Break that ice – how to conference call with strangers

Conference calling isn’t always easy or straightforward. For many, it’s an unfamiliar social situation, and comes with its own difficulties, as well as its own benefits. One thing that can make teleconferencing a unique – and sometimes challenging – experience, is that you speak to people who you have never, even now, met face to face. So, the first time you get together a group of people who don’t know each other, via a conference call, you might like to use some of these ideas to break the ice, and create a comfortable environment where people are eager to share their thoughts and come up with ideas together.

Before a conference call, you probably send out an agenda, or a summary of the purpose of the telephone meeting. It might be a nice idea to send with it a list of all the other participants’ names, so everybody has some sort of idea of who, and how many, will be taking part in the call. As an activity, you could create a sort of alternative to a conventional role call. Introduce yourself, maybe telling everybody an interesting and relevant fact about yourself, and then choose somebody’s name to go next. The next person then chooses another person to follow them, and so on. This can be a good way to make the call a little more personal and for people to get a feel of what the rest of the group is like, and also get your participants to start interacting with one another.

For some, coming up with an interesting fact can be a little daunting or stressful. If you feel this may be the case, or that it is too personal of a question, you could ask every participant to say where they are at that moment in time as they introduce themselves. Hopefully, this would be more specific than a country or a city, but actually whether they are at home, in an office, in a hotel and so on.

Another thing you could ask as a way of introduction is for each person to name their favourite band, film, book and so on. Again, this could create a little discussion and get participants interacting and conversing with one another, as well as giving everybody some idea of the types of people they are talking to, and what their interests are. You may even find that you have more in common with other people in the call than you expected! If this is too personal, perhaps discuss something in the news that is relevant to your industry or topic, just to get people talking.

If you would like to create quite a light-hearted atmosphere, you could ask each participant to recount something that has happened to them recently which really made them laugh, or to tell a joke. As silly as this may seem, it can really help participants to relax, and reduce possible nerves for people who may feel intimidated by the situation. Another thing you could ask, which would probably create some amusing – and revealing – answers, is for each participant to name something they would rather be doing at that moment in time. You can learn a lot from the answers you get.

Alternatively, for a more business-oriented focus, you could ask each participant to talk about a time that they have been really impressed with a business’s customer-service, and describe why they thought it was so successful. In this way, you could be imparting really useful tips if the people in the call are involved in customer services. Similarly, if you are on a call with potential clients, you could gain really good insight as to how you can impress them and keep their loyalty to your company.

If time is a little short, but you still want to maintain a definite professional atmosphere, you could ask each person to describe in one word what it is that they do as their job. You may get some comical responses, but the focus is still undoubtedly on work, and the pressure to be creative or reveal things about your personality is somewhat reduced.

If you want your ice-breaker to be productive, and a lead straight into the discussion, you could play a sort of hot-potato game of ideas. You would introduce a topic that needs to be discussed during the teleconference, and then say one word that is relevant and you think important. For example, if you were talking about an ideal conference call, you might say ‘clarity’ or ‘recording’, and then you would name somebody to go next, and they might say ‘free‘, or another feature they thought to make a good conference call. This way, everybody contributes straight away, and nobody feels awkward or nervous about the first time they speak, participants are interacting with each other and learning each others’ names, and you are starting the discussion from the outset.

Clearly, there are lots of ways to break the ice when you’re starting a conference call. Don’t be afraid to be creative, and think what will work best for you and the people you are going to be talking to. Take into account things like different cultures, how well people might know each other and so on, and try to ensure everybody is as comfortable as possible. Determine beforehand how formal you want to keep the tone, and ensure your icebreaker doesn’t undermine this if you want a strictly professional atmosphere. It’s also important to consider whether you want to focus on team-building for a group who will be working together in the long-term, or simply introducing people who will not have to meet or collaborate frequently. Whatever the circumstances, there is no reason your conference call needs to feel uncomfortable for anybody involved!

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