily make remote "spokes" feel excluded and isolated. In the "face to face" atmosphere of the central group, it is likely that some socializing will take place. Verbal or visual joking may occur, and remote participants cannot be part of that on an equal footing. Be sensitive to this. As the leader, it would be unwise to limit socialization, even if such limitations were possible. But, you can use your leadership skills to draw remote participants into the positive atmosphere. Take the opportunity to explain a funny situation that may have occurred. Try to create a special bond with those who are remote. Take some meeting preparation time to gain information about the locations of remote participants (i.e. weather or business events). Use this information to draw remote participants into any social elements of the conference call. Your goal is to shift the focus to remote participants from time to time. This extra bit of attention can bring out more active and enthusiastic participation, and the result may very well be a more productive meeting. 

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