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Can You Hear Me Now? Avoid the Most Common Conference Call Faux Pas

image for fizkes / Getty Images
fizkes / Getty Images
  • To avoid running over time on conference calls, start promptly and have an agenda.
  • When on a conference call, choose a quiet location and mute your phone to reduce background noise during the meeting.
  • Appoint someone to take minutes and send them to the group after the meeting to help attendees remember what was discussed. 

Late arrivers, distracting background noises and people talking over each other are just a few of the annoying issues one encounters during conference calls. Avoiding these, and other disruptions, are critical for having efficient and productive phone meetings. 

Here are 12 etiquette tips experts suggest following to ensure your conference calls are as beneficial as possible for everyone involved. 

 

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Research from the Robert Half staffing firm OfficeTeam found that talking over others, background noise and not paying attention are among the biggest breaches of conference call etiquette. Nearly 40% of those surveyed said multiple participants talking at the same time is the most distracting behavior on a conference call followed by excessive background noise (24%). 

Conference calls and in-person meetings serve the same purpose: They help you and your team plan and prepare for projects and future responsibilities. But because conference calls rely on voice communication only, it's important to follow certain guidelines to ensure your conference call runs smoothly. Joanne Blake, a business etiquette expert and CEO of Style for Success, said preparation is the key to a productive conference call. 

"A lot of faux pas can be eliminated if ground rules are set in advance or reviewed periodically," she said. 

Here are 12 guidelines to help you run your conference calls effectively. 

  1. Start your meetings on time. If you're worried about latecomers missing out on information, assign one of your team members to fill them in later. Most of your group will already be on the call, so it's important to respect their time, and start and end the meeting on schedule. 
  1. Have an agenda. Prepare and disseminate a copy of the agenda well in advance of the meeting so that everyone is on the same page. Ideally, attendees should spend time reviewing the agenda before the meeting starts. 
  1. Appoint a leader. A conference call shouldn't be a free-for-all situation, said Barbara Mitchell, a human resources and management consultant and author of The Big Book of HR. Ideally, said Mitchell, whoever initiates the call should guide the call. 
  1. Take time for introductions. When people join the call, ask them to announce themselves. Once everyone is present, do a roll call just to be sure no one is missing. During the meeting, before sharing your thoughts with the group, introduce yourself saying, "This is [your name]," said Jacqueline Whitmore, a business etiquette expert and founder of The Protocol School of Palm Beach. "If you are talking to somebody who isn't familiar with you or the people in your company, it is helpful to know who is speaking." 
  1. Manage background noise. Blake said conference call hosts and participants should choose the place they call in from carefully. "Choose a quiet location, whether you're a participant or the person chairing the call," she said. "If [you're] calling from a home office, barking dogs and children running around can be heard." Whitmore said participants should know how to mute their phones to avoid distracting noises during the meeting. Practice putting yourself on mute, even if you're not speaking or in a noisy environment. Silencing yourself allows you to sneeze, shift and make sounds without disturbing others on the call. "You want to block out any ambient noise," Blake said. "Make sure everyone knows how to use their mute button." 
  1. Encourage participation from all attendees. It is important to make everyone feel included during a call. It's very easy for participants to disengage, because many believe that since they can't be seen, like in a face-to-face or video meeting, they can attend to other tasks, such as working on other assignments, eating, typing or rifling through drawers, Blake said. "When you're distracted, you may stumble when called on to speak," she said. Encourage attendees to ask questions and share their opinions. Avoid monologuing, and if you're the facilitator of the meeting, come prepared with your own set of questions for the team. This encourages participants to focus and contribute to the call. 
  1. Appoint a note-taker. During the meeting, appoint someone to take notes or minutes. When there are so many people on one call, many ideas are shared, and it can be hard to remember everything. Have someone keep track of key decisions and outcomes from the discussion. "Send out a follow-up email with what was agreed to, just as you would if you were meeting face to face," Mitchell said. 
  1. Let others know if you need to leave early. Let everyone know at the start of the meeting (or beforehand, if possible) if you can't stay for the duration of the call. It is less distracting if those on the call know you will be leaving so no one's confused when you hang up. "If you have to drop off the call for any reason, let the facilitator know you are leaving so we don't call on you and waste time," said Mitchell. 
  1. End the meeting on time. It is important to respect everyone's time. Keep your remarks to a minimum so you can get through the agenda and avoid going over the allotted time. Not ending conference calls on time is viewed as disrespectful, Blake noted. "It affects productivity and can make you come across as a poor time manager," she said. 
  1. Summarize action items. Toward the end of the call, the host should summarize the assignments, tasks or other action items that team members have accepted during the call. This helps participants understand what they are expected to do after the call ends. 
  1. Follow up with key contacts. If you are supposed to connect with certain team members after you hang up the phone, shoot them an email or link up with them before the workday is over. This minimeeting can help everyone quickly confirm that you are all on the same page about what was discussed over the phone. 
  1. Jot down your own notes after the meeting. Even if someone took notes for the group, write down your own notes after the meeting. Doing this helps you remember action items that were assigned to you, and it reinforces key parts of the call that pertain to you that may not be included in the minutes. 

It's important to brush up on conference call etiquette because it's easy to slip into bad habits that make conference calls annoying or inefficient. 

"While it might seem as if a conference call is just another telephone call, it isn't," Mitchell said. "Conference calls need some guidelines to be successful." 

If you are still experiencing impolite behavior and unproductive conference calls, Mitchell recommended putting a task force together to address what new practices and processes your company can implement going forward. 

"This should help everyone be on the same page and make your calls more productive," she said. 

Despite the rise in the popularity of Zoom and other video conferencing services, that doesn't mean conference calling is obsolete. Whitmore doesn't see it going away anytime soon. 

"It's a very useful tool," Whitmore said. Not everyone feels comfortable using video technology, and conference calling only requires picking up a phone and dialing some numbers. 

"Depending on your participants' level of technology, they might not know how to use video conferencing services," Whitmore said. "So, conference calls are very easy to get everyone engaged. It is a lot easier for most people." 

Additional reporting by Chad Brooks. Some source interviews were conducted for a previous version of this article.

Simone Johnson

Simone R. Johnson was born and raised in New York City. She graduated from the University of Rochester in 2017 with a dual degree in English language media and communications and film media production. She has been a reporter for several New York publications prior to joining Business News Daily and business.com as a full-time staff writer. When she isn't writing, she enjoys community enrichment projects that serve disadvantaged groups and rereading her favorite novels.