Teleconferences can be a boon or a bust. On the positive side, they allow people at different locations to attend meetings without having to travel.
On the negative side, they can degenerate into frustrating struggles with uncontrolled babble. This occurs because people lack visual contact, which hinders effective communication and provides opportunities to misbehave. Here’s how to set up an effective meeting by phone.
1) Plan a simple meeting. Ideally, the meeting should last less than 30 to 45 minutes. People are unable to concentrate on long phone calls. They become tired. Their attention drifts. They need to take a break. Design your meeting so that it is short and to the point. That way everyone can focus on the issues and participate effectively.
2) Write out your goal for the meeting. Then make sure that this statement truly represents the result that you want to have at the end of the meeting. Lack of a clear, well-stated goal is the second biggest cause of bad meetings. Next check if a teleconference is the best way to obtain that goal. Cancel the meeting if you can achieve the goal with any other approach, such as by sending a memo, making a single phone call, or thinking through a solution by yourself.
3) Prepare an agenda. A teleconference without an agenda is like a journey without a map — in the dark. Without an agenda, you will lose control and waste time. Your agenda should include the goal for the meeting and detailed instructions for each part of the meeting. It should be so complete and specific that someone else could use it to run your meeting.
4) Distribute the agenda at least a day before the meeting. This allows everyone to think about your issues and prepare for their participation. If appropriate (e.g., for controversial or complex issues) call key participants to confirm that they received the agenda and to check if they have comments on how the meeting could be made more effective. Use this as an opportunity to listen their ideas, instead of to work on the issues or argue with them.
5) Distribute any materials related to the issues before the meeting. This includes outlines, blueprints, schematics, product brochures, and data. Then, the participants can use these tools to participate more effectively. For example, they can follow an outline, look at diagrams, or read data during the meeting. This helps compensate for the lack of visual contact in a teleconference.
6) Invite only those who can directly contribute to the meeting. Ideally, this should be fewer than eight people. If you invite more people, it becomes very difficult to hold an effective meeting. With a larger group, some of the attendees will become lost as silent listeners, which is a waste of their time. You can always send a copy of the minutes to the people who need to know about the work accomplished during the meeting.
A teleconference is more than a phone call. It is a meeting. And a meeting is a business activity that should be driven by a well thought out goal supported by a detailed plan. With proper planning, your teleconferences will distinguish you as an effective leader.