The February 26, 2014 edition of The Wall Street Journal included an article entitled “Surviving a Conference Call – How to Stop the Rambling, Multitasking and Zoning Out”. Before even reading the article I started to relate to the title and knew that association leaders would all empathize with the theme.

Author Sue Shellenbarger quotes some interesting statistics in her column:

  • Time spent in audio conferences in the United States is expected to grow by 9.6% through 2017 according to Boston-based Wainhouse Research
  • 75% of business people surveyed in 2012 by New York’s RW3, a leadership training company, stated one of the biggest challenges of virtual meetings is that it is hard for participants to build rapport (this is why association conferences are so important!)

Travel, budget and time constraints are the leading reasons why we are all spending more time on conference calls and this increase means that rules for these calls are becoming even more important. The article has some great suggestions and, based on those and my own experience participating in and leading conference calls, here are some simple rules to make these calls better for everyone:

  • Respect participant time by starting the meeting on time
  • Remind everyone of the ground rules, how to mute their line, etc.
  • Have an agenda and follow it
  • Ensure that introductions are made, just like you would at an in-person meeting
  • As the chair, listen more than you talk
  • Ensure that everyone is heard, specifically ask silent people for their input
  • Always end by asking if anything has been missed
  • End the meeting on time, or if you need to run late, poll everyone to make sure that they can stay on the line

The fact that you can’t see facial expressions or read body language during a conference call means that having basic rules and following them is even more important than in a face-to-face meeting.

Some associations are now moving conference call meetings to video conferences as services such as Skype and GoToMeeting are making this easier and more cost effective than ever before. Keep in mind that not everyone has a webcam, or wants to use it. If you want to move in this direction make sure that all participants have the appropriate technology and are willing to be seen, not just heard. One advantage of a video conference is that participants can’t call in from their convertible driving down the highway!

Associations have traditionally been in the face-to-face business and for many that continues to be their bread and butter. Use this as a reminder that some meetings are simply better when done face-to-face. The value of discussions over coffee breaks, after the formal meeting, etc. can’t be measured so make sure to consider that when deciding whether your meeting should in person or virtual.

Whether you meet virtually or in person, a few ground rules can always help your meeting run a little smoother.