The conference call is here to stay (like it or not), so you might as well know how to do it right

March 17, 2020
man yelling at phone
BONUS TIP: Don't ever sit in a leather chair during a conference call because, well, you know why. Photo by Icons8 Team on Unsplash

*EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the first in a series of light-hearted columns that deals with life in the midst of newly difficult times.*


Welcome to a pandemic world. 

Our offices have been replaced by guest rooms, dress clothes swapped out for sweatpants and our toughest business negotiations now involve telling a 6-year-old that 12 hours is probably enough Netflix for one day.

But just because our environments have changed doesn’t mean we have to be less productive. In fact, sometimes it's these kinds of situations that force us as human beings to really tap into our brains and think outside of the box, and by that I mean replace meetings with conference calls. 

I’ll give you as long as you’d like to groan.

Now that we’ve accepted that phone calls and web meetings are the way we’re going to be interacting with our colleagues for the (un?)foreseeable future, it’s probably a good time to go over the proper conference call etiquette. So here are 10 tips that will ensure your meetings are not only more productive but will also allow you to enjoy that forgotten guest room, which now that you think about it, could really use some updating. 

1. Make sure you have a clear agenda.

Having a clear agenda is probably the most important rule you can follow if you want to have a productive conference call. When people know the expectations – who will be leading, what each participant’s role is, how long everybody should talk – you are far more likely to stay on task and prevent your meeting from going like this:

MODERATOR: “Thank you all for making the time to be a part of this call. Why don’t we start out with …”

BRENDA: “Did you guys see the ‘Bachelorette’ last night? I mean, was that crazy or what?”

MODERATOR: (awkward laugh) “OK, so if we could just stick to the …”

MARTIN: “I literally thought she was going to punch him. Her face when he said she was the only one for him? Dude, everybody knows you have a girlfriend back home.”

2. Stick to the expected length.

This one may seem simple enough, but it can be easy to drift, wasting valuable time. Start and end your call on time, showing all those involved that you value their time. Even Martin’s.

3. Keep your sentences short and pause regularly between ideas. 

Not only will this allow people to jump in or ask questions, but it will also force you to choose your words carefully and thus be less likely to ramble, as shown by this handy example.

INCORRECT: “You know, Wesley makes a really good point and just to reiterate what he was saying earlier – and I’ll start from the beginning, just so we’re all on the same page here – there is a real use for that kind of thinking when it comes to strategy …”

CORRECT: “I agree.”

4. Identify yourself whenever you speak. 

At least at first, until everybody gets used to the sound of one another’s voices. We weren’t all blessed with James Earl Jones’ pipes, so don’t assume everybody knows who’s speaking.

5. Don’t talk over each other.

This is just common human decency. When you’re on a conference line and you try to talk at the same time as someone else, it can sometimes cancel both out. At the very least, it can be confusing and annoying for the others on the call.

6. If you join late, don’t announce yourself.

Victor, we all know you’re notoriously tardy. So please don’t announce – at the 14-minute mark, no less – that you’re sorry you’re late, as we clearly hear a toilet flushing in the background.

Which leads us to No. 7 …

7. Use your mute button.

I can’t stress this one enough. Whether it’s your dog barking at something outside the window or to cover up your incessant sniffling, please keep in mind that the mute button is your friend. For example, listen to the difference in this scenario.

Without mute …

MARY BETH: “I like that idea, Darren, but I think we’ll just stick with what I said earlier.”

DARREN: (Laughs.) “Mary Beth, you wouldn’t know a good idea if it hit you in the … ”

With mute …

MARY BETH: “I like that idea, Darren, but I think we’ll just stick with what I said earlier.”

DARREN: (Long pause.) “Astronomical.”

8. Know the technology.

If you haven’t used the service or phone in question before, you should always do a dry run to work out any kinks. Is there static? How are the volume levels? And if you happen to use a service that includes video – which can really be a great way of adding a dimension of connectivity – make sure you understand how it works. Nobody wants to see a blank screen or the top half of your head, like you’re FaceTiming with your grandfather.

9. Let people know if you’re dropping off early.

Look, we’re busy. And sometimes we need to move on to something else before the group is finished. But rather than just hanging up, when there’s a break in the action (or even better, you can do this in an email to the moderator beforehand), let the group know you’ll be leaving the call early. That way, time isn’t wasted posing questions to a dead phone line. Not to mention, it usually serves as a subtle cue to the moderator that it might be time to wrap things up.

Which brings us to the last tip, which is …

10. Circle back afterward with decisions made on the call.

I know this might come as a shock, but not everybody pays attention all the time. So, it’s always a good idea – typically this is something the moderator will do, but if not, he or she can assign the responsibility to someone else – to send a follow-up email outlining what was discussed and any action items that might have resulted from the call. 

Like who’s going to help Darren with his resume.