How to hold better video and telephone conference calls

The current coronavirus pandemic is forcing new ways of working for teams across the world. Many people are, perhaps for the first time, getting intimately acquainted with the wonderful world of remote working and — inevitably — video and telephone conference calls.

You might be flinching at the idea of having to hold one-to-ones, team meetings and more over the phone or web; scarred by one too many bad conference lines. You shouldn’t be. Having a conference call isn’t necessarily harder than a face-to-face meeting, it’s just different.

I’m fortunate that my career to date has prepared me for this moment. I’ve managed teams across multiple sites, and I’ve regularly led conference calls with participants in the dozens. For those new to the world of multi-site working, I thought I’d share some tips for running better video and telephone conference calls. These are all things I try to do when I’m holding conference calls. Some of these tips work for face-to-face meetings too, but they’re even more important when you’re doing things remotely.

Hygiene checks

Keep meetings short

Unless there is a very good reason, time limit your calls to no more than 30 minutes. In my experience, conference calls — especially over the phone — are harder to keep paying attention to. You have to actively listen a lot more than you would face-to-face. That can be draining, so keep your meetings short and no more than 30 minutes without a very good reason.

Use the best technology you have

If you have video conferencing, use it. Video calls are much easier to manage than telephone calls, especially with large groups. It means you can gauge people’s reactions more easily and see if anyone is signalling that they want to speak. Many video conferencing tools also let you share your screen too, so you all participants can follow along with presentations or look at something you’re working on. There are lots of video conferencing tools out there and your work probably offers one, but if they don’t you could use Google Hangouts, FaceTime, Skype or Zoom.

If you don’t have video conferencing, get a conference call line. Don’t try to merge calls together manually at the start of your meeting; if people get disconnected you will lose valuable time fixing it.

Check the tech

Check that your IT works before the call. This is especially important for video calls. If you’re using something for the first time, check it works so that you don’t end up delaying the start of your meetings.

Before the meeting

Have an agenda

Agree an agenda for your call in advance. Make sure that all the participants on the call know what the agenda is before the call starts. Either add the agenda to a meeting invite or circulate a document by email. This will help you keep the meeting focused and on time.

Circulate the documents

Send meeting papers or presentations to all participants in advance. Even if you’re only sending them just before the call, it’s one less thing that can go wrong at the very start of a meeting. If you can, make it clear in the agenda (that you circulated in advance!) which papers relate to which items.

Know who the chair is

Agree who will chair the meetings in advance. Running effective conference calls relies on someone refereeing more than they would have to face-to-face. People are more likely to trip over each other speaking because the technology isn’t perfect: the audio and video will have slight delays that don’t exist in real life. Pick someone who will rigorously ensure you stick to the agenda and one person speaks at a time. Tell everyone who that will be in advance, if it isn’t obvious.

Be early

Join the call a few minutes before it’s due to start. This isn’t just about efficiency. It gives you a chance to test your technology is working properly. It also means you don’t end up being late because you didn’t realise how complicated it was joining the meeting.

This is especially important if you’re the chair. In fact, if you’re chairing you should be the first to dial in. That means you know who has joined the call and, if you’re unlucky enough to have a conference call line that requires a chairperson pin code, it means people aren’t held unnecessarily in a call waiting queue with loud and obnoxious background music to distract them from their work.

At the start of the meeting

Do a roll-call

Check who’s dialled in. Doing this will, obviously, let you know who’s made it and who hasn’t. More importantly it helps you to structure your call and to write up a note of what was discussed.

Mute people

Tell people to mute themselves. There’s nothing more distracting than background noise on a conference call. Be ruthless in reminding people to put themselves on mute when they are not speaking. You can usually hear when someone unmutes too; a helpful signal for you as the chair that someone wants to hop in and contribute.

Some conference calling packages let you forcibly mute participants. If your system lets you do this, keep checking and placing participants on mute if it helps to keep the background noise down.

Set out the agenda

Remind participants of the agenda. It’s as simple as reading it out. This helps to set out the expectations for the call for everyone, even if they didn’t look at the agenda you circulated in advance. If you’ve included an item for ‘any other business’ this is also a good time to check who has something to raise at the end.

Check who’s speaking

Ask people to say their names before speaking. When we’re face-to-face we can usually tell who’s speaking by looking at them or positioning them in space with our hearing; no such luck on a telephone call. Getting people to say their names when they start speaking so the call is easier for everyone to follow.

Reference slide numbers

Remind presenters to say which page or slide number they are speaking to. This only really matters if the presenter isn’t showing the slides on everyone’s screen. If you’ve circulated a presentation or document in advance don’t forget to say which page or slide you’re talking about. Again, this makes it easier for everyone to follow along1.

During the meeting

Refer back to the agenda

Introduce each agenda item as the meeting progresses. Very briefly set context for the item, referring back to the agenda. This helps to maintain meeting structure and, again, makes the meeting easier for everyone to follow.

Seek specific, predictable feedback

Ask direct questions of specific people. Don’t just open up each item for general comments from everyone; that’s the fastest way to invite people to talk over each other and to lose control of the agenda. Instead, ask specific people to comment and ask them a direct question.

Don’t ask “Does anyone have any comments?”
Do ask “Dan, what do you think this means for your delivery timelines?”

For larger meetings, ask participants to speak in a consistent pattern. Use your roll-call list to ask each participant to speak in turn when you are soliciting feedback. Participants will be less tempted to interrupt if they know their chance to speak will arise predictably.

Don’t ask “Does anyone have any comments?”
Do ask Anna, do you have any other business?
Dan, do you have any other business?”

At the end of the meeting

Summarise the discussion

Recap the talking points and any actions. Make sure that actions are attributed to individuals. This means everyone leaves the call with a shared understanding of what was agreed, and has one last chance to correct the record or reassign responsibility for an action before the call ends.

Set dates for follow ups

Agree a date and time for follow up meetings. It’s far quicker to do this on the call than it is afterwards by email, instant message or poll.

Don’t hang around

When the call is done, hang up. Don’t be tempted to hang around in a sub-group to talk about something niche. It gives the impression that you’re hiding something. If you need to speak to someone, call them back.

After the meeting

Circulate the minute

Send a summary of the discussion and any actions to participants. Don’t assume your technology has worked flawlessly or that everyone was paying attention all the time. Send a written record to confirm that everyone knows what was discussed, what was agreed and what the next steps are. This doesn’t need to be a verbatim transcript of the meeting; a summary of key points is usually sufficient. This is also helpful, obviously, for those who couldn’t make the call.

That’s it!

It is not an impossible task to keep your team going just because you don’t sit next to them. Conference calls can be just as effective as face-to-face meetings. You just need to prepare for them and effectively structure them. The more you do it, the easier it will get; and who knows, by the time this pandemic is finished you might prefer them to in-person meetings!

All posts in this series

  1. How to hold better video and telephone conference calls
  2. How to be a better communicator when your team is working remotely
  1. Relatedly, don’t just read out what’s written down on the slide. It’s boring for everyone, and they can probably read it faster themselves. ↩︎