How to lead a conference call

A conference call is like a country: if it doesn’t have a leader, it all goes to pieces. So let’s assume you’ve been elected President of the Republic of Conference Calls. How do you keep things running smoothly when you’re on a call, without being a dictator or risking a revolution? Or in other words: what do you need to know about leading a conference call?

If you’re reading this half an hour before you host an audio conference, it’s already too late. Leading a conference call actually begins at least a couple of days beforehand, when you send out your agenda to help everyone prepare. As well as an itemised list of topics for discussion, this agenda will include key conference call information:

  • Why? What’s the purpose of the meeting?
  • Who? Who will be taking part?
  • When? Date and time.
  • How? Dial-in number, PINs and any other information essential to joining the call.

You might also add a few pointers for those who may not have been involved in a  conference call before (is there anybody left who hasn’t?). These could include notes on etiquette, such as finding a quiet location for the call, keeping the mute button pressed unless you need to speak, and arriving five minutes before the meeting start time.

A democracy, not a dictatorship

Again an audio conference is like a country because to host an audio conference successfully you need to be a democratic leader, not a dictator. And it definitely shouldn’t deteriorate into anarchy. So you’ll want everyone to make a useful contribution and feel they’ve played their part. You’ll want them all to have a fair chance to make their points. But you’ll need to keep control.

Start by introducing yourself and taking a roll call of attendees. (You don’t need to act like a headteacher but you do need to know who’s there and who isn’t.) GDPR – and simple politeness – also make it necessary to mention that the call is being recorded and to have a verbal agreement from everyone that they’re okay with this. Then you can start working your way through your agenda.

But in the first true test of leading a call, what if five minutes into the first item a latecomer arrives?

Whatever you do, don’t backtrack to fill them in on what they’ve missed. It’s their responsibility to arrive on time, and if they can’t manage that then it’s up to them to catch up after the call – either from the Minutes, by talking to you or other attendees later, or by listening to a recording of the call. (Some services, such as PowWowNow, enable recording.)

Let the people speak

If you have a list of attendees from your roll call, get into the habit of putting a tick against their names when they speak. That way, when you host an audio conference, you can tell who’s not participating or contributing, and bring them in by asking them a direct question or two.

Anyone who doesn’t speak may just be shy. Or they may be doing something else while pretending to be focussed on the conference call: which is not only rude but also makes your audio conference less productive.

Divide and rule

Your agenda will probably cover several different topics. As leader, it will be up to you to notice when each topic has been thoroughly discussed and dealt with effectively. Then you should silently count to three, and introduce the next topic.

If someone is only required for one agenda item, you can arrange before the call for them to dial in just for that and leave when it’s done. It will be less disruptive if you position the relevant item near the beginning or end of the agenda.

Any brainstorming and one-to-one conversations should be saved for a different call that not everyone will need to be on.

Your time has come

However long your agenda may be, an hour is usually the maximum amount of time you can expect your attendees to concentrate. So provide regular time checks to help move things along, and gently guide participants to keep things on topic.

Because you’ve been keeping an eye on the time and on the agenda, you’ll know when it’s time to start wrapping-up the call. You should do this with a brief recap of what’s been discussed, and by asking each attendee, individually, if they understand and agree with their next steps and deadlines.

Allow a short – five second – pause after the last person has spoken, and then you can individually thank and say goodbye to each participant by name, then hang up.

Soon after the call, you should send Minutes – or a link to the recording of the meeting – to all attendees (and to anyone who failed to turn up).

Congratulations: you’ve led a successful conference call. Shall we just call you President from now on?

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