Twice in the last week I’ve been on important conference calls where severe “telephonitis” set in.  “Telephonitis” is the process whereby otherwise conversant, engaged, active people become silent in the face of a group conference call.

Maybe someday videoconferencing will become the norm, but I think phone calls are here to stay – at least for the next few decades.

You probably conduct enough business with meetings by phone that this is worth correcting.  Here’s where you can start:

  1. Create an “in the room” role.  You assign someone (or have them spontaneously volunteer) to be the voice of the sentiment “in the room,” explaining to people on the phone what’s going on.  This person fills in the silences with comments like, “Yes, everyone agrees,” or “Angela, you look like you’re not convinced by that last remark, can you tell us what’s on your mind?”
  2. When silence starts to set in, start cold calling people.  This has two effects: making sure you’re hearing from people, and creating an incentive (for those who don’t like being called on) for people to speak up when they have something to say.
  3. Create a norm that when an important question comes up, you’ll go around the horn and ask everyone to say something
  4. Have people who are not “in the room” lead the call.  Keeps them engaged and validates that just because they’re on the phone doesn’t mean they are less important.
  5. Never equate silence with agreement. It’s bad enough to do this in person.  Worse still on the phone.
  6. Keep calls short.  More than 30 minutes on the phone and you’ve probably lost the person dialing in.
  7. Keep groups small.  Less than 4 is ideal, but 6 or fewer seems to work.  After that, see above.

It’s almost impossible to overestimate how hard it is for someone on the phone to stay engaged in a conversation without visual / physical cues as feedback.  And if the person on the phone is not engaged (if they are a listener) or not getting feedback (if they are a speaker), you’re missed the entire point of a meeting – to inform the people who are on the call and, often, to get their input or assent to a set of decisions.

And one last suggestion: if you’re asking people to call in to a conference call at an inhumane time (very early or very late), be religious about starting the call on time.  It’s the easiest way to show respect for people who aren’t in the room.

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16 thoughts on “Telephonitis

  1. Turning the call into a webinar, almost. I like it. It’s too bad they can’t do corporate earnings calls with aspects of these suggestions.

  2. The worst form of the conference call is when you (a consultant) are called by your client group from their conference room from a speaker phone. There is simply no way to tell who is talking and all voices sound like they are broadcasting from the center of the Lincoln Tunnel. It’s enough to drive you screaming from the room!

  3. Great Sasha!

    I especially resonate with #3 and #6 – creating a norm for expectations and participation is key. Participants know what is expected and when is the time for sharing, collaborating, and feedback. Nothing worse than the talking over phenomenon and the distant spaced out participant. #6 – Keep it on track, to the point, gather info and feedback and then get on with it.

    I”ll be sharing this with folks I know leading calls…

  4. These tips are great. Love the “in the room” approach and NOT taking silence as agreement.

  5. Make everyone dial-in. It think it’s better to have everyone dialing in than it is to have some people in a room together and some people on the phone. Those on the phone get lost.

  6. I find that using common meeting tips are powerful as well:

    – Have a real reason for the call, not just to “talk things over” or “see what people are thinking”. Those equal FAIL.
    – Have a clear and distributed agenda before the call, otherwise what are we talking about? Why am I calling in? What value will I get? I need to know so I am engaged.
    – Make sure that people do appropriate reading ahead of time so they are conversant on the subject and any decision points. If everyone needed to read the latest sales status report, but didn’t, this call is useless.
    – Have roles and responsibilities, and people with assigned duties. If you have 9 people calling in merely to listen to you, expect a lot of silence. If 3 people are assigned to provide info, 3 others are assigned to ask questions and critique, and 3 others to report on previous action items then you will get call chatter.

    It’s also ideal (a “best practice”) to follow up on the call with a summary email that lists any assigned actions, as well as agreements.

  7. We use Voxli for voice conferencing, and the addition of the text chat area gets everyone participating. Plus, it’s easy to share hyperlinks. YMMV.

  8. Distributing a real time, ‘here’s what’s going on and needs to be discussed’ agenda is key to keeping ANY meeting from sinking into the abyss of boredom. If regular reporting is the point, then appoint someone to launch questions or comments, and to specifically engage others for the same reason. And to keep the meeting moving. That is a facilitators role. Going around the room so everyone can report their numbers, stats, progress with no expectation of application is a recipe for numbness to set in. Some smart blogger should post 10 Best Practice Tips for Teleconferences.

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  10. I would add that using some kind of back channel like IM, Skype, GTalk etc… (as long as everyone is on it, or everyone who is remote and one person in the room) can be very helpful to prevent people from talking over each other, or for people to acknowledge agreement or disagreement.

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