Facilitation skills: Conference calls

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

By Carolyn Crawford
According to a 2004 survey from Raindance Communications: 90% of people multitask while on conference calls; 70% do unrelated work emails, texts and instant messaging; and a bunch of folk are eating, muting to have side conversation, and surfing the net. It would be fair to conclude that Conference Calls are a complete waste of time.

So how do we combat this problem?

Let’s set an important context before looking at specific strategies: Whether you are using audio, video or Webex, this is a MEETING with virtual participants, not a TELEPHONE CALL with lots of people. This means that all the planning and protocols of MEETINGS must be applied to make this discussion a success and to ensure outcomes are achieved. It means that like any meeting, the more preparation work you do, the better your meeting will be. It also means that the conference call will be as good or bad as any other meeting according to planning and processes.

Having said that below are some proven practical tips for effective Conference Calls. You don’t have to use them all but we’ve been quite comprehensive to get you thinking about all the various aspects of Conference Calling. The primary principle is to exaggerate many of the elements of facilitating or participating in f2f meetings, to compensate for the lack of visual, non-verbal and social cues that would otherwise be present. 


Invest – in good technology. Resist using cheap speaker phones. Explore headset technology. Consider all the places people are dialing in from and ensure the best chance of clear lines for each.

Training – make sure you and your colleagues are familiar and confident with the technology.

Timing – Check time-zones before sending invitations

Involve your audience – By setting up a Wiki with a draft agenda, you can get contribution and feedback in advance to help streamline the content and reduce unwanted items.

Send Out The purpose/objective; the final agenda; any prerequisite reading; and clear instructions on how to access the conference call.

Consider The Numbers A group of 3-6 people is ideal particularly for discussion and problem solving meetings. Larger groups are harder to manage, and better suited to decision-making, but are workable if they are planned and moderated VERY well.

Make An Attendee List – including where they’re from and some personal information that can be used for small-talk while waiting for additional attendees to join you.

Use Photos Of Participants – If you’re on Webex or Video this isn’t necessary but if it’s a Conference Call you may try putting their pictures near the speakerphone, to remind you who’s there and that they’re human, not a disembodied voice. It sounds corny but it works!


Arrive early – ideally get there 20 minutes early to get your notes together and check technology and logistics. You may ask a participant to also call in early to check everything’s working at their end too.

Stress punctuality – this is even more important in a Conference Call than f2f given the beeps, buzzes and confusion that takes place as newcomers join in the conversation.

Keep things quiet Conference calls can be noisy enough without having lots of distracting background noise like traffic, noisy offices or crying babies. Close your door; use a phone in a quiet area or a headset; don’t eat, drink, snore or type. Turn phones off or mute.

Have a chairperson/facilitator All meetings need a leader including phone/video/web meetings. One person should manage the call though it needn’t be the boss. This person should control who has the floor, and the flow of discussion. You may consider a separate person to take charge of the technology, and perhaps another for taking notes.

Housekeeping – check everyone’s present; introduce newcomers; have someone call anyone who’s missing or start without them; make sure everyone has the agenda and can hear; explain your role and how you’ll perform it and finally layout the rules for interaction.

Non-verbal cues aren’t present in a Conference Call so layout very clearly how things will run: who will speak; how and when you’ll take questions and invite feedback; the requirement to introduce yourself before speaking; whether you’ll go around to each individual for feedback; asking them to turn off distracting personal technology; the need for more clarifying questions and particularly positive feedback than normal to compensate for the lack of visual cues (like nods and aha’s); one person speaking at a time; no side conversations etc.


Identify Yourself Even those who know you might not recognize your voice if there’s any distortion on the line. Get in the habit of identifying yourself every time you speak or until people tell you they can recognize your voice.

Speak more slowly to give people time to digest your information. Pause. Breathe. Let people absorb. And when you ask for questions, wait several seconds before moving on.

Commentate – If you’re working with materials, let people know what page you’re on and where you’re looking on that page.

Structure the call with plenty of opportunity for discussion – It’s hard enough to maintain engagement when face-to-face. Lengthy presentations are tough on both the presenter and audience over a phone. Keep them short, and remind your presenters in advance to allow time for questions and feedback.

No Interrupting Two reasons to wait your turn to talk: first, politeness! Second, some conference bridges or speaker phones only allow one person to talk at a time.

Stick To The Agenda As with any meeting, send the agenda out in advance. If you can’t stick to it, flag what will be carried over to the next meeting and ensure that it’s followed up.

Include everyone – Ask specific questions to specific people, use people’s names in your examples, pass the ball around and encourage participation. It can be tempting to talk over people or allow others to do so. Make it clear that everyone will have their turn to speak.

Directly ask individuals for feedback In a face-2-face meeting we look at someone to cue them to respond. On a Conference Call, you have to specifically ask that person eg “Paula, what do you think of that plan?” or “Queensland, have you got any feedback on that?” Try to avoid the general question “Any comments?” Better to direct the question to individuals or groups.

Take notes – key points; key actions; and deadlines set.

Summarise and check for final comments – make sure key points are encapsulated and follow-up actions are clearly assigned, before checking for any final comments and focusing on a positive final conclusion or take-out. If necessary, schedule a follow-up meeting straight away while you have everyone present.

Limit Calls To Maximum 1 Hour Segments – 40 minutes is better still. If you have to extend it, create a break so people can stretch and refresh.


Send out the notes as soon as possible – this will keep it fresh and remind people of where to from here.

Follow up – answer any unanswered questions from the day, meet any deadlines set for you personally, chase up others’ actions if need be.

So, like any meeting, be prepared, be confident, observe and direct the flow and enjoy the process!

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