When I recently asked the CFO of a major retailer if he’d had time to do some “homework” I’d assigned him, he told me, “No, but it’s okay, I can do it on my conference call!”
If the CFO of a Fortune 100 company is busy working on something else during conference calls, then you probably are, too. In one recent study, over 60% of people confessed to doing other work and sending emails while on conference calls. It’s understandable. Even more so than meetings, conference calls are basically open invitations for people to check out and label it “multitasking.” It doesn’t help that you can’t see the people on the other lines, or that many teleconferencing systems are garbage–with crackly sound, voices fading in and out, weird volume problems, the list goes on.
But believe it or not, these are largely surmountable hurdles. You may not be able to upgrade your company’s telecom hardware on your own, but you can speak in a way that sounds clearer and commands more attention. If you want to keep people tuned in to what you’re saying, you need a plan. Here’s where to start.
When you speak in long, complex sentences, people are more likely to get confused, bored, or both. So cut them down. When you speak in short sentences, you instantly give your delivery more emphasis and rhythm–and you still sound natural. By keeping your sentences brief, you’ll create the momentum you need to keep listeners (whether in the room or on the other line) as engaged as possible under the circumstances.
When you have a message you want to get across on a conference call, you actually need to be redundant. It sounds counterintuitive, I know: Why repeat yourself when you’re trying to grab, not lose, people’s attention? But since the sound and connection may fade in and out, and with all the inevitable distractions you’re competing with, it’s actually helpful to reiterate your point more than once.
You need to assume that some of what you’re saying just isn’t going to get through. So go over your key points quickly yet frequently. Think of them as road signs that remind your audience where you’re heading: If you don’t check in every so often, they might get lost. You don’t have to repeat the message in the same exact way every time, but reinforcing your ideas is a must when so many other factors (both technological and human) are conspiring against you.
Conference calls often sound like one person droning on for a while, then that person makes way for somebody else to do the same. One way to fix that is by adding dialogue to your speaking. It’s a simple way to take what you’re saying from black and white to color. For example, instead of just saying, “The customer said that we provided terrific service,” you could say, “The customer said, ‘Wow, you guys have terrific service!’” By “getting into character” as the customer, you add some contrast to what you’re saying and come across as much more interesting than if you simply reported customer feedback.
Of course an audio-only teleconferencing system won’t pick up your hand gestures, but just because no one will see them doesn’t mean they aren’t useful. In fact, gestures are universal to human communication–even people born blind use them. Gesturing while you speak can add rhythm and emphasis to your voice, which can help you be understood and engaging no matter how bad the audio might be.
It can also add enough color to your voice so that people feel you’re speaking with them instead of at them–and yes, that feeling comes through, even over the phone.
You knew this one was coming, didn’t you? But it’s not quite the same as just saying, “Speak up.” Some teleconferencing systems will make you sound faint and thin, while others will have you bellowing into someone’s headset thousands of miles away. So while you may be at the mercy of the volume controls on whatever technology you’ve got to deal with, you can control your own voice.
How? Download a phone app that measures the decibel level of your speaking voice. There are various free options out there: Decibel 10th (for iOS) is one, and Sound Analyzer (for Android) is another. Human voices sound best at between 60 and 70 decibels, so do some testing and see where you fall on that scale, then adjust accordingly. After all, the other strategies I mention are irrelevant if your audience is tuning you out because you’re either too quiet or too loud.
While 75% of senior managers believe video conferencing will eventually replace traditional audio conference calls, the audio calls may die a slower death than many would hope. Technological and cost barriers often keep shoddy systems in use inside businesses for a long time. So in the meantime, stick with these five tips, and you’ll lower the chances of listeners doodling, daydreaming, or texting their friends while you’re trying to make a point.