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Conference call etiquette

Every trade or industry has its tools. And apart from the IT stuff like spreadsheets, word-processors and a variety of presentation apps, today’s Management Consultant cannot work without conference calls.

Communication is among our primary skills, and projects more often than not are spread over geographies. It is therefore almost on a daily basis that consultants and their clients meet each other without physical presence. Conference calls have been around for some time now to facilitate this. And by now we have established that there are right ways and also many wrong ways to conduct them.

Science tells us that the biggest part of communication is non-verbal. Body language (lost in conference calls) and intonation (at risk) make up 80% of what you can bring across. This is common knowledge but at the same time you can see people making all kinds of gestures when in a phone conversation. So there may still be an issue here: we know but we don’t act accordingly. These and other experiences made me wonder about what we can learn from other industries. Especially from those where communication is core business and in some cases the quality of it can mean the difference between life and death.

What we can learn from other industries

A first example comes from Politics. It helps to have a chairman with clear responsibilities for agenda, progress and time-keeping including some rules on how to address each other. If nothing else the chairman ensures that only one person is talking at the same time. And he/she enables the scribe (another important role) to keep up taking notes.

Another example comes from the aviation industry. Aviation learned the importance of efficient and effective communication the hard way and sometimes at great expense.  This has led to clear guidance: be clear about starting and ending communication, acknowledge explicitly what has been said and agree a pre-defined set of codes. For them these simple-to-implement measures saved lives.

Examples (sometimes painful) from personal experience

As a Management Consultant my examples are less heroic than live-or-death-situations. I once introduced the NATO spelling alphabet in a project. That saved a lot of time and frustration in a process to reset username/password combinations by phone. And of course we all know that Skype also has a chat-function. Adding this type of ‘written communication’ to a technical conversation about e.g. IP-addresses can cut meeting times in half. From personal experience I know the impact can even bigger. For instance if you have Indian and Scottish engineers (facilitated by a German chairman) sort out firewall rules. And in general it helps to engage in some small-talk upfront. You get a feel for the name-voice combinations and learn to deal with today’s latency on the line before talking business.

Furthermore I can confirm that any of the participants driving a convertible is a no go. It may bring across his happiness in driving such a car but that’s about it. And no, it doesn’t help either if one of the participants is dropping off/picking up kids in a school or a day care center. For all you facilitators out there: modern tooling enables you to mute these people. Although you may consider to rather disconnect them completely.

If ever you need to introduce a group of people in the do’s and don’ts of Conference Calls, I can recommend the Conference Call Etiquette Guide from the guys at www.betterconferencecalls.com. Or just show tRIPP & tYLER’s view on ‘A Conference Call in Real Life