Conference calls. They can be your best friend or your worst enemy. We’ve all been on calls where it’s clear participants are unengaged and multitasking, no one talks and then everyone talks, and sometimes we are not even sure why we are on the call. You leave the call confused and irritated.

But there is hope for minimizing these colossal holes that suck our time! Whether your calls are taking place by phone or by video, employing a few simple guidelines can provide efficiency and clarity and eliminate the “anything goes” conference call.

1. Build in structure.

It is surprising how many calls begin with no printed agenda or one that hasn’t been circulated to the participants. Having a clear agenda in the hands of all participants in advance doesn’t guarantee increased involvement and engagement, but it’s a great start. Create a well-structured agenda with topics, anticipated timing for each, and an indication of who will lead each topic. Is there pre-reading? Be sure everyone is clear on this and allow enough time for the participants to prepare prior to the call. If the meeting is part of a series, be consistent with the structure of the agenda and when it is sent to participants. Remember, the agenda sets the tone of professionalism and will make a world of difference in meeting your objectives and keeping frustrations at bay.

2. Clearly state expectations.

Continue with the professional tone set by the agenda by getting the meeting off on the right foot. State your expectations for the call by the defining the “why,” such as the importance of the project or an upcoming deadline. You may want to consider talking to some key players in advance about the desired tone for the call and key questions that are to be addressed. At the start of the call, ask team members to refrain from multitasking, stay engaged, and be ready to respond when called upon. Encourage questions and remind them that their insights are important to the outcome of the project. If there is a way to mute all participants through your voice or video calling platform, utilize it. Clearing any questions on the agenda at the start will save time later in the call.

3. Clarify how to participate.

An open mic invitation may be great at the corner java café, but they should be avoided in conference calls. Assuring that all participants are clear on how they engage and ask questions is key. If you are on a video call, utilize the chat feature for Q&A and assure prior to the call that everyone knows how to use it properly. On large calls, consider having individuals email their questions to a single person who knows the subject well enough to sequence them by importance or relevance. Alternatively, simply state in advance that there will be an opportunity to ask questions at the end of each topic or the end of the call. Then be sure to leave time to do so.

4. Appoint a meeting moderator.

This single action can make an immediate difference in the efficiency and effectiveness of your conference calls. The moderator, appointed in advance, should be clear on his or her role, which is that of an objective third-party host. The moderator should be clear on the objective of the meeting and the established processes. It is important that this is not the owner of the meeting and to separate the owner tasks from the moderator tasks. The key elements of use by the moderator are the agenda, the clock, and the outlined process to assure the meeting remains focused and on time. If the call is a video conference call, the moderator plays an important role in queuing up questions on the video platform or muting/unmuting callers to limit unintended distractions.

5. Be specific on how to ask questions.

Whether calls are for large or small groups, determining and communicating a clear process on how and when to ask questions will assure everyone is heard and eliminate the risk of the agenda veering dangerously off course. If on a video call, participants could submit questions to the moderator to be queued up and answered when appropriate. If on a phone call, questions can be emailed to the moderator, or in a smaller group, simply have the moderator call on each person individually for questions. This avoids the “stepping on each other” syndrome. Also, be sure to leave enough time for questions. A moderator can assist in keeping the call on track to assure time for questions.

Today, with everyone’s plate overflowing with “A” priorities, saving valuable time and energy by making the most of your video or telephone conference calls has the potential to improve your whole day, not to mention the outcome of the project. These five simple steps are a great start in that direction.

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