WITH the increasing use of free Voice Over Internet Protocol (VOIP) technologies on programmes like Skype, MSN and Yahoo, today's office worker cannot escape the conference call. Get ready for your first call with these best practices.
Similar to yet unlike face-to-face meetings, conference calls are meetings held over the telephone.
I organised my first conference call in 2002 when I connected with colleagues in Argentina, India, Mexico, South Africa, Tokyo, Trinidad and Tobago, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom and the United States. Due to the different time zones, we wished everyone "Good morning", "Good afternoon" or "Good night" at the same time!
Also, underdeveloped telecommunications infrastructure saw participants getting disconnected midway through the calls and had to be connected again.
Amusing episodes occurred too when we lost a caller midway in his sentence because his train entered a tunnel or when a caller forgot to press the "MUTE" button when flushing the toilet!
Another multi-tasking caller could be heard washing the plates or frantically whispering, "No, Daddy can't play trains right now!"
If you're due to join or organise a conference call soon, here are some best practices to ensure an effective meeting with people you can hear but can't see.
Before the call
Circulate the agenda at least a few days before the call to allow the participants to prepare for the meeting. Highlight the sections that you're responsible for and be prepared to answer questions for them. Jot down your own questions and leave space next for answers or further actions.
Ensure that the room where you're taking the call is quiet and free from interruptions since background noise may prevent the participants from hearing what you say.
Also, familiarise yourself with the "MUTE", "UNMUTE" and "HELP" functions. It is common courtesy for participants listening to the discussion to press the "MUTE" button to create as quiet an environment as possible for the speaker.
During the call
When you're connected to the call, introduce yourself after the chairperson's cue.
When you join in the call, remember to speak clearly and remember that the participants cannot see your body language like facial expressions or hand gestures as you speak.
Sitting or standing in an upright posture helps to project a clear voice over the telephone.
Don't speak too quickly. Listening requires more effort and sometimes, participants in long-distance conference calls may experience a delayed transmission. If you pace yourself, the participants can hear you better and you have less to repeat if you are stopped halfway.
The phonetic alphabet (http://www.osric.com/chris/phonetic.html) is useful for spelling names. Also, "zero" is clearer than "oh" when you use the number.
Use transition words like "first, second, third ..." or "first, then, next, finally ..." to help participants follow your train of thought. They can also refer to the points in question when they have a question or comment. As you participate in the call, draw on the language of meetings:
Getting the chairperson's attention
May I have a word?
If I may, I think ...
Excuse me for interrupting.
May I come in here?
I'm positive that ...
I (really) feel that ...
In my opinion ...
The way I see things ...
If you ask me ...
I tend to think that ...
Asking for opinions
Do you (really) think that ...
(Name of participant), can we get your input?
I totally agree with you.
That's (exactly) the way I feel.
I have to agree with (Name of participant).
Unfortunately, I see it differently.
Up to a point I agree with you, but ...
(I'm afraid) I can't agree
Advising and suggesting
We should ...
Why don't you ...
How/What about ...
I suggest/recommend that ...
Let me spell out ...
Have I made that clear?
Do you see what I'm getting at?
Let me put this another way ...
I'd just like to repeat that ...
Please, could you ...
I'd like you to ...
Would you mind ...
I wonder if you could ...
Asking for repetition
I'm afraid I didn't understand that. Could you repeat what you just said?
I didn't catch that. Could you repeat that, please?
I missed that. Could you say it again, please?
Could you run that by me one more time?
Asking for clarification
I don't quite follow you. What exactly do you mean?
I'm afraid I don't quite understand what you are getting at.
Could you explain to me how that is going to work?
I don't see what you mean. Could we have more details, please?
Sorry, I think you misunderstood what I said.
Sorry, that's not quite right.
That's not quite what I had in mind.
That's not what I meant.
Before we close today's meeting, let me just summarise the main points.
Let me quickly go over today's main points.
To sum up, ...
OK, why don't we quickly summarise what we've done today.
Shall I go over the main points?
(Sample phrases are taken from: http://esl.about.com/od/business speakingskills/a/b_meetphrases_3.htm)
After the call
Note down any further actions you're responsible for and follow through on them.
Now that you've brushed up on your conference call technique, the floor's all yours.