Let's face it, conference calls can be awkward. Weird sounds. Dead air. Something about not seeing the people you're talking to (and their nonverbal cues, like facial expressions and hand movements) makes it harder to communicate.
But it doesn't have to be that way. Here are some conference call etiquette guidelines, including do's and don'ts so you can have smoother meetings.
1. Get Communications Tools You Can Depend On
Dropped calls are annoying, especially when you're having a conversation with a large group of people in different locations. That's why you need to make sure your phone system is fully functioning and capable of handling large conferences before you dial in. Nothing screams unprofessional more than an inability to manage your own company's communications tools.
If you're looking for a new phone system, narrow your search to ones that offer up times of nearly 99.9%. (For more info, read our blog on hosted VoIP phone services and five 9s availability.) That way, the chances of your call dropping will be essentially zero. Also, look for providers with HD voice to enhance the voice quality of the conversation. It will help eliminate the crackling static that can derail a conference during an important moment.
2. Be Upfront About Call Disruptions
The ideal conference call meeting should take place indoors in a quiet area. But if you're on the go, you may have to dial into calls from a remote location with background noise. It's key that you relay this information to the parties you're talking to:
Apologies for the noise. I'm standing out on the street near traffic and will put myself on mute until I need to speak.
If you fail to acknowledge the background noise, participants may assume that something is wrong with their phone system, or that you're being flat out disrespectful. Be upfront about your situation and avoid situations where the conversation is sidelined as everyone asks where the distracting noise is coming from.
3. Establish Who's Participating
Before the call, make sure everyone is aware of who will be attending. It's a good idea to send out a Google Calendar or similar electronic invite so that everyone can see who's coming, along with the time, the date, and an agenda.
If you’re conferencing with people who’ve never met, spend a few minutes at the beginning of the call making introductions. Allow each person to state their name, title and department.
This courtesy is more than good etiquette, it’s good business practice so everyone knows the members of the team and their roles. For more info, read The Step-by-Step Guide to Chairing a Business Conference Call.
4. Supplement with Video
Some conferences are still made from desk phones, via voice alone. The lack of visual cues, such as body language, is perhaps the most significant barrier to communicating effectively.
To counteract this, encourage participants to use video calling apps like Skype or the OnSIP app to stream video directly from your laptop. And consider installing cameras in the meeting rooms where team members gather so others on the call can get a visual sense of the conversation's flow.
5. Resist the Temptation to Multi-task—It’s Good Conference Call Etiquette
Ever been on a call when someone hears their name and asks for a comment or question to be repeated? We all have. It’s easy to think you’re being productive by answering a few emails during a lull. But if multi-tasking distracts you from the purpose of the call, you can end up wasting everyone’s time. Instead, keep the meeting top of mind so you won’t have to ask anyone to rewind the conversation.
6. Speak Loudly and Clearly
Even the deepest of voices can be difficult to understand during a call. When you speak, slow down the rhythm of your speech, take pauses, and most importantly, speak loudly when you talk into the speakerphone. And if you’re not sure what to say during the meeting, follow our conference call script samples.
If you have a soft voice, sit as close to the phone as possible. And if you still aren’t being heard, consider buying a conferencing phone that comes with detachable wireless microphones to spread out around the conference room.
7. Account for Dead Air
Silence is fine during an in-person meeting, but on an audio call, the quietness can lead to confusion. If the air is dead long enough, participants will try to figure out what’s causing the silence (especially if there’s no video). Technical difficulties? Boredom? Distraction from a package delivery? Speaker on mute? Or someone is trying to digest what was just said to figure out a solution. If you're in a situation where a direct answer is expected but not immediate, describe the actions you're taking:
I'm just logging into my email now. OK. Searching for Karen's email. Here it is. You're right, the profit margin was 4.9% last year.
By narrating a small sequence of events, you can actively tell the other participants that you're still engaged in the call. And if that's not possible, politely say:
That’s definitely an idea worth considering. Let me do some research after the call and get back to the team tomorrow.
This kind of skillful management shows that you have superior conference call etiquette.
8. Save Specialized Conversations for Offline
If you're in a meeting with 15 people, and you and another participant get into a lengthy discussion that doesn’t require input from the rest of the team, ask that person for a follow-up call. Eating up the meeting's oxygen with a specialized topic wastes the time and patience of everybody else on the call.
If you expect you’ll be asked to discuss a specialized topic with one of the participants, come prepared with a brief blurb on the matter, and then offer to schedule a private meeting to discuss the issue separately.
Jim, let's take this offline and report back to the team during our next meeting.
9. Establish What Was Accomplished When Finished
When the call is coming to an end, reach a consensus about what was achieved and any next steps. This makes sure that everyone is on the same page before signing off:
OK, so Hank—you're going to research venues for the annual sales kickoff meeting in Atlanta on August 9. Susan is going to find a keynote speaker. And I'll put together an agenda with last year’s highlights and our adjusted goals.
10. Leave the Conference Call Meeting with a Goodbye
Always sign off from a conference call with a formal goodbye. It's a phone call after all, and you would do the same thing if you were talking with a person one-on-one. Even if you didn't say much, throw in a send-off to make your presence felt.
Schedule another meeting if necessary. If you don't, at least establish what would warrant another call ("...when we finish the PowerPoint"). And lastly, follow through with any promises you made during the call. Email people who need to be emailed. Check the items that need to be checked.
With these tips in mind, you might be able to avoid a call like this one lampooned by Tripp and Tyler: