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Teleconference Meetings: How to Have More Than Babble
By Steve Kaye   Printer Friendly Version

It seems so easy. All you have to do is connect everyone on a phone call. Then they can talk as if they were in the same room and quickly reach agreements and make decisions. Unfortunately, if you have participated in such a meeting you know that it doesn't work out quite that easily. The reason is that people treat a teleconference like an ordinary phone call. Here is what to do to make sure that your next teleconference ends with results. Preparation First, realize that a teleconference is a meeting. And just like any meeting, it will succeed best when preceded by planning. In fact, since this meeting occurs with the handicap of remote participants, extra planning is often necessary. Your planning should include:

1) Write out the goal for the meeting. Then call key participants to check if this goal makes sense to them. Collect their comments on how to best state the goal, what approach will maximize results, and what obstacles may hinder progress.

2) Prepare an agenda that describes the steps that you will take to achieve the goal. Keep the process simple, because complexity will ruin a teleconference. Also, keep the schedule short. In general, a teleconference should last less than thirty minutes. If you have many issues, plan different meetings to work on each of them.

3) Select the participants. In general, limit attendance to eight or fewer because large groups become unmanageable in a teleconference. Select only those people who can make significant contributions to the meeting. Avoid inviting people to attend just so they know what is going on. You can keep them informed by sending them a copy of the minutes.

4) Prepare materials for the meeting. This could include notes, data, spreadsheets, schematics, diagrams, or copies of presentation exhibits. Send copies of these to all of the participants so they have them before the meeting.

5) Ask someone to serve as a meeting facilitator (or voice traffic controller). Explain the goal for your meeting and provide copies of the agenda and all meeting materials. Also advise the facilitator on any special issues that could affect the outcome of the meeting. For example, tell the facilitator if someone opposes your plan.

Conducting the Meeting Follow these steps to make sure that your meeting moves methodically toward the results that you want.

1) Begin by stating the goal for the meeting and reviewing the agenda. Thank the participants for attending.

2) Then ask each participant to give a very brief (10 seconds) self-introduction, stating name and location. This enrolls everyone into the call and lets everyone associate a name with the sound of the person's voice.

3) Use the facilitator to monitor voice traffic, take notes, and direct the meeting process. If possible, the facilitator can type notes into a discussion page that everyone can watch on the company's intranet or over the Internet. This mimics record keeping on a flip chart.

4) Follow the process or strategy that you planned when organizing the meeting. Avoid allowing a random discussion that leads to nothing. Use questions to focus the participant's attention to your issue followed by summaries to capture results. For example, you could ask, "What should we do about the new requirement for this project?" followed by "It seems that everyone agrees that we should extend the deadline by a week."

5) Use the notes and other materials that you sent to the participants. For example, you can lead the participants through an explanation by referring to supporting items, e.g., "The cost appears at the bottom of the second column in Table 2."

6) Write minutes to document agreements, decisions, and results. Publish these within a day after the meeting and use them to track progress on action items.

Effective Phone Usage Establish rules for effective and respectful phone usage. This includes:

1) Use the handset (or a headset) instead of the speakerphone. A speakerphone, while sometimes useful, distorts your voice, picks up background sounds (like office equipment), and makes a poor impression on the listener. If you must have both hands free while you talk, obtain a headset. (Note: It is more courteous to speak to people through the handset on all phone calls.)

2) Eliminate background noises such as radios, conversations, and office chatter. If necessary, request that participants participate from an empty office, close their doors, or ask their office mates to leave for the duration of the meeting. If someone is participating from home, that person may need to move children and pets into other rooms.

3) Pay attention to the meeting. Some people use the privacy of their office to start unproductive activities during the meeting. For example, some people may read their mail, surf the Internet, or press the mute button to carry on conversations. This effectively removes them from the meeting. Even worse, the other participants think this person is still there, paying attention.

4) Wait until the person speaking finishes before starting to talk. You can have the facilitator select the next speaker or establish a protocol where the speaker signals by saying, "Next" or "I'm done" when finished. If this seems artificial, then you may find it useful to wait a second or so when you expect that someone has finished speaking before starting.

Teleconferences can provide an effective and efficient means of conducting a meeting. They allow participants, who may be separated by large distances, to gather without having to travel. Use the above techniques to make sure that your meetings earn a profit for your business.



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