Teleconference Blues & How To Beat Them
Are you driven crazy by frustrating teleconferences? We spend a lot of time on teleconferences, including formal board and committee meetings, and these twelve tips below can make the experience much more effective and pleasant.
One: Early chairs get the worms: whoever is chairing or moderating should get online a few minutes before the session is due to start, and make sure all of the technology is working properly, at least from their end. If they commence the session smoothly and well-prepared, the rest of the session is more likely to go that way, rather than starting with a big fumble – which I’m sure we’ve all seen and heard many times.
Two: Start on time: don’t wait for stragglers, which is the same rule applies in face-to-face meetings. If you’ve got ten people on the line, and someone is six minutes late and you’ve waited for them, you’ve wasted an entire hour of what might otherwise have been productive time. Setting aside the very rare occasions on which lateness is simply inevitable, when people arrive late they are saying their time is more important than that of others.
Three: Background noise: when you’re convening the meeting, asked participants to locate themselves where there will be minimum background noise, or ask them to mute their microphone during the call if background noise can’t be eliminated (but it’s better to leave the microphone open and eliminate background noise, so people can participate more effectively). The person who doesn’t appreciate that this is a problem with background noise is almost always the person whose location is the source. Warn people before a teleconference they must not put the call on hold, as most phone systems have music or tones which will destroy a teleconference – and remind them at the start of the meeting.
Four: Normal meeting rules apply: whoever is chairing, and someone should always be chairing, needs to understand that normal meeting rules and courtesy apply: they need to stop individuals talking over others, talking multiple times to the one topic, or talking at unnecessary length.
Five: Maximise technology: just as videoconferencing (e.g. Skype or Zoom or commercial products) will improve the focus of participants and minimise distraction, making use of videoconferencing and teleconferencing systems which allow document sharing and presentations makes them much more engaging and effective. See below under “Taking turns” for a note about managing participation in large calls, via online technology solutions.
Six: Agenda: send out a draft agenda in plenty of time for participants to understand what the purpose is, particularly if it’s not a single-topic meeting and send out the material which it is presumed participants will be across; it’s a good idea to ask for proposed changes to the agenda right up front in the meeting as well. These things are significantly more important for online meetings and teleconferences than for face to face meetings.
Seven: Multitasking: asked participants to turn off electronic items they are not using for the call; for example if they are making the call via a desk phone, ask them to turn off their mobile phone, and where they don’t need it, their computer. Multitasking is a source of great inattentiveness in teleconferences – which is one reason videoconferences through Zoom or Skype or commercial alternatives can be more effective: you can see when people are not paying attention.
Eight: Accommodate remote participants: what are the worst experiences can be when you are remote from the main meeting, and are as a consequence marginalised by those who are present in person. The chair needs to be mindful that it is harder to participate on the end of a teleconference, and specifically ask for input from individuals online.
Nine: Taking turns: when you’re on a teleconference where people are constantly interrupting and talking over one another, you’ll feel like hanging up or screaming. A good way to get around this issue is for the chair to have a list of participants, and instead of throwing the floor open after a topic has been raised or a proposal advanced, to ask each individual in the call, one by one, to offer up their thoughts. This not only maximises participation but reduces the frustration of people talking over one another. No one should ever ask a question which invites participants to talk over the top of one another. This works if you’ve got up to perhaps a dozen participants, but becomes cumbersome after that. For bigger calls, there are technology solutions, set up and managed online, which allow participants to be muted/unmuted by the Chair, all together or one at a time, and through participants “put their hands up” by pressing their keypad when they want to speak – see www.reachtel.com.au/town-hall/ for a short explanation of one variety of this technology, and this is another www.webex.com.
Ten: Maximise participation: using the taking turns approach outlined above is a great way to ensure that everyone is involved in the discussion, but other tactics will also help. Setting limits on the amount of speaking time consumed by individuals, and giving the chair a mute button to ensure time limits are observed will ensure that enough time for everyone to have their say.
Eleven: Get your slides right: if you are using a system which allows the sharing of slides, use a best practice approach to such presentations; text heavy slides, and presenters who simply read their slides, are a big no-no.
Twelve: Terminate: because teleconferences and videoconferences can be much more draining than face-to-face discussions, give such sessions a strict time limit, and stick to it. If necessary, and while everyone is still on the line and hasn’t had to go to the next meeting or other activity, establish an agreed time for an adjourned meeting.
Let us know about any of your favourite teleconference fixes, if we haven’t suggested them above!