Having to host a conference call, particularly for the first time, can feel a bit daunting or even confusing. It's important to have an idea about what you're doing, so that you can have a productive, useful meeting over the phone, rather than a confused, chaotic call that's hard work for everyone. To make sure your conference calls are streamlined and productive, we’ve put together this handy, comprehensive guide. Following these steps will allow you to get the most out of your call.
Before the meeting begins
Most of the success in a conference calling comes from good planning. Here's what to do before the call...
Choose the right conferencing platform
The very first step is choosing your conference call bridge wisely. Different people and businesses have totally different needs, which is why different providers and packages offer a wide array of services.
The conference calling platform you should use will depend on the requirements of your call. If you simply want to be able to easily organise and initiate a meeting over the phone, taking advantage of basic features like call recording; most free conference calling services will do. If you require more advanced features such as screen or file sharing, or video conferencing; you will want to look into premium services.
We put together a handy summary of what you get if you pay for conference calls, which is worth a look if you're not sure if you should be going for a paid option.
We've also compared some of the best free conferencing services here. Do your research beforehand and make a choice that addresses your particular requirements and budget.
Set the Agenda
The next, and crucial, step is to collate an agenda or plan for your meeting. You may want this just as a reference for yourself, or as document that you send out to all participants before the call. Your agenda will normally involve a list of everything that needs to be discussed during the meeting. If you have a lot to get through, it's worth keeping to a time schedule, where you allocate a set amount of time to each topic or subject.
- If any of the participants are strangers to each other, remember to carry out introductions if necessary.
- As you formulate the plan, just imagine yourself talking everyone through it, as this can help you to think of any extra points that need to be made. You should aim to cover any questions or concerns that you imagine your participants might have.
- Encourage open discussion about the best solutions to any obstacles if appropriate. And try to focus on the positives before the negatives.
- You may want to allocate some time at the end for questions.
- The main thing is to write down everything that needs to be covered, but keep things simple and to the point.
Tip: If there are strangers on the call, there are lots of ways to break the ice. Finding out some personal information about participants (use social media!) can make small talk much more engaging, while you're waiting for everyone to join the call.
Find the right time
Once you've come up with a structure for your discussion, you can start selecting a time for the meeting to take place. Try to ensure it is as convenient as possible for all attendees, taking into account different time zones, other commitments people may have, and so on. If your conference call is work related, always aim to avoid scheduling calls first thing in the morning, during lunch breaks, or after normal working hours.
You should have a rough idea of how long the call is likely to take too.
Tip: Websites like timeanddate.com provide great tools for checking the time in different cities and countries. You might also be impressed if you search Google with a phrase like "at 10am what time will it be in Paris?".
Send out your meeting invitation
Finally, it’s time to send out your invitations. Make sure you do this with plenty of time, so people can organise their schedules to fit in the meeting. You may need to rearrange if too many people can't attend, but remember that even free conferencing services provide call recordings, which can allow you to send an audio recording of your conference to anybody who couldn't make it.
Most conferencing services offer some kind of automated invitations, which can make things quicker and easier for you. Either way make sure the following is included in your invitation:
- Details about gaining access to the conference room, including the dial in number and any access codes.
- The time and date of the call, and how long it's expected to run for.
- The planned agenda you have put together, requesting participants to familiarise themselves with it.
- Anything that needs to be prepared before the call date, including getting any necessary documents ready or tasks completed.
- An alternative dial-in number/access method if one is provided.
- An alternative contact number for yourself, in case anybody has trouble connecting to the call.
Tip: Make sure the objective of the call is made really clear, so that everyone is on the same page when you start your discussion.
Consider sending a reminder
Many conferencing platforms will send an automatic reminder out to participants for you, but if you want to send a reminder out yourself, this can make more of an impact. Remind your participants to join the call 5 minutes before the start time, to guarantee you have time to give last minute instructions, and introduce everybody. You can also use this reminder to attach any reports or documents that will be referenced on the call.
Think about your surroundings!
As the call’s start time approaches, you need to make sure your location is appropriate. The physical place you are in should be quiet, and as private as possible so that you are able to talk freely and without interruption or distraction. Too many conference calls are interrupted by external noise, which can almost always be avoided. If you plan a large conference call, you may want to include a warning about this when you send out your invitation to the call!
Be the first to arrive
As the host, you need to join the call around 10 minutes before the designated start time, to ensure that you are present before any other participant dials in. As your participants begin to arrive, make sure you greet them.
Quickly outline the agenda and begin
After you've introduced people where appropriate, simply give a brief outline of what's to be discussed. You should expect to start your call around 3-5 minutes after the specified start time. Even if not everybody is present, you should not wait much longer than this, as those who did arrive on time will become restless and lose concentration quickly. Remember, good conferencing services offer call recording functionality, where you can usually have the audio automatically sent out to participants as soon as the call ends. If anyone is late, or could not make it, they can listen back to the recording in their own time.
During the main body of the meeting
Finally it's time to actually initiate the discussion. Follow these steps to make sure everyone gets something out of the call.
Always try to stick to your plan
You spent a lot of time putting it together, so don’t waste it! Keep a constant eye on the time, particularly as there may be people who have commitments directly after the call is scheduled to finish, and so will not be able to stay any longer. Equally, you have to make sure every point you included in the agenda is covered, so stick to the plan.
Get people to announce their names
If there are more than around three or four participants, you should encourage everybody to specify who they are when they start talking (‘Chris, here…’, ‘this is Kelly…’) to avoid confusion and uncertainty as to who has made which points, who is contributing a lot and who has remained silent.
Consider using the mute function
Take advantage of the mute key during teleconferences – it is one of your best friends. For very large conference calls, encourage your participants to mute themselves on their devices, or use your own master mute key to mute other participants if your conferencing service allows it.
This links with the overall, crucial idea of you showing leadership during the call. You are the host, so don’t be afraid of using your power! While you should never interrupt a participant mid-flow, you need to stop anybody from rambling, going off-topic, or not allowing others to give their opinion. You may need to show a bit of confidence and assertiveness to ensure your call is fully productive.
Obviously it is paramount that you remain focused. Don’t start checking emails, going over your schedule for the day, making a cup of tea, or doodling. Pay close attention to what everybody is saying, and how quickly time is progressing. A good way to make sure that you remain focused is to take notes throughout the call – obviously these will be really useful to have after the meeting has finished too.
Sure you can record the call and listen back later, but you'll save yourself time if you take everything in on the call!
Don't leave anything behind
Make sure there is a really clear opportunity for people to voice any final questions and comments, and assure them that these will be answered either after the call, or right there and then if they are brief. If a follow-up meeting is required, try to schedule this as a group before anybody dials out of the call. Thank all the participants for their contributions and for having taken the time to take part in the call.
After the meeting
It's not over yet
Once everybody has hung up, don’t go and take a break! Summarise the points that have been covered and any decisions that have been made into your own notes, including your plan of action for the future.
You should start writing a quick recap of everything that has been said, before you forget any details. This can then be sent on to all the participants. That way, everybody will be absolutely sure of their responsibilities regarding the work that has been set during the call, and the conversation will be clearly documented in case anybody has any disagreements later (of course, call recording is an even better provider of proof of what has been said).
Send the complete minutes (meeting notes) out as soon as they are ready.
Communicate and Collaborate
The list may seem long, but the steps are quite simple and easy, and require a relatively small amount of effort in exchange for the huge payout of a truly successful audio meeting! If you follow this guide, there is very little that could go wrong, and if anything does, it certainly won’t be as a result of poor preparation on the host’s part.
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