Virtual Meetings: Develop Effective Teleconferencing Guidelines
By: Laura Stack
Your marketing team is based in Chicago; you work from your home ofﬁce in Denver; and the sales people work are telecommuting employees who work from remote ﬁeld sites all over the globe. You need to connect to discuss next quarter’s sales efforts and don’t have the budget to travel to a cen¬tral location. Teleconference -- or webinar -- technology to the rescue!
Teleconferences can be a great way to connect virtual teams from around the world. They’re less expensive than face-to-face meetings, often take less time and allow teams to communicate more informally, ask questions and solve problems better than e-mail can.
Holding a virtual meeting should be a no-brainer. What can be so hard about a group of people talking on the phone? All you have to do is connect everyone and make decisions as if you were in person, right? There’s the dilemma: This is not your normal phone call.
A teleconference is a meeting. To pull it off, you’ll have to do more than pick up the phone; you’ll have to prepare for it in the same way you would a meeting, with a few extra details. It’s especially complex if some participants are meeting face-to-face while others are remote.
To make sure your next teleconference is successful, follow the three Ps (mnemonics again -- I promise, they work!) of effective teleconferencing:
1. Planning. You must prepare for a teleconference like any other meeting. Include the following items in your planning:
- Coordinating the calendars of several busy people for a teleconference can take days. Give yourself a couple of weeks before the desired meeting day to ﬁnd a time convenient for all.
- A teleconference can become unmanageable with more than 10 people, so try to limit the number of participants to those whose presence is truly required. Include people who can make a signiﬁcant contribution, and copy or make optional those who need to know what’s happening on the minutes following the call.
- One week prior to the meeting, solicit input for items to add to the agenda. Send out a detailed meeting agenda specifying the meeting objective and decisions to be made at least two days prior to the call. Don’t forget to send all documents, notes, and prework or required reading.
- Keep the process simple and the schedule short. Most people can’t pay attention while listening and staring out into space for more than about 30 minutes and will begin checking e-mail. If you have more issues than time, plan several teleconferences to discuss different goals.
- Include the teleconference phone number and PIN number with the messages one week before the meeting; again, two days before the meeting; and on the day of the meeting.
- Test out the teleconferencing equipment days prior to the actual meeting. Conduct a few trial runs with the other locations, to ensure you can hear them and they you. Surprises are no fun on the day of the meeting, when frustrated participants have to sit around while you troubleshoot the equipment.
2. Process. These are all the things you do to conduct an effective teleconference during the meeting:
- The person who calls the meeting can act as the ‘‘voice trafﬁc controller,’’ or another person may be appointed. The facilitator is responsible for keeping the meeting on track. That person notes the topic to be discussed, based on the timed agenda, and asks speciﬁc people to report.
- Before you speak, remember that some people may not recognize your voice. Even if you think, ‘‘Everyone knows me,’’ always begin with ‘‘This is Laura,’’ and then speak. When you pick up the conversation again, repeat, ‘‘This is Laura again.’’
- Don’t be afraid of silence. Since the phone is devoid of facial expressions, you can’t always read emotion. Someone may be formulating a question in his or her mind and needs another minute to chime in. Silence doesn’t always imply consent or completion. Make sure someone has ﬁnished speaking before you begin, or you’ll always end up interrupting others midsentence.
- If a group of people is meeting in the same room, with other remote sites dialing in, try to make the virtual participants feel included. If someone cracks a joke and the group bursts out with laughter, let the others know who said what and repeat the joke.
3. Protocol. These are the guidelines and rules of etiquette and engagement for participants to follow:
- Use the ‘‘mute’’ feature of the phone or teleconferencing system when you’re not speaking, so participants can’t hear the airport music or your dog. Some systems allow the facilitator to mute all participants, taking them off mute to ask or respond to questions.
- Be present. ‘‘I’m sorry, could you repeat the question?’’ is an all-too-common phrase heard during calls, which basically announces you weren’t paying attention. Don’t risk looking unprofessional; stay focused. Be there now. As good as you think you are at multitasking, the conscious mind isn’t capable of reading e-mail and listening to a speaker at exactly the same time. Surﬁng the net or using the mute button to carry on another conversation effectively removes you from the meeting.
- Keep side conversations to a minimum. It’s frustrating as a remote teleconference participant to hear babbling in the background. It makes it difﬁcult to distinguish the actual speaker from the other noise, and there’s a constant echo on the line.
- Read all prework and be prepared to participate actively in the conversation. Even though you can’t be seen, your voice and presence -- albeit virtual -- will be missed if you’re silent.
Excerpted with permission of the publisher John Wiley & Sons, Inc. (www.wiley.com) from SUPERCOMPETENT: The Six Keys To Perform at Your Productive Best by Laura Stack. Copyright (c) 2010 by Laura Stack.