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Collaboration and Communication

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Effective conference calls: yes, it's possible

David Horowitz

Conference Calls. Just reading those words gives most of us the chills. Without a doubt, a host of negative feelings just crossed through your mind. Frustration. Misunderstandings. Boredom. And perhaps worst of all: "Can you hear me now?"

If Dante rewrote the inferno, I’m pretty sure the first circle would be conference calls.

- Umair Haque

This hilarious video sums up how most of us feel about conference calls:

Yet despite the pain they cause, conference calls are also an inescapable part of the modern work routine. Given this reality, it's important to ask ourselves "what can we do to make conference calls work just a bit better?"

The big first step

According to Lisette Sutherland, online collaborative community specialist and author of the upcoming book Collaboration Superpowers, one of the first things you can do to drastically improve your conference calls is to turn on the video cameras. According to Lisette:

Many people resist using video, but we’re simply more engaged and communicate better when we can see body language and gestures.

Most of us have heard the claim that 93% of communication is nonverbal. Whether or not it's true, the more you participate in audio-only conference calls, the more Lisette's "video first" recommendation will resonate with you.

But what if your company already uses video conferencing and yet you still feel the pain of virtual conversation? What else can you do?

As with most complex problems, there's frustratingly no silver bullet. Yet most teams suffer from the same set of common problems on most calls. What's a conference caller to do?

A self-help guide

Perhaps the best way to improve the quality of your conference calls is to get some quick wins. With that in mind, Lisette has compiled a list of common problems and their solutions that are well worth your time to read through and internalize.

If you find it useful, you might even want to print it out, laminate it, and stick it on your conference table as a handy "cheat sheet" when things go bad. And they will go bad!

So without further delay, here's Lisette's list of conference call problems and their solutions.

ProblemSolutionBad connection

  • If the connection is bad, you are doomed! Start over and try again :)

Technical challenges

  • Use great equipment
  • Have a back-up process if for some reason, your tool doesn’t work
  • Arrive early and test equipment
  • Run a dress rehearsal to test technology, lighting, and connection
  • Have someone other than the facilitator in charge of dealing with technical issues that come up
  • If you have a mix of co-located and distributed participants, use the Buddy System (remote person has someone to reach out to when something goes wrong)

Too much background noise

  • Use noise canceling headsets
  • Agree to meet in quiet places
  • Mute yourself when not speaking
  • Disable tones and announcements

Unengaged/bored participants

  • Make agenda accessible to everyone
  • Build in personal time by arriving early
  • Start with an icebreaker question
  • Stop the updates where you read to each other around the table.
  • Select people to answer questions. Make sure everyone gets a chance to speak.
  • Implement ELMO
  • Use collaborative tools to visualize your discussion
  • Keep presentations to a minimum
  • Use video when presenting (check out Personify)
  • Assign and rotate meeting roles
  • Follow-up on action items
  • Ask for feedback or conduct a "meetings" retrospective
  • Try scheduling ongoing, non-obligatory meetings
  • Good lighting helps keep people more engaged

People who take over the conversation

  • Implement ELMO
  • Have a way to indicate that you want to speak (i.e., raise hand)

People who are unprepared and/or late

  • Assign someone to send out an agenda, a reminder of expectations and login information.

Meeting goes in too many directions

  • Have a facilitator
  • Keep time
  • Use a virtual parking lot for topics that come up that are not on the agenda
  • Reserve time at end of meeting for parking lot

Language barriers

  • Use a backchannel so people can ask questions and post information without interrupting the speaker
  • Using video to read lips is helpful

Time zone issues

  • Rotate meeting times to share the pain
  • Double check your time zone
  • Decide on a time zone and talk only in that time zone on your team

We'd like to thank Lisette for the rights to reproduce this list on our blog. Please check out her upcoming book Collaboration Superpowers. It's filled with fascinating stories of remote teams doing great things.

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