How to escape from conference-call hell

(Or avoid it in the first place)

Tired office worker slumped over a speakerphone

(Peter Dressel/Blend Images/Getty)

Last month, we asked you to tell us how you make conference calls less hellish. And did you ever have suggestions. Here are the best tips we received for making a normally dreaded task more engaging and more productive (or simply avoidable):

Set some rules

“Because you can’t see physical cues during a conference call, it seems to make some people behave unprofessionally. I recommend creating ground rules about what’s acceptable and what’s not. This could include things like no interrupting others, no eating as you’re talking, no showing up late. Or, if you do show up late, keep silent until it’s your turn to talk—no interrupting the conversation with ‘Hey, it’s Joe. Sorry I’m late!’ Come up with rules that suit your organization, and make sure they are known and followed.”

— Ann Max, president, Productive to the Max, Ottawa

Keep it tight

“I find the more routine conference calls are, the more effective they become. I have a call every day with sales staff across the country. I never reschedule. It’s structured and it’s brief—it maxes out at 10 minutes. It’s crucial for everyone to be on time; one of the most frustrating things about conference calls is when they don’t start promptly. I always start with an icebreaker. Tone matters; making it exciting and interactive is a great way to keep a call lively. If I start with ‘All right, here are last week’s shitty sales numbers,’ no one will feel great. And I end by assigning specific tasks to those on the call.”

— Jonathan Brock, director of sales, S-Trip, Toronto

Have a plan

“Too many people set up a recurring conference call and just block the time in everyone’s calendar without setting the objective or agenda. Without an agenda, you’re leading with your chin. If someone invites you to a call, remember this mantra: ‘No agenda, no attenda.’ When there is no agenda, either decline the call politely or ask in strong terms what is to be discussed. And if you do participate, use a landline or make sure your device is charged and in an area with mobile service. Few things are more annoying in a conference call than someone chiming in with ‘What was that?’ over and over.”

— Ann Searles, president, PEPWorldwide, Montreal

Engage people

“If you’re the facilitator, draw people into the discussion. While waiting for everyone to join—typically an awkward period—ask an open-ended question like, ‘What are your plans for the weekend?’ It can greatly increase trust and participation. Once the call has started, create a verbal process for turn-taking: “John, can you state …” and “Elizabeth, I’d like to hear your input.” At first this may seem a bit ‘schoolish,’ but it ensures that everyone gives their thoughts.”

— Lisa B. Marshall, author of Smart Talk: The Public Speaker’s Guide to Success in Every Situation

Ditch the phone

“We don’t use teleconferences with clients anymore. Over the past year, we’ve switched to video applications: Microsoft’s Lync, GoToMeeting and Cisco’s WebEx. Our staff productivity has increased 7% to 8%.”

— Roberta Fox, via