The execution of a perfect conference call is an art. You are attempting to communicate with a group of people across the globe, in different time zones and with different relationships to technology, decorum and self-awareness. They have the potential to take years off your life, raise your blood pressure to abnormally high levels or simply achieve precious little. David Grady’s famous one-man conference call impersonation has over 1.5 million views on YouTube because it is so spot on. It captures the hell of dealing with unique personalities on the other end of the conference call line.
When you experience that conference call that really sets the bar high, where people are on time, attentive, on mute when appropriate, offer valuable insights and where decisions are easily taken – you want to start applauding. You feel like you have achieved conference call nirvana and you are already morose at the thought that you might never experience this type of high again. Let’s face it –if it wasn’t for all of those people –conference calls would be a breeze. You know the personalities I am talking about?
Let’s unpack us –all the glorious characters that make up the conference call universe (somewhere along the line one of them might be you?) and the best method of dealing with your own or others particular quirks.
The technology amateur
This character usually needs specific instructions on how to find and press the mute button. This can take up a lot of time as Roger from finance tries to navigate this simple process. You start to feel your leg jump in anxiety as you see the sand in your hourglass start trickling away. He is also the same guy who tends to accidentally end the call only to return a few minutes later with a loud apology.
Tip: If you aren’t sure about how the tech works –find out. Don’t bring your “B” game to the table. Learn to mute on arrival.
It’s important for the chair to manage the situation by politely asking the person to disconnect from the call and ask someone on their end to assist them with the technology as time is being wasted for the rest of the group. They can also manage the whole call by turning the Active Mute on for all their Guests, at once.
Is there anybody out there?
This person seems to have the worst luck with reception or perhaps their phone is from 1996 because they can never hear you. You keep hearing them desperately shout (yes, shout) into their microphones – “can you hear me now?’ The moderator keeps replying, “yes, yes, yes” to no avail. You hear them swearing thinking that just because they can’t hear you, you can’t hear them.
Tip: Upgrade your phone. Make sure you are in an area of great signal if you are using a cell phone for the call. Take it as a given that the people on the call can ALWAYS hear you. If you are the moderator, this is a particularly difficult situation. If you have their cell number, you can send a quick text to tell them you can hear them and request they stop shouting into the call. Otherwise, after the call, the person should be made aware that their conduct was not professional and they need to look at how they can upgrade their phone technology, so the situation doesn’t happen again.
The “yes, but” guy
You think things are going along smoothly then the ‘but’ guy chimes in and takes the conversation into another direction or negates all of the agreements gained in the last hour of the call. You realise it’s going to be a long afternoon with a hot phone burning your ear. The best way to deal with this person is to invest in one of Daan Roosegaade’s “yes but chairs”. The Dutch artist’s innovation gives the person a short shock if they say, “yes…but.”
Tip: Try just saying “Yes” all on its own.
The chair can say, “Thank you, Ron, I am not sure that is valid for the purposes of this discussion, shall we follow the agenda instead?” You can also say, “Your point has been noted but let’s try to focus on being solution driven today in the short time we have together.”
The big entrance
Or what’s commonly known as late to the table. The conversation is at full throttle when you hear the telltale beep of a new person joining the conversation. However, they usually stop the conversation in its tracks, make a long, lavish excuse and then want to be caught up in the discussion so far. It can start to feel like Groundhog Day when there is more than one late comer to the conference call party. The moderator seems to go on repeat, and you start to chew the inner lining of your cheek in frustration.
Tip: Set a reminder and be ready to join the call. In the words of William Shakespeare, “Better three hours too soon than a minute too late.”
The moderator must be firm and say, “Sorry Jeff, you’re late to the conversation, we are now on agenda point 3. You can catch up on the conversation afterwards in the recording and minutes of the call.”
The worst. The person that is too close to the microphone and is breathing heavily into your ear. When they speak, it’s like a loud hailer directly aimed into your ear drum. It’s disorientating and creepy at the same time.
Tip: Keep a safe speaking distance. Microphones are powerful instruments. Please know we can all hear you. Step further away from your phone.
The chair can also make a general comment, “Please everyone, make sure you are not too close to your microphones as we are experiencing some heavy breathing and loud volume on this call.” If the breather continues, you will need to single them out. Ah, Angela please move away from your microphone –you’re too close for comfort! (Keep the tone light.)
The control freak
They seem to have appointed themselves as the font of all wisdom and choose to deliver a monologue never allowing anyone a chance to share their two cents. It’s a one-sided conference call. If someone else does offer an opinion, our control freak is back on the airwaves dominating the response. It’s exhausting. You want to have a short nap after the onslaught of one opinion.
Tip: Stop talking. Allow yourself to make one point and then listen to at least 2-3 people’s responses. Experiment with listening and moments of silence. If you are struggling, try watching Julian Treasures “Five ways to listen better”.
The moderator will need to take control of the situation and say, “John, if I may interrupt, I have to cut you short as we need to get back to the issue at hand and I would like to hear everyone’s feedback on this agenda point.”
Other rarer types
There is also some other well known disruptive personalities that make an appearance from time to time:
The compulsive cougher
(press mute, take a throat lozenge or keep drinking loads of water). The chair must request they mute.
Miss Social 2017
You can hear her text notifications going off every few seconds in your ear, and the background noise sounds like she is having a boozy lunch with her friends. The chair should ask the person to move their position and switch off their alerts.
The cliche wielder
He/She peppers every sentence with phrases that are overused and add no value to the conversation. “Let’s stand back and look at the big picture” (let’s not), “Let’s think out of the box”, “Are we pushing the envelope? (no, only my patience). Not much to do here for the chair but to ask the person for clear points.
The disappearing act
AKA wallflower, non-responder, silent witness, space cadet. You know they are there, but they are contributing absolutely nothing (speak up –you probably have the most important thing to say.)
The moderator must ensure that each person has spoken on the call. They can ask each person by name to give opening or closing remarks to ensure cooperation.
Debbie downer. Mike melancholia. The person who can see no silver linings or glasses half full –they’re always running on empty. (Perk up, or we’ll make you listen to Pharrell Williams “Happy” on repeat) The chair can challenge the person to offer the solution to the problem they think is insurmountable.
Sadly, the list goes on and on. A report by Computing Research and Plantronics found that disrupters ruin 41% of all conference calls. This means we are all spending a lot of our time indulging each other’s personality “challenges.” For the moderators on the call, it’s important to set ground rules for conference calls and then encourage all participants to speak up (or keep quiet as the case might be). Keep strictly to the agenda and take conflicts offline. Communicate an environment of respect and a positive tone. Set a time limit.