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10 Tips for Making Your Conference Calls More Productive - By Yael Zofi

Posted by user, unknown at Monday, 04/30/2012 3:11 pm
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3.2 from 31 votes
Yael is the author of A Manager's Guide to Virtual Teams, and a regular contributor for the Contract Workorce and Talent Exchange Community. She posted some great tips on teleconferencing that I thought I'd share.

1.Select a facilitator who can keep things moving. The facilitator of the teleconference is not necessarily the leader, but could be. The key is to choose someone who is a skilled facilitator rather than a lecturer or manager, someone with these characteristics: skills in group dynamics and language; able to construct relevant questions and sensitive to balancing work issues with participants' time constraints. Consider having note taker and time keeper roles shared or rotated so calls can be more efficient. And, start and end meetings on time so people have fewer excuses to miss them.

2.Distribute the agenda beforehand. Treat the conference call as if it were a meeting. Prepare and distribute the agenda and any other documents pertinent to the meeting before the call takes place. Keep the group focused on the agenda and on the time.

3.Identify the objectives up front. Ensure that participants are aware of the desired end results.

4.Have ground rules in place at the beginning.
• Make sure that callers says hello and introduces themselves.
• Say your name each time you speak.
• Use your mute button to eliminate background noise.
• Focus your comments and keep them short.

5.Give feedback to participants. Tell them what they did well on the call and where they need to shift. Do this halfway through if the call is not going well, or at the end if things ran smoothly.

6.Ensure that everyone is treated with respect. Your job as the facilitator is to protect the self-esteem of participants on the call. Facilitators should be objective, so don't criticize anyone or allow anyone else to be attacked. In addition, do not let one person dominate, or hog air time. Keep track of who is actively participating, and engage silent individuals in the discussion.

7.Intervene immediately if you believe things are running off track. Nicely, but firmly, intervene if a participant is not following the ground rules. For example: "Thanks, Bart for making that point. Let's note it for later since it's not part of today's agenda."

8.Maximize the entire group's input. Be sure to get everyone involved. Ask yourself: is this phone conference necessary, or could today's business be just as easily conducted in a series of emails? If you deem the call useful, make sure it's an interactive experience for everyone.

9.Debrief at the end. Ask team members whether they found the meeting valuable. See how well it matched your agenda and intended outcomes. Conclude the call as you would any meeting, summarizing, confirming decisions and reiterating future steps.

10.Evaluate what worked and what didn't before planning the next teleconference. Was every participant essential? Could the issues have been handled by email? Was this precious time used to brainstorm, resolve differences and make decisions? Make sure everyone's time was well spent.

It is easy for team members to stay in the background and impassively witness a conversation in e-mail strings and conference calls. In the virtual workplace, a lack of contribution is less noticeable than at on-site meetings. Even motivated team members may be quiet during these times. I refer to colleagues who do not contribute during conference calls as Silent Riders. Silent Riders may fulfill their responsibilities, but may need an extra push to join the discussion. To encourage quiet team members to speak up, you may need to try several approaches. Ask questions to keep the conversation alive. Or you can do a round-robin to hear from every attendee. Alternatively, you can occasionally ask a specific participant a question ("Alex, what do you think?").

If you are dealing with global language barriers, Silent Riders may need an extra nudge. One of my clients, a virtual manager at an international insurance conglomerate, had to conduct regular conference calls with ten people from five different countries in Asia. During his first call, few team members spoke, and he found the added difficulties of language barriers and background noise made it even more difficult to communicate. Together we came up with these guidelines to draw out his Silent Riders.

I like the saying, "None of us is as smart as all of us." Keep that saying in front of you as a reminder that the results of encouraging more reticent team members are worth the extra effort of engaging them. In addition, you cannot assume that every member on the call has all the relevant information, since the team is a fluid entity, with members leaving and arriving because of ongoing projects and commitments. Also, consider the kinds of questions that new team members participating in their first call might have. For instance:

•Were important points about the topic made on previous calls?(In other words, what is the history of an ongoing conversation?)
•What is this call supposed to accomplish?
•Who is responsible for specific agenda items and who is knowledgeable about key issues?
•Do I know what our team's specific acronyms and shorthand mean?
Conference calls are indispensable for moving complex projects along, especially in the virtual environment. It is up to you to create the context for meeting attendees to connect the dots to the bigger picture and drive your virtual team success.

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