Effective Telephone Conferences
by Andrew Elowitt
(County Bar Update, August 2004, Vol. 24, No. 7)

Effective Telephone Conferences

By Andrew Elowitt, Law Practice Management Section Executive Committee. Elowitt is an organizational consultant and executive/professional coach with New Actions C+C, and has more than 20 years experience as a California lawyer. He can be reached at elowitt@newactions.com. The opinions expressed are his own.

Imagine sitting in a meeting wearing a blindfold. You can't see anybody else, and they can't see you. You don't know half the people in the meeting, so you're really not clear about who's saying what. You can't read what's written on the whiteboard, and, to make matters worse, cell phones ring throughout the meeting, and a radio plays off and on. As ridiculous as this imaginary meeting sounds, we often come close to re-creating it when we meet by telephone.

Even though telephone conferences have become an essential part of the way we conduct business, we make them needlessly difficult. The following simple guidelines help compensate for the lack of physical attendance and ensure that telephone conferences are brief, clear, and productive.

Before the Call

Distribute an agenda to the call participants. When appropriate, request the participants' feedback on the agenda items. Should new items be added? Should existing items be deleted or reframed?

Distribute written materials early enough for participants to have a chance to review before (rather than during) the call.

Technical Considerations

When possible, use a landline for the best sound quality.

Cell phones and portable phones often cause static heard by all callers, even when the person on the cell or portable phone is not speaking.

Computer-Internet-based calls often create considerable problems for teleconference lines. 

Use your phone's "mute" button when not directly contributing to the discussion. This greatly reduces distracting background noise.

Don't use the "hold" button if your phone system plays music while you're away. The music will make it impossible for the other participants to continue the call.

Avoid using speakerphones unless multiple call participants are present at a single location. If a speakerphone is necessary, remember to use the "mute" button to minimize disruptions and background noise, especially during conversations between participants at that single location.

Silence the ringers on other phone lines, and turn off any cell phones, fax machines, computers, beepers, pagers, and call waiting features that might ring and distract during the call.

Do not use 3-way calling. It often degrades the quality of the teleconference line.

Beginning the Call

Call in on time. Late arrivals can be disruptive.

Identify yourself when calling in unless the conference has already begun.

After allowing participants three to five minutes to call in, the chairperson or moderator should recap who is on the call and ask if anyone else has joined. (Taking roll is an alternative to this.)

If participants need to leave the call early, announce this at the beginning of the call.

During the Call

Before speaking, always introduce yourself by name. ("This is Bob. I think it's time we ...")

If asking a question of someone, state the person's name at the start of the question to ensure that you capture attention. ("Bob, this is Jean. What did you mean by ... ?") 

If you must leave the call for a brief moment, leave your "mute" button on, and come back as soon as possible. If you must leave the call for a longer period of time, let the others know when you leave and when you will return.

If you must leave the call early, hang up without interrupting the conversation; however, it's best to let others know this at the beginning of the call.

Sometimes words need to compensate for the absence of visual cues such as facial expressions and posture. ("Since I can't see you, I don't know how you're reacting to what I just proposed. What did you think of my idea?")

Stay focused on the conversation. Avoid doing other things such as multitasking, opening e-mail, or moving papers.