Not only is the phone convenient, it’s also cheap. A national telephone conference can cost about 60 cents per minute per employee, so six people in a two-hour conference call might, for example, cost about R432. Compare that with the thousands of rand spent by a single employee flying to a destination, hiring a car and paying for meals and a hotel. The ease and time-savings are also very attractive. Badly planned, however, telephone meetings can be reduced to uncontrolled jabbering. Here’s how to set up an effective one:
1. Keep it simple.
Ideally, the telephone meeting should last less than 30 to 45 minutes. People are unable to concentrate on long phone calls. They become tired or bored; their attention wanders; 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. Set an agenda.
Just as you would for a regular face-to-face meeting, you need to have an agenda for your telephone meeting. This will give the meeting purpose, determine goals and desired outcomes and prevent people from waffling and being side-tracked. Distribute the agenda at least a day before. This allows everyone to think and prepare.
3. Send out items to review.
Do this well in advance. If appropriate (for controversial or complex issues) call key participants to confirm that they received these items. Documents include outlines, blueprints, product brochures and data.
4. Set time aside.
Just as you would plan to leave your office in time to arrive at a face-to-face meeting, book out the 10 minutes before your telephone meeting starts so that you avoid interruptions and incoming calls that may cause you to run late.
5. Avoid distractions.
Common pet peeves among frequent telephone meeting participants highlight the tendency for people to become distracted from the matter at hand. They read their email and play with cellphones and PDAs, and they even chat to other colleagues. To ensure an effective meeting, call everyone to order, ask them to shut down their email programme, and get everyone to stay focused and on track with the purpose of the meeting.
6. Establish next steps.
Set deadlines and confirm these in writing. To ensure that telephone meetings remain productive, make sure that deadlines are met.
Appoint one person to take notes just as you would in a regular meeting. Call for people to comment by name and avoid questions like, “Does everyone agree?” When attendees are not in the same room it’s impossible for them to answer without stepping over each other’s responses.