Updated Conference Call & Meeting Tips

My last post about this topic was dated 2009. In preparing for a workshop this week, it seemed like a good time to update the resource. have any suggestions or additions? Please share them in the comments.

Flickr Creative Commons photo from Leo Reynolds http://www.flickr.com/photos/lwr/438478596/sizes/s/

Why use a call?

The medium of voice conversations is pretty flexible. Many of us have mastered the one to one call. You can read hundreds of articles about when to use and not to use voice calls, but the bottom line is you can do many many things and many people have few alternatives. The real question is how hard it is to do any particular type of interaction WELL on a call.

Group voices  calls  can be used  in general for:

  • meetings (best with smaller groups unless it is to broadcast information)
  • project management teams
  • learning events
  • guest speaker presentations
  • orientation or closure for online activity/event
  • networking
  • presentations/pitches

Teleconferences support processes of:

  • decision making (convergence) – this can be a challenging process if the decisions are difficult/complex
  • problem solving/conflict resolution – same issue as decision making
  • fun/play
  • relationship building/orientation
  • brainstorming
  • teamwork
  • knowledge sharing
  • information delivery



  • Have an agenda that includes goals, participant expectations and timing if appropriate. (2013 update — I’ve grown to realize that not all meetings need agendas, but they need at least an intention. For complex, emergent issues, an agenda may not serve as well as a really good starting question.)
    • Don’t CRAM the agenda! It takes more time and people have more fragile attention spans.
    • Ask participants to review the agenda prior to the call. (Or the background materials, intentions, etc.!)
  • An hour on a teleconference generally cannot accomplish quite as much as an hour F2F. Plan accordingly. (Update: take this into consideration with the next point! )
  • If you expect active participation from all participants, consider the impact of volume of comments on time available when determining the number of agenda items. On a 10 person call with the expectation that everyone comments on each agenda item, and their comments range from 1-3 minutes, that means you can accommodate 1-2 agenda items in an hour.
  • Decide on roles. The meeting chair does not have to be the same person who is looking after the call facilitation duties. (Update: I have grown very fond of having a shared chat tool for collective note taking and have added a sub section below. I use http://www.meetingwords.com a lot. )
    • Specific roles are more important as the size of the group increases
    • Facilitator or master of ceremonies – support meeting process
    • Having a “greeter” who arrives 5 or more minutes early to welcome people as they arrive on the phone line helps them orient socially
    • Having a “tech person” who can help people (say, by means of a chat room or instant messenger (IM) if they have difficulties)
    • Designated presenters or speakers who are experts in the topic
    • Having a note-taker (say in a chat-room, that also supports the “tech person”)
  • If part of the group is in a F2F with a long (i.e. full day) agenda, consider scheduling shorter phone segments for critical business. It is hard to stay on the phone for a full day! 😉

Technical Set Up

  • Consider if telephone is the best communication tool for your task or purpose. Alternatives include webmeeting tools, or pairing a phone call with another visual tool such as a chat room (Skype, IM, etc) or shared Whiteboard (ie. Vyew)
  • Send all participants the dial in number and pass-codes (if any) needed. 
    • When I send these in advance, I find it useful to resend an hour before the meeting so people don’t have to go digging through old emails. If you use a calendar request, include on the invitation.)
  • Be clear to participants if you are offering a toll free number or if they are responsible for long distance costs. With international groups, make sure your number includes the international country code.
  • Providing a “jumping off” point –where people can look up the details if they’re lost or if the technology fails. (email, URL, etc.)
  • Integrate a phone call with other media and modes of communication (online, face-to-face, presentation media and print resources). E.G. Collect topics from asynchronous discussions (email lists or web boards)
  • Consider using more than one channel. This means audio with a visual. Often this helps focus more attention and understanding. For example, integrate visuals by sending images in advance or using a web meeting tool. Use an online white board to generate shared images and notes during the call.
  • Consider arrangements for hearing impaired participants (TTY, simultaneous transcription in a chat room, etc.).
  • Have a back up plan for potential technology failure.
  • If the call leader controls the start/stop of the call and may have to leave early, have a second person with leader privileges so the call does not get cut off. Be careful of teleconferencing and we bmeeting tools that only allow one person to have the controls. This is risky.
  • Plan to record the call so you can post audio recordings or notes so that they support asynchronous interaction or give people who couldn’t make it to the call a sense of belonging. If you plan to record the call, recording, playback and transcription tools/services include:
    • http://www.audioacrobat.com
    • http://free.conferencecall.com
    • http://www.highspeedconferencing.com
    • http://www.skype.com with external plug ins (tools you have to add in)
    • http://www.learningalliances.net/CoP_Resources/Recording-phone-meetings.htm
  • Cheap and useful telephone services and tools
    • http://www.freeconferencecall.com
    • http://www.highdefconferencing.com/ (combines regular phone calls and Skype calls)
    • http://www.skype.com
    • http://www.gizmoproject.com/
    • http://www.nocostconference.com/
    • http://www.vyew.com/content/ Simple tool to share screens, etc.

Scheduling and Preparation

  • Consider participant availability just as you would for any other meeting.
  • Consider time zones when scheduling. See the WCAG 2.0 Compliant time converter option, thetimenow.com (Edit, 9/21/16 – thetimenow.com has asked us to remove all links so you just see the name, not the link.  NW) or  http://www.timeanddate.com for timezones and http://www.doodle.ch for scheduling tools.)
  • Communicate local time or how to calculate local time when sending meeting announcement.
  • Distribute supporting documents/files well before the call start.
  • Inform participants if they have to have a file or website open on their computer desktop.
  • Have an attendance list with name, email and phone number in case you need to contact an individual before, during or after the call.

Starting the Call

  • The facilitator should log on early and be the first online (5-15 minutes).
  • If you are going to record the  call, put a big post it note in front of you to remember to turn on the recording. Can you tell I’ve forgotten this a few times? I now also ask someone else to remind me.
    • Tell people if you are recording the call and ask for/deal with any objections. Tell WHERE the recording will be available and who will have access.
  • Greet and know who is online (roll call, use “the clock” described below, etc.).
  • If appropriate, ask early arrivals to greet subsequent arrivals as a team-building activity.
  • Establish protocol of announcing name when taking a turn speaking.
  • Review and, if needed, adjust agenda.
  • Find out if there are any individual time constraints (“I have to leave early”) and adjust accordingly. This is particularly important if you need the input or participation of the person leaving early to achieve the goals of the call.

General Call Etiquette

  • Call from a quiet location.
  • Avoid cell phones. If you use a cell phone, put on mute when not talking.
  • Avoid speakerphones or if using speakerphones, use the mute button.
  • Use quality headsets to avoid “tinny” sound.
  • Avoid low quality cordless phones as they sometimes create a buzzing background sound.
  • Don’t use the hold button if your phone system has built in background music or announcements.
  • Avoid paper rustling.
  • Caution with multitasking – some is unavoidable, but remind people about attention and occasionally call on silent folks to keep their attention. Listen for keyboard sounds (those doing email!).
  • Announce if leaving/returning.
  • On long calls, offer bio breaks and “quick stretches” – remember we are more than just ears! Consider kind treatment of bodies!
  • Speak clearly. Slow down if you are a “fast talker.”
  • Be aware of the impact of accents and slow down accordingly.
  • Be enthusiastic and use a tone appropriate to the group. The first impression is important.
  • Vary voice tone – avoid monotone presentation.
  • Articulate body language (“I’m making waving motions with my hands.”)

Attention & Engagement

  • Use guest speakers or multiple speakers to avoid “boredom” with one voice/presenter
  • If appropriate, use games and interactive activities. See “Just Three Words” below.
  • Track who is talking so you can call on those who have not had a chance/chosen to speak up.
  • Use people’s names to get their attention.
  • If the group gets off the agenda, refocus but take note of the side issue for later attention.
  • Break up long stretches of one speaker.
  • When appropriate, go “around to circle” for inclusive participation.
  • Listen for folks who may be more comfortable talking (avoid dominance) or very quiet.
  • Consider “break out sessions” where pairs get off off the main call, call each other, interact and call back on to the phone bridge.
  • For decision-making processes, restate or repeat key issues as they are honed down to a decision point.
  • If your participants can be online at the same time they are on the phone, consider web-based collaboration tools to create shared electronic notes, flip charts, etc. Sometimes allowing “side chats” or “chat breakouts” can increase participant engagement.
  • Generally, the larger the group, the more directive your facilitation needs to be to keep a small number of people from dominating the call.
  • During the call, stop and ask for feedback.
  • If you don’t want to ask each person to respond to a general query (“do you understand the new procedure?”), ask questions such that silence means assent. There is a drawback to this technique in that sometimes silences does not truly mean assent and understanding can be lost.
  • Share leadership duties to help less engaged people become more involved in the call. Ask individuals to “lead” sections of the agenda.
  • Assign people different roles – note taker, timekeeper, “keeper” of unanswered questions, etc.

Interactive Techniques

  • Brainstorming – ask participants to note down others’ contributions to a brainstorm. After the brainstorming period is done, ask people to comment on the words people chose to express their ideas. Help the group look for convergence and divergence around the creative process.
  • Horrors and Exceptional Situations – For skills training. People often are happy to share horror stories around a skill or issue that can help groups discern what NOT to do. But often they miss the examples of what works. Ask groups to break out (see telephone break out tips) and identify 2-3 HORROR and EXCEPTIONAL SUCCESS stories. Reconvene and note the behaviors that lead to both the positive and negative outcomes. Review and debrief at conclusions. Include what was learned in the call notes.
  • Telephone Break Out Techniques – Pair up participants in advance and share a phone list. During the call, assign a pairs task, have the pairs get off the main call and work for 10 minutes and return to the main number at a stated time to report out/debrief the activity.
  • “Just Three Words” – Phone comments can drag on, especially for large groups. This game originated as an online text technique but works well to surface a sense of the group and get fast feedback. The technique is to do a round of comments from everyone on the call with the constraint that they can only use three words in their response. For example, at the end of the call you might say “what three words describe your experience of today’s call?” The notes from these exercises can then be later reviewed and observed for similarities, differences and patterns.
  • The Clock” – “The clock” can be used on conference calls to help people get and keep a sense of place and participation in a disembodied conference call. It can be used with structured online chats as well. Ask every one to draw a circle on a piece of paper and mark the hours like a clock. Then, each person is assigned a spot on the “clock” as they join the group. So the first person is 1 o’clock, the second 2, etc. If there are more than twelve, start adding 1:30, 2:30 etc. Use this initially to create a speaking sequence for intros, and then use it to ensure everyone speaks. Participants can make notations by names and use it as a visual tool to match names/voices/input. If you are doing multiple rounds of “speaking” vary the “starting position” on the clock.
  • Location Maps – For widely distributed groups that meet regularly; create a map with pictures of the participants near their location on the map. Distribute to the group or publish on a web page.
  • “Side” Conversations – If someone wants to comment directly to a previous speaker, they can use that person’s name to focus their attention. “Sarah, I am not sure I agree with that approach….”

Shared Note Taking

As noted above, I’ve grown fond of shared note taking, so I’ve expanded this a bit:

  • Meetingwords.com: Synchronous online  meetings for large groups create a context where it is easy to “tune out” and multitask. My approach to this is to set up a shared note taking site and engage people there to take notes, do “breakout” work from smaller groups and generally offer another modality for engagement and interaction. We used Meetingwords.com and Google docs for this, later sharing cleaned up notes from these tools. I like that Meeting words has the shared note taking (wiki) on the left, and a chat on the right. It is based on Etherpad, which was eventually folded into Google docs. So we were using “cousin” technologies!
  • Skype: If your meeting is relatively small and you are using Skype, take notes right into the chat room.

Telephone Break Out Techniques

  • Pair up participants in advance and share a phone list. During the call, assign a pairs task, have the pairs get off the main call and work for 10 minutes and return to the main number at a stated time to report out/debrief the activity.
  • If using web meeting tools that have breakout rooms, practice with the technology in advance. It can be a bit tricky.


  • Use some form of feedback or evaluation tool to help improve subsequent calls. A simple “after action review” (what did we intend to do, what did we do, what would we do differently) can be done at the conclusion of a call, or could be done with forms or email post-call.
  • “Just Three Words” – ask each person for three words that describe their experience on the call. Just. Three. Words. Seriously.


  • Take minutes and use for follow up. Distribute as soon as possible after the meeting and highlight follow up steps and responsibilities. I like to send the notes out within a half hour.
  • Recap meeting or next steps as appropriate.
  • Offer opportunity for final/closing comments.
  • End the call promptly, particularly with phone bridges with timed access.

More Conference Call Resources:

Thanks for input from Nathaniel Borenstein, John Smith, and Michael Owens.

A Response to Seth’s field guide to the Meeting Troll

Lotus of conversationAh Seth, we know the troll of which you speaketh in your blog post,  Seth’s Blog: A field guide to the Meeting Troll.

In response, here are the people I want to invite into the circle. (See, I even avoided the word “meeting” as we have so many coded “dirty words!”)

Come into the circle with me.

  1. You are curious. “Not knowing” is an asset, not a deficit. You ask AMAZING questions.
  2. You are playful. Risk taking is in your repertoire.
  3. You love creating opportunity for yourself and others. Love is an operational word here…
  4. You love solving wicked problems… I can see the glee on your face.
  5. You bring and SHARE your chocolate (oranges, carrot sticks, croissants, coffee, etc.)
  6. You create space, not only fill it.When you occupy space, it is always with genuine presence and  contribution.
  7. You don’t hide behind your words. Or your positional power.
  8. You explain your acronyms (this is important to me– I work in international development!)
  9. Failure is a learning opportunity for you. You help me mine the learning from my failures. You seek multiple perspectives to learn from your failures.
  10. You discern when something is simple and when it is complex and act accordingly. This includes knowing when to STOP doing something.
  11. You are not fearless, but you do not shy away from fear.
  12. You trust me. I trust you. We know how to honor and forgive.

Quick Revisit of Web Meeting Tools – What is your favorite?

I just received a request for some quick suggestions for picking a web meeting tool. I cobbled a few quick thoughts here (really ought to edit this properly, but maybe later.)  I’d love any additional opinions and suggestions.

My Selection Criteria

OK here are the criteria I use for evaluating web meeting systems, followed by a few quick brand comments. But you need to know, I am very focused on interactive engagements, so I’m biased away from tools that are broadcast-centric and hierarchically controlled!

Purpose, Purpose, Purpose! What are you going to do?

First be clear on the range of purposes you need the tool to support. There is a big difference between a “broadcast model” and a small group working session. Some tools can’t handle that range, particularly at the more interactive end. For broadcast to large groups, you need a host that can support that many connections, so consider size range. Consider what types of content you need to share/host and what kinds of activities you need to foster.

Related to purpose is cost — if something is REALLY important, does it also have a budget line or do you need to use just free tools?

Specifics (in no specific order!)

1. Audio Connection Technology: Can it accommodate Phone bridge AND VoIP – this may not be crucial for you, but when I’m working internationally, it is. 😉

2. Recording: Can it record calls? Do you need just the audio or do you need the audio and video? Do you need them separate? Can those calls be saved in a non proprietary format? (I.e. Blackboard’s web meeting is a proprietary file that has to be replayed via their web platform. It can be export to a common .wav  or mp3 (for audio only ) files but you have ot know how to do that. ) Is file size an issue?

3. Diverse Participant Roles/Controls: It has a chat room where participants can chat peer to peer and not just mediated through a moderator. Webinars create a pretty significant power imbalance when only the moderator(s) can allow anyone to do anything. For a broadcast situation, this is fine. For engagement, you need more options for devolving control and agency to participants in an appropriate process and with appropriate technology. This means:

  • a peer to peer chat room (I MUST HAVE THIS FEATURE!!!)
  • ability to easily pass moderator roles to a person or more than one person. (For example, if you have to be the moderator to use the white board, then can you make EVERYONE a moderator.
  • sometimes having a private chat option is important
  • sometimes a controlled/moderated question queue is important. (I don’t tend to use those myself…)

4. White board. I can’t help myself, I’m visual. Particularly I like whiteboards where everyone can participate. I also like it when whiteboard tools can be used to annotate slides.

5. Applications/screen sharing: For web tours, showing things, etc.

6. Ability to share slides: Both in-app and via screen sharing. Sometimes one is better than the other. That said, please don’t bore me to death with your slides!

7. Do you need video? Some platforms support one camera at a time, others (like Adobe connect) support multiple cameras giving that sense fo F2F conversation. (Called multi-point video display)

8. Bandwidth tools: Does the platform have technology to ameliorate the impacts of diverse participant bandwidth?

9. Polling tools:  I like these — and ease of use of the polling tool is important to check. I like both planned and ad-hoc options.

Advice: Don’t believe the hype — TRY IT!

Don’t just believe the marketing materials! Try it and try it with the size group you plan to work with!

Tools I’ve Tried:>

  • Blackboard Collaborate (formerly Elluminate) – Great whiteboard, very stable, proprietary recording format, good adjustments for different bandwidths, higher on the cost end… @thatchmo also likes this tool!
  • Adobe Connect – good for multi-camera video, decent white board, chat room, etc.
  • WebEx – there are different webex products – make sure you trial the one you are looking for. Some are more broadcast oriented, some are more collaboration focused.
  • LiveMeeting – Very higherarchically controlled. I would not recommend.
  • GoToMeeting – recently changed and I have not evaluated the newer platform. I’ve read that there are some challenges in recording meetings.
  • MeetingBurner – for smaller, team meetings, but not so great for large groups
  • I’ve also used Google+, Skype, etc, but I suggest you avoid systems where people have to have a username/password. These are, however, great for ad hoc groups and G+ recording and autoposting to YouTube is slick! We used it this past fall for an online course. @BonnieZink likes G+


And if you for some bizarre reason want more to read on webmeeting process:

Now, what are you thoughts? Criteria? Recommendations?


Meetings that Drive Us Crazy

Appropos of almost nothing, I just have to point to this great painting by Charles Fancher, lawyer-slash-artist: Mediation: Hour 13.

I’ve been in meetings like this. How about you? What are your own personal participant destressors in these meetings?

Monday Video: Strange Meeting (and a few comments on teleconferencing)

Joitske Hulsebosch pinned this video on Pinterest and it immediately became inspiration for this weeks (irregular) Monday Video. First, take a look. Just 2 minutes 3 seconds.

via Strange Meeting – YouTube.

Fun to see, and slightly ironic as my work travel schedule is about to, um, take flight. Now I travel to facilitate longer form meetings — 3-5 day things that would be painful online, but I have to say, I wish we were progressing with our telephone and web meeting practices and tools a bit faster. I have been beta testing MeetingBurner (I have a future blog post in draft form) and had such high hopes, but in practical use I’ve run into some problems which I think are fundamental. Is it because I have “weird” online meeting habits or that tools and practices are still stuck in broadcast mode?

Here are a few of the areas that I’ve been working on that have improved my synchronous online meetings… and they seem to be to be both fundamental to healthy meeting practices as much as about technologically mediated meetings.

1. Make the meeting matter. Don’t have a meeting to broadcast information; it should be for meaning making, relationship building, working on challenges or thinking TOGETHER. These all imply active listening and response (a.k.a “conversation”) and full on interaction.

2. Be interactive. Don’t bore me PLEASE!!! There is a place for broadcast “webinars” but ONLY ONLY ONLY if the tool enables meaningful participant interaction and the presenter wants to and has the skills to interact. Otherwise send me a link to a video or audio, thankyouverymuch. And by interaction, that does NOT mean just a Q&A tool or the ability to chat with the person controlling the platform (GoToMeeting, I am not your fan.) It means open chat rooms where participants can know who else is participating, chat with them, and if there are a lot of chatters, someone to help weave the chat with what the presenter is doing. (Edit: See this post from EEKim about meaningful conversations at meetings.)

3. There is facility for joint artifact creation. This means joint note taking (a la http://www.meetingwords.com) and, in my personal ideal, a shared whiteboard with good writing tools that everyone can access (whether that permission is turned on or off selectively is again a process question.) I could write tons more about the generative practice of both shared meeting note taking and drawing together. I’ll spare you this morning…

4. Be embodied. There is facilitaty for images or video of the participants. Now I’m not a video fan. I work at home, often at dreadfully early morning hours and you do NOT want to see me. But a picture of me does bring a bit more humanity. And there are times when video is really useful. And times when it is distracting so we need to be smart enough to discern when to use it!

Four is probably enough for one blog post. Where do you stand on online meetings?