Marshall Law for Conference Calls

This week on the Public Speaker I talk about tips for improving your conference calls.  You can listen to this fun, free, episode here or if you prefer you can read a quick summary below. After the summary I cover a few controversial points…to mute or not to mute, then to chat or not to chat.

You might be surprised by what I have to say…

First and foremost a conference call is a MEETING.  Think of it as a meeting that happens to use a phone and not phone call that happens to be a meeting.  I think that subtle distinction is actually an important one.  For meetings to be effective you need to follow all the rules of effective in-person meetings, plus put some extra effort in because the conference call presents some unique challenges.

So I think it’s best to review what you need to do for an effective meeting first, then you can read here what you need to do that’s extra.

  • The facilitator must arrive early so the call can begin on-time
  • Agenda needs to go out earlier than in-person
  • Agenda needs to include call-in information
  • Agenda needs rules for mute (eg. only mute if in public place or mute unless you are speaker)
  • Agenda needs directions for what to do if someone puts the call  on hold
  • Ground rules for entrances and exits need to be established
  • Facilitators need to be someone what directive to ensure full participation
  • Facilitator includes everyone for discussions by calling on participants
  • Everyone needs to be as concise as possible due to distrations
  • Important points should be repeated at least two times
  • Photos can be used to help participants make a connection
  • Don’t use the bathroom while on a call
  • Don’t eat while on a call

Now to the controversial part… the part I didn’t include in the episode.

To mute or not to mute?

Many “experts” suggest muting your telephone during conference calls.  I think this just encourages people to have side conversations and to use their computer.  However, I do understand that by not universally using mute you risk unnecessary background noise. For internal meetings, my preference is to have a no mute rule. This means everyone needs to make their best effort to ensure they can participate in the call from a quiet area.  Of course, sometimes that isn’t going to be possible, so there’s got to be some flexibility in the rule.

For external or public meetings, of course, it would be impossible to control and you are then forced to mute all callers unless he or she “raises their hand” (of course, I mean electronically raise his or her hand).

To chat or not?

Many experts suggest not allowing the use of chat software during meetings.  Last week, I said that myself, but that advice was for IN-PERSON meetings.  In a conference call I think it’s great for engaging participants.  It’s a way to have people ask questions without interrupting the speaker, it a way to take votes, it’s a way to provided training, and it’s a great backchannel for enhanced communication.

For example, you can call for a vote and have everyone type in their response at the same time. This way you can get the response quickly and perhaps more honestly (instead of people waiting to see how another person will vote.)

You can ask participants to post their questions via chat. If you do this, it’s best to create another role of chat moderator.  This person then monitors the questions and interjects them into the meeting (or not).  This is a great way for the main  presenter to stay focused on the presentation and control which questions to respond to.

Another good use of chat is for a chat “break-out” — where smaller groups (2-4) can chat about ideas then bring the result back to group.

Chat can also be used for the parking lot and for on-going summary deliverable action items notes.

It can be used to supplement the meeting with additional information.  For someone that wasn’t sure what was said, a text clarification can be made.  Or perhaps addtion information or link to additional information can be provided.

For example, during our Spanish Club meetings which are global conference calls, the word moderator, looks up words that the speaker is struggling with and provides translations and definitions.  In addition, provides links to addition material for that content area.

At the end of the call, you can use chat to  ask for  “three word feedback” which asks participants to provide three words of honest feedback for the meeting.

Another great use of chat is for training.  I’ve successfully used chat to guide junior employees.  For example, We let a junior staff member lead the call with a customer.  Our team supported her via chat.  We supplied her with responses to questions and guided her away from landmines, while she was talking.  She appeared in complete control of the meeting and gained valuable practice in the “hot seat” with the customer.  It worked out well.  She learned how to manage the customer with support and guidance from the rest of the team.

Another benefit of using chat during external meetings, meeting with customer and vendors, is that it allows your internal team can comment on and discuss issues behind the scenes while the main speaker is engaged with the outside party. Of course, if you are going to do this be sure that everyone is using a quiet keyboard, otherwise, all the clicking will be perceived as not paying attention.

For me, chat fills the attention gap and helps to keeps participants focussed on the topics of the meeting.  It keeps them occupied and reduces the temptation (and the opportunity) for them to do other things during call. The idea is to incorporate the technology into the meeting to enhance it.

There is 1 comment .

Chris Witt


Great post! I hadn’t thought of it before, but once you said a conference call is a meeting I immediately agreed. It’s a great way for me to organize my thoughts about such calls. Thanks for the insight.

The one thing I tend to do on calls, especially when I’m the leader, is to stand. It gives me more attention or energy or focus or something.

Thanks, Chris

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