If you work with colleagues or clients in different locations, you probably hear a disembodied voice telling you to press the pound key multiple times per day. Conference calls are a necessary evil of distributed teams, but perhaps their worst sin is dragging on and on. Here are seven ways to spend less time on the phone:
The shortest conference call is one that never starts. If you’re just sharing information, write a memo instead. You may assume people won’t read it, but plenty of people aren’t listening on conference calls either.
While meeting rooms put a physical limit on participation, you can add as many people as you want to a phone call. That’s not necessarily a good thing. More people means more distraction and more chances for barking dogs and flushing toilets. A good rule of thumb: If someone would be able to play a game of Solitaire during the call, she shouldn’t be on it. Keep it to a handful of active participants at most.
All meetings need a purpose. But knowing what you need to talk about is different than knowing exactly when you will talk about each topic and for how long. Set an end time. Don’t automatically schedule the call for an hour. If you’ve got 42 minutes of material, go ahead and schedule a call for 42 minutes. While people might laugh, an odd end time will remind people that there is an end time, and you intend to take it seriously.
One of the banes of conference calls (and meetings generally) is that people don’t read distributed material beforehand, thus forcing everyone to sit through an explanation. You can send material out far ahead of time, but people will still procrastinate. Another approach is to gain a reputation for randomly asking people questions about the material that will put them on the spot.
Much confusion happens in conference calls as people start talking at the same time and talk over each other. If you work with quieter sorts, you risk the opposite problem: long periods of silence as people try to figure out who should pipe up first. The call leader needs to call on people by name, rather than asking if anyone has questions or wants to chime in. This is the upside of smaller calls. You can actually ask everyone what she thinks.
Some people swear by strict limits to how much any person can talk (say, 30 seconds at a time). But you can achieve the same goal without singling people out, or cutting off a useful question, by sticking to the agenda times. If someone is blabbing on, you remind him, "Hank, we’ve got 30 seconds before we’re moving on. Jack did you want to respond?" Set an audible chime to sound at the end of each item, and at the end of the call. That way it’s not you cutting people off. It’s the chime!
People may want to make silly comments, or bring up questions. The problem is that interrupting people stretches out calls. Instead of forcing participants to be strictly business, a chat window (via IM or web conferencing software) lets people see these remarks and lets the moderator address questions or concerns without multiple people talking at once.
[Image: Flickr user Roger Schultz]