I’m not sure what it is about talking to more than one person on the phone, but conference calls can get awkward fast. People hang back and wait for others to speak (or they talk over each other), and it’s often unclear where the conversation should go next. Painful silences abound, and everyone in the group starts to wonder if they’re on a bad first date.
As a writer on a marketing team at a phone company, I’m always on these types of calls, and I’ve learned a few tricks for how to make them run more smoothly. If the thought of having a call with more than two people makes you wriggle in your seat, read on, and repeat after me: Conference calls don’t have to be awkward.
Follow the Leader
Sure, the point of the conference call is to have a conference, but things will run like a well-greased tanker if you choose a leader before the meeting starts. This doesn’t mean others can’t weigh in, but a leader can direct the conversation or jump in where needed (i.e., if there’s an awkward silence after a sales guy brings up price points).
If you’re appointed the leader, come with a list of questions that need to be answered. Is the point of the call to find out more information before making a purchase? Is it to sort out the terms of a partnership? You should also create a brief agenda, noting points where others on the team should lead the conversation, and distribute it before the call so everyone knows what to expect. More expectations means less awkward silences.
Get the Right System (And Know How to Use It)
A lot of the awkwardness on these calls can come from technical glitches (“Sorry everyone—still trying to get this thing set up!” “Amy doesn’t know how to call in—can someone help?” “Is Charlie still there or did he drop off?”)
So, it’s important to have a working phone system that can support conference calls and—more importantly—to test it out before the meeting so you’re sure that it works. And you don’t have to work at a Fortune 500 company to have an advanced and easy-to-use tech solution for your team—even small businesses and startups can find inexpensive VoIP and virtual PBX systems that support conferencing.
Every time I have a phone conference, I wish I could see the other people’s faces. Not because I want to check them out (OK, maybe I do a little)—but because it feels like more of a person-to-person meeting. Instead of guessing whether or not someone is smiling, you can see it. Instead of wondering if someone is distracted or if she's just thinking, you can read her face. I was recently on a phone conference with someone who sounded like he was at home in his underwear, surrounded by a mountain of Cheez Doodles. Was he? I don’t know—I wish I’d had video.
There are tons of video solutions out there that are widely used, including Google hangouts, Skype, and Join.me. Assuming your meeting attendees are not at home in their underwear, it can make things a lot less awkward.
Use Your Big Kid Voice
I’m not sure why, but people often fade into the background during these types of calls, afraid to get out there and speak their minds. But don’t be afraid to speak up—you’re invited to conference calls because your opinion is valued! In fact, use your big kid voice, speaking loudly and confidently so that everyone can hear you.
Better yet, make sure everyone else on the call is participating, too. If someone hasn't said anything in a while, ask him or her to weigh in. It’ll ensure everyone gets a voice heard (and is actually paying attention to the meeting).
If You Say It’s Awkward, It’s Awkward
I’m a firm believer that situations are only awkward because we let them be. Sure, sometimes silences are uncomfortable, but they don’t have to make us grimace. Go into each conference call with an open mind, and commit to a non-awkward experience! If you’re unwilling to let the call veer into awkward territory, then it won’t, guaranteed.
There’s a reason conference calls exist—they’re a productive way of getting a group together even if one member lives in Wisconsin and another lives in Los Angeles. Don’t just think of conference calls as a necessary evil, consider them a fun way to get faraway colleagues into a virtual room together. If you zap the awkwardness, conference calls can be fun!