How to Steer a Conference Call Like a Champ
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Leading a conference call is just like leading any other meeting, only you’re not able to see if people are engaged. You’re not able to tell if you’re leading it effectively. You can’t depend on body language to communicate your engagement level, and you’re not able to read the body language of others. What this reality demands is your usual mode of leadership accented with a slight mechanical bearing.
If you are normally freewheeling, focus a little more than you’re used to. If you are normally sunny, let a few clouds in. If you are normally inclined to ask everyone in the room how their weekend was, maybe don’t do that. In fact, don’t ever do that.
For the sake of the conference call, err on the side of rigid.
Since you can’t be rigid without being punctual, the first rule of the conference call is: Be on time—especially if you’re leading it. Like, right on time. If the conference call is at 2:30, you need to be on that call at 2:29:52. Eight seconds of Chopin or “The Girl from Ipanema,” then the other people join, and off you go. There are certain people who always arrive to meetings late. If you are one of these people, you must suspend your belief in the mutability of start times. You must be punctual.
It’s helpful to have notes prepared in advance. Never read your notes, of course. You can always tell when someone on the phone is reading a prepared statement. Their tone doesn’t quite track with the content of their message. Nervous radio callers do this. CEOs delivering financial results do this. My sixth-grade girlfriend Rachel did this when she broke up with me. (She denied it, but I’m pretty sure that’s how it went down.) Your notes should simply include key words and phrases: a road map for the things you need to say.
The next thing you want to do—it’s a small thing, no big deal—is adopt an entirely new persona. Say, that of a TV news anchor doing a round robin with reporters in the field. If you are not the leader, you must adopt the persona of one of the reporters speaking to an anchor via satellite. There are other reporters weighing in, too, which means that when it is your turn to speak, you must get in and get out.
Another important part is that you have to be serious. A face-to-face meeting can be a playground for jokes. But for the conference call, jokes don’t work. Comedic timing is inherently thrown off because of the delay and lack of visual emotional cues. No one can read your body language, which is a key part of humor. And everyone just wants to get this over with already. No jokes.
And … really focus. When we’re in meetings, we are forced to keep our eyes open, not pick at our fingernails, not yawn, not pretend two of our fingers are a dancer doing Rockettes-style kicks on our desk. (Is that last one just me? Maybe that’s just me.) During conference calls, these things are permissible because they are hidden from view. But these freedoms can make us complacent. They can make us lose step with the conversation. This can lead to being asked a question that we are not prepared to answer, which is humiliating and impolite. Pay attention as if you were in an actual conference room with these people.
And try not to laugh. I know this sounds like cold advice, but laughter on a conference call sounds like a hellish clamor. A snicker, fine. Perhaps a giggle. But no chortling.
Banter doesn’t work either. Especially with more than three people on the line. Four opinions and zero eye contact is a very complicated neurosocial dynamic.
And no riffing. The conference is a minefield when you introduce conversational cul de sacs and aborted sentences. The back-and-forth will bog things down. Conference calls are for commenting and reporting and correcting and pitching. They’re not for brainstorming or chitchat.
So, speak in long statements. And when someone else speaks, let him or her have the floor for longer than you might. No interrupting. Unless they’ve gone on too long, let them speak.
The conference call should almost exclusively involve information delivery. Easy on the niceties. Easy on the banter. Easy on the humor. Easy on the asides. Otherwise it makes a very simple thing unnecessarily difficult.
There’s been a ton of research done on body language in the past 10 years. We now know that a long gaze suggests power, empathy, self-assuredness and intelligence. We know that crossing our arms can signal that we’re closed off to change. And that slumping down in a chair suggests disinterest. These aren’t necessarily “tells” in regular meetings—research has also shown that it’s a bad idea to try to read people solely through body language (that’s another column)—but on conference calls, such cues are missing altogether.
What is underrated but necessary here is the importance of your voice. The quality of your voice: its clarity, volume and authority. Speak with a slightly intense disposition. Let your voice guide the meeting as much as the content of your statements. Make up for the intensity you can’t convey visually with an intensity you can convey verbally.
Great. We must have been disconnected.
Should this conference call be happening?
Are we talking about something important?
Really, really important?
Are all three to seven of us really necessary?
Are there fewer than seven people on this call?
Can the goals of this meeting be met without brainstorming?
If you answered “no” to any of these questions, this conference call should not be happening.
KEY TECHNICAL MATTERS
- No small talk. Once you’ve made sure everyone is present, just start in on the business.
- Always wait two seconds after someone else has stopped speaking in order to secure the field.
- When in doubt, don’t add your two cents.
- When you find yourself speaking over someone else, determine quickly if you are going to power through or concede.
- If you’re going to concede, immediately stop talking and let the other person have the floor.
- If you’re going to power through, then POWER THROUGH AND TAKE THEM DOWN!
- Imagine everyone can see you. Focus on the meeting as if you were all in the same room.
- Sit up straight and be attentive to every word.
- You know what? Relax; it’s not that big of a deal.
- Just be attentive.
- OK, that’s too relaxed. Sit up a bit.