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Dialled In

How to get the most out of teleconferences

By I.J. Schecter

Technology can be a superb facilitator of effec­tive meetings. It can also be a major disrup­tor—and not in the cool sense. Nowhere is this dichotomy more pronounced than in that classic scene of modern corporate communication, the loved and loathed conference call. Here are five common pitfalls that derail conference calls, and ways you can prevent them.

Pitfall: Taking attendance.
Meetings engage people faster when they start quickly and with purpose. When you start by saying, “We’ll just go around the table and on the phone and do a roll call,” you (a) waste time and (b) kill energy. Also, there’s no need. Want to know who attended? Go through the invitation list after the meeting, and if you’re not sure whether someone was there, ask.

Pitfall: Starting late.
If opening with a roll call is one way to lose participants before you get a chance to engage them, the other is by saying, “Should we wait five minutes to give people a chance to show up/call in?” The meeting time is the meeting time. Start at the start and end at the end. Those who have made the effort to arrive on time don’t want to hear the organizer say, “Hi to everyone on the phone. We’re just waiting a few more minutes to give people a chance to trickle in.” Don’t wait. Start.

Pitfall: People typing notes.
In the meeting invite, ask people not to bring their laptops. First, it’s noisy. Second, it’s distracting. Third, it creates an atmosphere of collective detach­ment. Let attendees know in advance that you’ll be distributing minutes after the meeting. That way they can be fully present and active participants.

Pitfall: Background noise.
We’ve all experienced a dog barking in the background, prompting the orga­nizer to say, “Just a reminder to every­one on the phone, if you could please mute your lines when not speaking. I think it’s star-6…no, wait, maybe star-9…just a second…” The enemies of good teleconferences are (a) dead air and (b) background interruptions. When you send the meeting invite, include not just the dial-in number and passcode, but also relevant key codes and instruc­tions—with particular emphasis on Mute/Unmute.

Pitfall: Surprises.
Test everything ahead of time—the conference line, the phone settings, the ancillary microphones, the cords and cables. Once the meeting starts, don’t get caught having to fiddle and fix. Prepare in advance so that once people are in the room and on the phone, you can get things rolling.

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