This article was inspired by the below video that made the rounds back in January. If you haven't already seen "A Conference Call in Real Life," it's worth a watch -- but only if you enjoy laughing at yourself (and your boss and all of your coworkers). Because you're probably going to get that slightly uncomfortable feeling you get while laughing at the idiotic things you've done a thousand times yourself on a conference call.
This article isn't about the silly little bloopers of conference calls. We've all forgotten to un-mute ourselves at some point. It's annoying but forgivable -- and hardly a show-stopper. Rather, this article is about the common ways that marketers abuse the very notion of conference calls -- often to the point of rendering them useless, not to mention irritating. Are you a guilty party?
Inviting too many people
A conference call isn't a kindergarten birthday party. You don't have to invite everyone in the class just so no one's feelings get hurt. A lot of marketers make the mistake of thinking that a conference call will be more productive if every last soul involved in a project is on it. The rationale is often that people don't want to have to go retrieve information after a call when they could have just asked for it while on the call itself. Or, they don't want to have to reiterate the decisions made during the call to others. But that reasoning leads to cluttered, unproductive calls -- and a hell of a lot of wasted time.
Invite only essential parties to conference calls -- the people who need to be present in order for things to move forward. Everyone should plan to walk away from a conference call with marching orders, and part of that will be assigning tasks to people who weren't on the call. If people are regularly leaving your call with no direct action items, you know too many people are on the calls.
Are you stuck with a boss or colleague who insists on inviting too many people to every call? Try this: Come up with a gross estimate of the median salary of the people who are on any given call. Break that down to an hourly wage. Multiply that wage by the length of the conference call and the number of the people on the call. Show that figure to your boss or colleague and note that it's a rough estimate of what that call just cost in man hours alone. They might start thinking differently about how they send meeting invites.
Another tip: If you're worried that you've invited too many people to a call, don't hesitate to kick off the call by admitting so and giving people the option to bow out of the call if it becomes apparent that they're not essential to the issue at hand.
Inviting the wrong people
Right in line with the sin of inviting too many people to a call is the sin of inviting the wrong people. It's a bit of a delicate balance, to be sure. People often invite too many people because they're afraid of not inviting the right people. Conversely, when you try to pare down an invitee list, you risk accidentally cutting out a key decision maker or someone vital to moving a project forward. And just inviting the head honchos isn't a way to play it safe -- sometimes they're the most clueless when it comes to a given project.
The problem seems to stem from a lack of understanding the team members' individual responsibilities. And that's nothing to be ashamed of -- there are plenty of situations where it's impossible to know the exact roles of everyone on a project, especially if you're working with a client. But do your research in advance. Send around a fast email to gain clarity on everyone's role and what the chain of command looks like. Then use those insights to refine your conference call invite list. And, come on -- if you're deep into a project and still don't know what everybody does, you need to start paying attention more.
Not sending an agenda
If you ever set up a conference call and an invitee hops on the line without knowing why he or she is there, you've failed. Conference call invites shouldn't just include a subject line, time, and dial-in number. They should include a detailed description of the topics that will be discussed and in what order. If key questions need to be answered before the call is over, those should be included.
Will everyone read your description in advance? No. They won't. But some will, and those are the super-prepared people who tend to push things forward on conference calls. And even those who don't read in advance will ideally have your notes in front of them when the call starts. This will allow them to skip ahead and gain a better understanding of where the call should be going. Oftentimes, seeing how much ground needs to be covered on a call will deter people from derailing the topic at hand. After all, everyone wants calls to end on time. Which leads us to...
Not enforcing a time limit
In my experience, all conference calls run too long. You must set time limits for conference calls. But more importantly, you must respect them. For one, it's simply rude to expect people to stay on the line for longer than planned. But in addition, knowing that a call as a "hard stop" is really the only way to ensure the conversation keeps moving along.
This ties closely to the previous point of setting an agenda in advance. In this process, it's useful to also assign time limits to each topic of discussion so you can gauge whether you're staying on schedule. Also, setting time limits on topics enables you, as the call leader, to act like the music that comes on during an overly long Oscar speech -- a polite but firm reminder that there are other people who still need to be recognized.
Setting up a call for something better resolved via email
This one is pretty simple. Any time you're about to set up a conference call, pause for a second. Does this need to be a conference call? Could it just as easily be replaced by an email chain or Google doc? Granted, sometimes it's nice -- and even essential -- that people connect in real time and hear each others' voices. But remember that we now live in a time-shifting world where people prefer to work and play according to their own schedules. Increasingly, asking people to make themselves available at a precise moment is seen as an imposition. So only do it when it's truly essential.
Establishing a regular mass conference call
I'm going to get some objections on this one. "But Drew, it's vital to have an all-hands check-in each week." Is it? Is it really?
In my experience, such regular all-hands calls start with the best of intentions. The idea is that if everyone goes around the virtual room and says what they're working on, one big call will eliminate the need for many smaller calls throughout the week. And that might be the case initially -- maybe (but probably not). Over time, these sorts of mass check-ins wane in their usefulness because everyone starts to view them as a weekly burden and stops preparing anything useful to say. Likewise, because everybody is on the call, people hesitate to ask necessary questions of specific individuals because they don't want to waste everyone else's time or put someone on the spot. All useful conversations are reserved as follow-up one-on-one conversations. No time is saved. Time is wasted. And everyone on the line doesn't want to be there.
Scheduling them on Mondays or Fridays
I know some people are really going to take issue with this one. After all, I'm suggesting that two-fifths of every work week be off-limits for conference calls. But hear me out.
Mondays and Fridays play unique and vital roles in the work week. Monday is when you line up your ducks for the week and hopefully kick things off right. Friday is when you scurry to complete tasks that might have been dropped throughout the week and tie the week up with a nice bow so you can hopefully actually enjoy your weekend.
Conference calls, for the reasons discussed in this article and many others, tend to be windows of time in which no "real work" is accomplished. Thus, if you schedule them on Mondays, you're more likely to find that by Tuesday, you're already behind schedule. And that's a stressful way to kick off the week. If you schedule them on Friday, everyone involved is missing out on vital hours required to wrap up their work week. So please, for the sake of everyone's sanity and workflows, try to keep the conference calls in the Tuesday through Thursday slots.