“Hello? Can you hear me?”
“Oh, sorry, you go first.”
“No, you go first!”
“Sorry, who’s speaking now?”
Conference calls are a challenge. When you’ve got multiple people relying entirely on audio, you’re missing out on the rich visual cues that can help a meeting run smoothly.
Though video conferencing is quickly outpacing audio, there are still occasions when the good ol’ phone call is a better option, such as:
- When working from home or another place where you don’t want the invasion of privacy of everyone seeing your background
- For shorter meetings
- For meetings with fewer people
- For meetings “on the go,” such as while commuting
- When Internet connection/bandwidth is a problem, and attendees’ connection cannot support video well
Of course, the audio conference call comes with unique challenges, such as:
- It’s tough to decipher who’s talking.
- It’s tricky to know when to speak.
- You might be limited on the visual aids you can use for a presentation.
Due to the conference call’s unique challenges, it’s all the more important to come prepared. Below are some tips on how to lead a conference call without the headaches.
Before the Conference Call
1. Choose the right web conferencing app.
While you could certainly lead a conference call that’s purely audio, it can be helpful and more engaging to supplement the call with a screen share. There are many web conferencing apps that allow you to do this.
For example, you could host an audio-only Zoom call but still be able to share your screen. Here’s how:
- When you schedule your Zoom meeting, make sure the host’s video and participants’ video is “Off.” Under “Advanced Settings,” ensure “Enable Waiting Room” is checked.
- As participants arrive, they will be held in the waiting room. That means you can choose when to admit them to the actual meeting (they can’t automatically join). This will ensure there’s none of that awkwardness of people entering at various times and introducing themselves, cutting other people off. You can admit everyone to the meeting when you are ready and then introduce yourself and the attendees at one time.
- Once everyone is admitted and introductions are over, you can use the whiteboard feature or share what’s on your screen.
2. Cull the attendee list.
With conference calls, the fewer attendees, the better. With too many people on an audio call, it can get confusing because you have to distinguish between so many voices. Whomever you choose to invite, make sure they really need to be there. For the rest, you can simply send them notes from the meeting.
3. Assign a notetaker.
As the leader, you’ll have your hands full managing speakers and making sure the meeting is running smoothly. Request that someone else take notes so you can send those meeting minutes to everyone after the call.
4. Set a meeting time limit.
No one likes a meeting that is drawn out unnecessarily, but it’s even worse when the meeting is done via audio because, without the stimulation of seeing faces, these tend to get boring quickly.
If you’re hosting an audio-only conference call, aim to keep it at 30 minutes and no longer than one hour.
5. Create the agenda.
Outline who will speak, what they’re going to talk about, and in what order. With the challenges inherent to audio calls, it’s essential that you tame the chaos by determining who will be presenting and when.
As for the format, it’s better to have everyone give their entire presentation first and then open the floor to questions. This will reduce confusion and reduce the number of times people speak over each other.
6. Share the agenda and meeting details with everyone via email.
Now that you’ve confirmed the attendee list and created the agenda, be sure to share it with everyone in attendance well ahead of the meeting. This will give attendees time to prepare if they’re presenting and familiarize themselves with the order of presenters.
Provide all the information they’ll need to join the call. This includes the link, dial-in code, and passcode. Be sure to send it to them well ahead of time, and maybe send it again 30 minutes before the meeting.
In addition to the agenda and meeting access details, share some meeting pointers they should follow, such as:
- Before dialing in, make sure you’re in a quiet environment. Background noise from multiple lines can make it very difficult for everyone to hear. To ensure the best audio quality, ask participants to install a noise-canceling app, such as Krisp, beforehand to eliminate the noise that they can’t avoid in their space.
- Announce yourself as you join the meeting (as long as you’re not late). This suggestion depends heavily on the type of web conferencing app you’re using. Some, like GoToMeeting, will chime a bell when someone enters. Others, like WebEx, have an option where the app automatically announces the participant’s name as they join the call. And still others, like Zoom, will let you as the host hold attendees in a waiting room, and it will show a list of present attendees, so announcing one’s self may not be necessary.
7. Do a dry run with your chosen conferencing app.
New technology has a way of surprising us. You want to limit surprises as much as possible. Once you’ve selected a conferencing app for your conference call, test out its features. Invite a couple of trusted colleagues to join a test conference call so you can familiarize yourself with the format and features.
Test out the link and dial-in codes ahead of time. Nothing ruins a meeting quite like participants not being able to access it.
During the Call
1. Remember your responsibilities as the leader.
As the conference call leader, it’s your job to introduce everyone, move them on from topic to topic, and so forth.
As people enter, either make sure they’re in a waiting room (like Zoom has), or be sure to publicly acknowledge them by saying something like, “It looks like Janet has joined. How are you, Janet?”
If there is no waiting room, you’ll likely be sitting on the call with some people for a few minutes as you wait for everyone to arrive. So that people don’t think they’ve lost connection, be sure to say something like, “We’re still waiting on a couple more people. We’re going to wait for one more minute to give them time to join.”
Also, don’t be afraid to start a friendly conversation before diving into the meat of the meeting (as long as you’ve got extra time!).
Once everyone has joined, kick off the meeting by announcing who you are, who else is on the call, and what the purpose of the meeting is. You can also go over some ground rules, such as:
- “After each presentation, I’ll chime in and open the floor to questions. Please wait until the presentation is over and I have announced that it’s Q&A time to say anything. This is so that no one unintentionally cuts someone off.”
- “I ask that everyone please mute yourselves if you are not currently speaking. You can find the mute button …”
- If the app is new to the participants, give them a brief overview of the software, showing them where they can find certain features.
2. Heed the agenda.
Keep the agenda before you at all times so you have a better idea of who’s speaking next and when to wrap up any Q&A sessions. You’ll also need to refer to it to transition more smoothly. For example, “Okay, everyone, that concludes the questions about our Q1 finances. Let’s move on now to marketing plans for our upcoming product launch.”
3. Mute yourself as necessary.
Stay muted when you’re not speaking, and ask others to do the same. Depending on your conferencing app, you as the host might be able to mute people as you see fit.
4. Know when to chime in.
- If you have a question or comment for someone in particular, always address them by their name first so they know you’re talking to them.
- If an idea or question comes to you while someone is presenting, take notes and wait for the speaker to finish before you chime in.
- If people are going past their speaking time, feel free to interrupt when their time is up to move the meeting along.
- Each time a presenter is done speaking, thank them, sum up what was said, and ask if there are any questions or comments.
5. Give everyone a chance to speak.
Some people don’t feel comfortable speaking up during a conference call versus an in-person meeting, so try to encourage these people. At the same time, you don’t want to put them on the spot or embarrass them.
Once conversation dies down at the end of a topic, if you notice someone hasn’t said a word, you can ask, “[Name], is there anything you’d like to add?” If they say no, quickly move on.
Ending the Call
- Throughout the meeting, chime in to give a meeting countdown, such as, “We’ve got five minutes to wrap up here.” This ensures things run according to schedule and the meeting doesn’t go over time.
- If there is time remaining, you can open the floor for any final remarks or questions.
- Before dismissing everyone, summarize what was decided and outline any next steps. Be sure to thank everyone for attending.
- Once the call is done, email the meeting minutes and action steps to the attendees.
Cure Your Conference Call Woes
Yes, conference calls are a challenge—but they’re nothing you can’t handle. With these tips on how to lead a conference call, you’ll conquer your next meeting with ease.