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Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Meeting Dark Arts: Conference Call Etiquette

Okay, so how many of you have to sit on a conference calls on a regular basis? How often do you get the heavy breather? The dog barking in the background, or the all to often music on hold? Yes we live our lives on conference calls these days and we will be living more of them as we seek more ways to control costs. This next installment of my Meeting Dark Arts series will be the various conference call etiquette rules I picked up over the years. Make sure you share these at the start of every meeting to remind everyone on the call that we all suffer when someone isn't paying attention (yep, that is the keyboard you are hearing in the background)

First the list of etiquette rules for those of you not wishing to read all the details:

  1. Remind us in the beginning about the rules
  2. With large calls let people know you are waiting to start
  3. Run a call just like any other meeting
  4. Provide local dial in numbers
  5. Remember there are timezones
  6. Remember to mute your phone!
  7. Don’t put us on hold
  8. Watch the noise makers
  9. Don't eat while on the call
  10. Don't have side conversations
  11. Keyboards are a no no
  12. Say your name (when you enter, when you speak, when you leave)
  13. Don't be long winded
  14. Everyone has an accent!
  15. End the call

Remind us in the beginning about the rules
The host should remind everyone about these rules at the start of every meeting. I found that this prevented most of the problems from re-occurring and now everyone expects me to recite the rules before we start. Also I can quickly address those who forgot the rules while the rest of the conference laughs. Yes it has become a point of humor with my team. But everyone does agree the meetings are more productive and the attendees have more freedom because I encourage them to take calls from other locations so they are not always in the office.

With large calls let people know you are waiting to start
I know it is important to start the meeting on time and not to reward the late comers, however, when you have large calls it is often difficult to get everyone logged into the call on-time. I recognize these difficulties and therefore provide a couple of minutes of grace time when it is a large call. However, when it is a large call I make sure to mention it in the appointment and ask people to try to dial in early. Unfortunately when you have back to back meetings it is very difficult to do this. So I usually give it a five minute grace period. But this means that every 30 seconds or so I let everyone know we are waiting for others to join given the large size of the call.

Run a call just like any other meeting
See my post on meeting management

Provide local dial in numbers

Most conference call providers have local dial in numbers for almost all countries. If you are leading an international call be sure to include all of the local numbers for the call. This will greatly reduce costs and simplify the dial in procedures for the staff. Many companies have restrictions on international dialing from their phones so a local number will make it that much easier. I include all of the dial in numbers because you never know where an attendee might be. I have had individuals call in from a safari in Africa.

Remember there are timezones

Have the individuals calling from the late night timezone first on the agenda. if they are not needed for the rest of the meeting let them off the hook and give them permission to leave the call.

Remember to mute your phone!
The reality is that we are part of a mobile society and you will be taking calls from airports, taxis, and other loud locations. Mobile phones pick up background noise so if you are not talking, place your phone on mute. Most conference call systems have *6 to turn on/off mute. If you are wearing and headset for the call, it is a really good idea to have the mute on so that the rest of use will not hear your breathing. Mobile phones and heavy breathing are the two biggest complaints on conference calls. Muting your phone will help with the next couple of etiquette items as well.

Don’t put us on hold

We had just kicked off the conference when the music on hold came on. Someone had decided to take another call and put us on hold and they didn't come back on the line, the entire group was forced to sit and listen to music on hold. Fortunately I was able to close the conference and then reopen it so that we could get started. Getting the "music on hold" will stop the entire call. If you have to leave a call for some reason then leave the call and dial back in later, remember to tell people you are leaving. It will save everyone the challenges of trying to hold a conversation over the background music.

Watch the noise makers

If you are attending a call in a conference room I still recommend placing your phone on mute when no one is talking from the room. However, there are times when the phone must be open for the conversations to take place. Please remember that conference room microphones are very good at picking up the sounds in the room. Every click of the pen, shuffling of paper, turning of a page, or table tap is picked up by the phone. Sometimes these sounds come through much louder than the volume of the overall conference volume. but more important the sounds tend to be almost like a form of torture to the attendees on the phone.

When you are on the phone be aware that heavy sighs are heard very clearly. It is best to keep the headset away from your nose and mouth until you need to talk.

If you are calling in from home, it is best to find a quiet location where you can close a door to avoid being interrupted. Hearing children playing, barking dogs, or getting interrupted while you are on the phone can create the wrong impression.

Don't eat while on the call

Never eat while you are on the phone! The microphone picks up almost every sound that is made and the noise canceling ones are even better at their focus. If you are chewing gum or eating your lunch it will sound throughout the call and muffle your words. You don't talk with your mouth full (at least I hope you don't). Beside being very impolite we often can't understand what you are saying. A note to others in conference rooms do not bring food to these meetings even if you have enough to share (I know that some people have the rule that if you bring enough then it is okay).

Don't have side conversations

I was on a budget call the other day. We had multiple attendees and some very senior managers attending. When one of the staff leaned over to a colleague and started discussing where they were going to go to dinner after the meeting. I happily invited myself and the rest of the attendees as the two perpetrators sat red faced. Some phone systems have amazingly strong pick up and your conversation will heard, often without you being aware of it.
Even if you hold your side conversation in another language others may not understand what you are saying but they will be aware the conversation is going on. If you want to talk about something other than the meeting wait until afterward and if you want talk about the meeting but do not want to share with the broader group; wait until afterward.

Keyboards are a no no
I understand that the call may be of informational nature, but the rest of us learn quickly that you are not paying attention when we hear clicking away on your computers keyboard. If you are there only to listen then please place the phone on mute. If we ask you a question you will have plenty of opportunity to ask that we repeat the question if you weren't paying attention.

Say your name

When you enter a meeting, even if you are late (apologize for being late too) say your name and your location. This is important so that we know we have all of regions represented but also because we cannot see the people on the call and do not recognize everyone's voice. Please say your name each time you speak so that we can have a point of reference when taking notes. Finally if you are going to leave a meeting early please say your name and let us know you are leaving. This way we will know not to direct any questions your way.

Don't be long winded

Many phones are designed with noise canceling features that cut the inbound sound to avoid microphone feedback. Thus when you are talking no one else on the call can interrupt. If you are going to make a statement try to be as brief as possible. If you are presenting, stop after each slide so that people can ask questions. This is especially important when you are on global calls which leads nicely to my next point.

Everyone has an accent!

I don't care what country you are from you have an accent and those of us from different countries may have difficulty understanding you. I am an American and thought I spoke English until I started working with the British and Australians and found out I had no idea what their slang words meant. Slow down, speak more slowly and enunciate. The phone magnifies the challenges of listening and it is important to allow the listeners to process what you are saying. This is a reason to stay away from being long winded in your talks. Be aware that often we cannot understand what you are saying with your accent and then aggravated by a poor phone connection. If you keep your statements short then others can ask for clarification.

End the Call

When you wrap up the conference call remember to use the host's "disconnect all callers" feature to avoid any lingering charges from leaving a call open.

The important message here is that each of these rules should be shared at the start of your call. I am amazed at how often these rules are forgotten. My teams are global and therefore almost all of our meetings are conducted via telephone or video. At the start of each meeting I remind everyone of the etiquette so that we can be as productive as possible. I am curious of your thoughts.

If you liked this post you might like:

Meeting Dark Arts: Meeting Management

Written by: Jeffrey Hurley in Central, Hong Kong

1 comment:

  1. Here's another tip (that most seem to ignore), don't cut off people while they're talking, even if these people work for you (in that case you will also demotivate people). Cutting people off will frustrate participants and will force others to cut you off.


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