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CONFERENCE CALLS: Dialling in for success

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Business Spotlight - epaper ⋅ Ausgabe 6/2018 vom 24.10.2018

Im globalisierten Geschäftsalltag lässt sich mit einer Telefonkonferenz trotz großer Entfernungen zwischen den Beteiligten eine Besprechung abhalten. Damit diese jedoch effektiv verlaufen kann, sind einige Dinge zu beachten, wie BOB DIGNEN erklärt.


Virtual communication has a bad name in business today. Conference calls, in particular, are often seen as an inefficient and ineffective channel of communication. But virtual working is becoming increasingly embedded in modern working life, and the ability to communicate virtually is now a core competence.

In this article, we look at a ...

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... number of ways to make your audio conferences more effective and provide tips on how to conduct more engaging and productive virtual meetings.


Make sure that everyone understands the purpose and value of your conference calls.

Agree on a set of behaviours that everyone will follow during conference calls. Ensure that people stick to these “rules of the game”.

Follow up conference calls to make sure everyone has the same understanding of the decisions taken and the actions needed.

conference call [(kQnf&rEns kO:l]
follow sth. up [)fQlEU (Vp]
etw. weiterverfolgen, nachbereiten


Make personal calls to individuals in advance of important meetings in order to get people to understand what is to be discussed and have them commit their attention and energy to the desired outcomes.
Reduce the number of people invited to the calls. Once you go beyond eight people, it can be difficult to maintain a sense of team discussion.
Specify the interaction protocols

(“rules of the game”). For example, you might specify that everyone needs to actively contribute ideas and to verbalize their opinions of others’ ideas by saying “I agree” or “I disagree” rather than having ambiguous silences. Also, people could be asked to speak for no longer than two minutes before handing over to someone else.
You also need to think about logistics. Audio conference calls often fail because of very basic organizational aspects, for example people dialling in from a noisy environment or from a location with a weak or intermittent mobile phone connection.

Difficult group dynamics can unbalance the discussion, particularly when individuals call into meetings during which most of the other participants are sitting together in the same room. And timing issues need to be thought through, as it is often more challenging for those calling into meetings at the end of a long day than for those arriving fresh with their first coffee of the day in hand.


Ten techniques for facilitating conference calls

1. Dial into the meeting early , and welcome people positively and proactively when they enter the call, explaining to new joiners who is already present.
2. Deal with quality problems immediately , for example background noise, people breathing noisily into their phones, etc.
3. If you delay the start because of late joiners, encourage people to go on mute and then again on unmute at a specific time.
4. Open with a review of the aims and key points to be achieved. Acknowledge different interests and viewpoints if necessary to diffuse potential conflicts.
5. Discuss the procedure and the flexibility of the agenda. Ask people not to introduce too many alternative ideas, as this can make controlling the discussion difficult.
6. Communicate the protocols that you wish to be followed , reminding people not to speak for too long and explaining your right to interrupt.
7. Encourage participants to include “isolated” individuals who are participating in the call in an office all by themselves.
8. Manage native speakers to avoid the risk of them dominating the discussion.
9. Ask people by name to comment on the opinions of others, in order to create a group feeling and encourage teamwork.
10. Clarify frequently to support understanding by the whole group.

3. Facilitating conference calls

Because you can’t see others and gauge their levels of understanding and agreement — or their desire to contribute — it can be more challenging for facilitators to manage audio calls than face-to-face meetings. Facilitators, therefore, need to take a more directive role, guiding people through the different phases of discussion.

This starts from the moment the call begins, with the facilitator actively greeting participants and setting the tone and atmosphere by inviting small talk and participant interaction. And once the meeting starts, this direction continues with the facilitator explaining what and how things will be discussed, controlling the conversation by inviting named individuals to speak, and stepping in to stop and redirect the flow of the discussion if necessary.

Of course, all groups are different and need their own specific type of facilitation, depending on the nature of the relationships among the participants, the complexity of the discussion and so on. Take a look at the box with ten facilitator techniques and think about which you think might be most useful for your conference calls. You will find examples of the language you can use to perform these ten steps on page 46.

It is also essential to move clearly from discussion to actions, to make clear who will do what by when. And you should confirm the next meeting and make clear your expectations of what will be presented and agreed at that next meeting. If possible, spend five minutes at the end of the conference call celebrating what went well and identifying one or two things that could be improved for the next call.

4. Participating in conference calls

Facilitating international conference calls can be very demanding. As a participant, you can make the facilitator’s life much easier if you follow a few basic principles:

Speak only when necessary and “keep it short and simple” (KISS).
Always say your name before speaking , especially on calls with large numbers of people who don’t know you.
If you are a native speaker, exercise control and speak slowly and clearly. Also, encourage people to interrupt you if they don’t understand anything or if you are speaking too quickly.
Express your positive motivation and your respect and appreciation for others. Take responsibility for engaging other people in the call.
Speak up if something is not clear . Be

brave and help yourself and others; if

you don’t understand something, it’s

likely that others don’t either.

5. Following up conference calls

It is often said that the biggest risk for communication is the illusion that it has taken place. When closing an audio conference call, the facilitator can be sure of two things: some people didn’t understand what was agreed, and some people weren’t happy with what was agreed but didn’t say so. It is therefore essential that the facilitator should have short one-toone calls with key participants after the meeting. The aim of these calls is to check understanding and commitment, and to ensure that the decisions of the meeting will be implemented. Neither formal nor informal minutes will achieve this fully. Investing time in further conversation is therefore highly recommended.


6. A process, not an event

Audio conference calls should be seen less as individual communication events and more as part of a continuous communication process. Participants need to be properly prepared in advance of a discussion, directed during the discussion and then consulted afterwards. This process then feeds into the next meeting — virtual or face-to-face — and so on.

The key challenge, of course, is that this all takes time. But the question you need to ask yourself is what the cost will be — in time, money and misunderstanding — if you don’t invest this time. As Jean- Pierre discovered in our case study (see page 42), failing to invest time in the management of the communication process often causes significant damage. Why take that risk?


You can try our exercises on this topic onBusiness Spotlight Audio as well as in our exercise booklet,Business Spotlight Plus . To order, go towww.aboshop. spotlight-verlag.de

is a director of York Associates (www.york-associates.co.uk ) and author of many business English books. Contact: bob.dignen@york-associates.co.uk

Case study: Frustrating calls

Jean-Pierre works for an automotive supplier and is based in Paris. He heads a European sales team with representatives from 14 countries. On the last Friday of every month, he conducts a three-hour audio conference call from 2 to 5 p.m. to review the sales performance in each country and plan ahead for the coming month. The local heads of sales and at least one of their local team members are expected to take part in the calls.

Jean-Pierre is becoming increasingly frustrated with what he sees as the poor quality of these calls. Despite Jean-Pierre’s repeated restatement of the need to share best practices, people rarely offer support and ideas to colleagues outside their own markets.

The presentations from the country heads are often either too long, too detailed and boring to listen to — particularly from the UK — or they have too little detail, leading to the feeling that some heads are not taking the meeting seriously and are not properly prepared.

Also, participants from Nordic countries frequently call in using a mobile phone with a poor connection, making it difficult to understand them. And these colleagues always leave the meeting early, saying they have family commitments. Jean-Pierre feels that this is sending the wrong leadership signal to the rest of the team.

After yet another frustrating conference call, Jean- Pierre decides to send an email to try to establish a better team culture for the calls (see box).

What to think about

⋅What are the main problems that Jean-Pierre has identified with the conference calls?
⋅What other factors could be causing the problems?
⋅To what extent do you think Jean-Pierre’s email will solve these problems? What could he do better?

Case study: Feedback (see p. 42)

The following comments are provided as food for thought. Different interpretations are, of course, possible.

What are the main problems that Jean-Pierre has identified with the conference calls?
The main problems that Jean-Pierre sees with his team’s meetings are ones that are commonly reported: poor audio quality from those using mobile phones, a lack of support for other people’s roles, poor preparation and participation, and people leaving early because of their family commitments.

What other factors could be causing the problems?
It is possible that other factors are either generating the problems that Jean-Pierre observes or that other more fundamental problems are in play. First, the unevenness of preparation and presentations during the meetings may be the result of a lack of a standard template and format. It seems that team members are free to prepare their own presentations to different levels of detail. Jean-Pierre needs to define a clear template and model for what has to be reported. Also, sending the presentations in advance would mean the calls could focus more on questions rather than being a platform for presentations.

The failure of people to collaborate in the calls may be because of the ways in which their roles are structured. Although Jean-Pierre wants people to support each other with ideas, this may not be in people’s job descriptions. The country heads therefore may not see it as their responsibility to generate ideas for others — they are all busy enough with their own roles. Also, a lack of knowledge about each other’s markets might be making people reluctant to speak up out of fear that they might say the wrong thing.

Jean-Pierre is also inviting a lot of people to the meeting, which makes it more challenging to conduct an interactive, creative session. Large numbers are more suitable for briefings. If Jean-Pierre wants creativity, he should perhaps have more regular, smaller and shorter calls.

Another factor is that the timing of the call reflects a common Paris practice of having longer meetings on Friday afternoon to wrap up the week or month. This is not standard in other European countries, where Friday afternoon may sooner be seen as the start of the weekend and family time. Jean-Pierre may need to consider having the call at a different time.

Audio quality can indeed be a problem when people connect to conference calls via mobiles. But it is fair for Jean-Pierre to expect joiners to use a stable connection. This simply requires some planning by the participants.

To what extent do you think Jean-Pierre’s email will solve these problems? What could he do better?
There is a serious danger that the very direct and accusatory tone of Jean-Pierre’s email — including his use of capital letters — will inflame emotions among the country heads. This could make it more difficult to find solutions and to encourage collaboration and support. It would be more helpful if Jean-Pierre were to ask for feedback from the others on the conference calls and ask for their suggestions for improvements. Using one of the calls to discuss communication issues — including the number of participants, the style and length of presentations, and the timing and length of the calls — would be a good first step towards creating a communication culture that everyone can buy into.

Language reference

Here are some examples of the language you can use to make your conference calls more effective

⋅M⋅anaging introductions Michaela, good to have you here.
⋅Jon, Dave and Maria are already on the call.
⋅How is everyone? Paula? How was your holiday?

Dealing with quality problems
⋅Could you go on mute if you are not speaking as there is a lot of background noise?
⋅David, you are very faint. Could you speak up?
⋅Jean, could you dial in again?

Managing late joiners
⋅Barbara will be late, so I suggest we wait ten minutes and then start.
⋅I suggest we go on mute until 10.40. OK?
⋅Let’s start and I can update Pawel when he joins in.

Discussing aims and perspectives
⋅The main objective today is to…
⋅What we want to achieve today is to…
⋅I know there are different perspectives on this issue, but this can be useful to help us to find some creative solutions.

Discussing procedures
⋅Given the timing today, let’s focus on…
⋅I’ll contact you individually after the call to discuss…
⋅There are too many people on the call today for us to deal with…

Communicating protocols
⋅Please introduce yourself with your name each time you speak.
⋅Can we keep inputs short — no more than two minutes — please?
⋅Please say clearly whether or not you agree with any proposals.
⋅I’m not being rude but I may interrupt to keep things on track.

Including “isolated” individuals
⋅Remember to involve Peter, who is sitting alone in York.
⋅Jackie, as you are sitting alone, can we start with you?
⋅Oscar, do jump in if you have anything to say.

Managing native speakers
⋅Therese, Mike, please remember to speak slowly and clearly.
⋅Can we begin with the non-native speakers?
⋅I may interrupt you from time to time to clarify for the others.

Asking for comments
⋅Phil, what do you think of Pascale’s ideas?
⋅Margaret, anything to add to what Richard said?
⋅Jan, do you have a similar point of view to Natalie’s?

Clarifying for the group
⋅Let me just summarize that for everyone. You’re saying that…
• Just so we all understand, can I paraphrase the key points?
• Can I just clarify a couple of points for everyone?

Illustration: erhui1979/iStock.com

Illustration: erhui1979/iStock.com

Illustration: erhui1979/iStock.com

Illustration: erhui1979/iStock.com; Foto: privat