Conference Calls

April 12, 2011

Chapter 9 – Communicating In Real-Time

Jono DiCarlo and Atul Varma work in a small group within Mozilla called Labs where they focus on researching new directions for Mozilla. One of their projects, Ubiquity, helps you create mashups of different websites. The system understands English and lets people with very little technical ability create complex web page combinations.

Natural language parsing is very difficult and Jono and Atul get a lot of help from experts in the field. They hold conference calls with natural language parsing experts, as well as others, about once a week. Jono and Atul work in the same office in Mountain View, but they dial into the call from separate offices so everyone on the call is equally represented.

Jono and Atul are the leaders of the call, but they don’t want to exclude anyone else. Being in the same room would make it easier to talk with each other than the other people on the phone. Over time they would start to dominate the conversation. Instead they treat everyone equally so that everyone can be heard.

A well-run conference call doesn’t feel like one at all. It feels like a group of people sharing ideas. Nothing however, will make you feel more removed from your team than a poorly run conference call. Some people dial in late, others can’t be heard, and everyone shouts because they are afraid they won’t get a turn to speak. It doesn’t have to be like that. In a well-run conference call, you never have to shout to make your voice heard.

Plan ahead

The first step to planning a good conference call is making people feel calm. The more calm and comfortable people are, the more likely they are to work well together. Jono and Atul’s conference calls work so well because they help people feel comfortable.

Let people know what to expect. You don’t need a full agenda. Just let people know what to expect with a short email ahead of time.

Notify everyone who should attend. It seems really simple, but a lot of people forget to invite everyone.

Choose a place for your conference call. If you are planning a meeting which includes a group of people in the same location then you should book a conference room for them.

Plan at least one day in advance. Last-minute meetings will happen, but they shouldn’t be the norm. Give people enough time to plan their day around your meeting and to get back to you if they need you to change the time or place.

Tell people how to connect to the call. With a small group of people you can call them directly. Include your number in the call invitation and make it clear if you will call them or they should call you. For larger conference calls you should use a third-party conference call service. Include the number of the service and participant passcode in the meeting invitation.

Create a conference call cheat sheet

When you are part of a fully distributed team you share the responsibilities of remote communication with the your coworkers. If everyone needs to dial in then you are all focused on making it work. If you are the only remote person on the team then you have a larger part of the responsibility to make remote communication work.

Help your team with a conference call cheat sheet. Post the cheat sheet in your team’s regular conference room. If you can’t do it personally then ask a friend. Help your team make conference calls go smoothly by leaving the information they need in an easy-to-find place.

Your cheat sheet should include:

  • Outline of preset meeting times
  • The conference call number
  • The conference call pass code
  • Your contact information: Name, Phone, Email, IM

Know who’s in the room

It is much easier to tell who is talking in a face-to-face meeting then in a conference call. When someone on the call makes a good point and you don’t know who was talking this problem is painfully clear. Taking notes will help you remember who is on the call and identify them later. Write down everyone’s name and some descriptive hints. These notes will help prevent you from needing to ask “who said that?” later in the call.

Make sure you can hear them

Good quality conference phones are indispensable. With a good phone people don’t have to shout. When people have to speak loudly they are much more likely to become annoyed and frustrated. A good conference phone will let people feel like they can really talk to you. Convince your team to invest in a conference phone with two-way speaking capabilities. It will also help them communicate well with customers and other teams.

Make sure they can hear you phones have much better fidelity than the cheaper ones. It is worth spending money on a land line and a good phone so your voice doesn’t sound fuzzy and tinny. Headset phones will save your neck and let you type while you are on the phone1.

A good phone is an important tool, but you need to use it well. Speaking to a room full of people over a speakerphone is very similar to talking to an audience from a stage. You need to speak in a full and clear voice. Don’t yell, don’t mumble, and make sure to enunciate properly. And make sure to pause when you speak so other people can follow you more easily.

I like to choose someone to emulate. Television and movies are a good place to find a model. Actors take lessons on proper presence and enunciation. Pick someone dignified and respectable and base your phone “performance” on theirs. I am a fan of Frasier star Kelsey Grammar, but you have to choose someone who fits you. If you have a naturally high-pitched voice then don’t try to emulate James Earl Jones.

Remove unwanted audio distractions

Don’t let distracting noises get in the way of your call. Machine noises, fans, air conditioners, and other noises from the conference room can make a conference call untenable. The simple solution is to move the speaker phone. If you are talking to a room full of people using a projector, then have them put the phone on the other side of the table. If someone is having a secondary conversation you should ask them to move away from the phone so you can hear the primary speaker.

Watch out for noises coming from your side of the conversation as well. Your kids playing, your dog barking, or even the sound of your footsteps as you walk around can be very distracting. Use the mute button whenever you aren’t speaking to avoid interrupting the call with background noise.


Conference calls lack the simple visual queues that someone wants to talk. They can’t raise their hand or make eye contact with the speaker. This can lead to people getting shut out of the conversation. If you are running the conference call make sure to pause the conversation from time to time and give other people a chance to speak.

If you aren’t running the call this can be tricky. Many time the call leader will be shutting people out without thinking about it. If you hear someone trying to speak and getting shut out then be their advocate. Say, “I think Fred had something to say.” Two voices are much easier to hear than one.

Be polite

You don’t have to yell to make yourself heard. Conference calls can be frustrating. I occasionally get the urge to tell everyone else to shut up and listen to me. The problem is, when you get frustrated you will stop listening to other people. However well you might think you are hiding it, everybody knows what you are doing. Cutting people off and bullying your way into the conversation will not help you.

The goal is to make the other people really listen to you, not to be the loudest person in the room. Take a deep breath and realize you will get your chance to speak. Give your coworkers the benefit of the doubt. They are just trying to be heard as well. Don’t interrupt people. Be assertive when you need to be, but do it politely.

Always have a second option for talking to the people in the room

Sometimes phone connections get lost. Don’t let it derail your conference call. Have a second line of communication to the other people on the call; like IM or IRC. You need a simple way to say that you need them to call you again or that you are speaking and they can’t hear you. Ideally you can resolve these issues with one person’s help instead of disrupting the whole call.

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