#RealWorkTalk: Making an Impact on a Conference Call

Apr 3, 2019

Working on Capitol Hill, conference calls were not nearly as common as in-person meetings.  Working in politics and on campaigns remotely, I had to adjust to a new world of hosting most meetings on the phone.  Because when your colleagues are spread throughout the state or country, in-person meetings are few and far between.

After a few calls, I realized that I wasn’t getting as much out of these video chats as I would an in-person meeting.  I also realized that the calls were running much longer than an in-person staff meeting.  So I reached out to a former colleague who runs a company remotely.

Rule No. 1: Have an Agenda.

Her primary suggestion was to have an agenda.  When I explained that I was not the supervisor of the call, she told me that that didn’t matter.  She encouraged me to put together a draft agenda, e-mail it out to all the participants the day before, and ask if they have anything they’d like to include.

Having this framework cut the conference call time in half.  It also ensured that the junior staff — who often had concerns they weren’t voicing — were heard because they could just chime in when topics came up.  The agenda made room for dedicated topics without closing off conversation because it allocated 15-minutes at the end for miscellaneous cleanup.

Taking on this unassigned role also allowed me to make connections with the other staff and consultants.  Everyone had to funnel their agenda requests through me, so I always knew what was going on.  And best of all, I was invited to participate in the senior senior staff calls in an administrative capacity (they wanted agendas, too), and was able to grow that role beyond just note taking.

But as helpful as the agendas were (and they were), I still didn’t feel sure that I was being seen and heard.  I left every call wondering if what I contributed brought value and whether I was making a good impression.

Enter Kyle; he works remotely and spends most of his day on calls, so he’d thought a lot about it.

Rule No. 2: Have a Strategy for Each Call

When I initially asked for Kyle’s help, his first words were, “Do you have a strategy for your calls?”  It never dawned on me that I should enter the call with a plan to set myself apart without sounding like the brown nose who always asks the boss how the weather is.  (Seriously, one of our consultants did this on every.single.call.)

He explained that he goes into every staff “check in” call with the same strategy that is designed to create value, show engagement, and look like a team player.

First, compliment or thank a co-worker for their help on something. This serves two purposes: 1) you elevate a co-worker making them look and feel good in front of the group, and 2) it shows you are will to hand out credit unprovoked.

Second, have a question ready.  Don’t make the question so complicated that it stumps the speaker. But a thoughtful question that relates back to something you’re trying to accomplish, shows you took the call seriously.

Third, ask for help with something.  Don’t do this on every call.  But asking for assistance shows that you put the success of the whole over personal pride.  He advises limiting assistance requests to smaller things (you don’t want to publicly admit you can’t perform an essential job function), but a call out to your group for help shows you respect their experience and ideas.

I incorporated this strategy into several of my group conference calls and found it extraordinarily helpful.  The tip I found the most valuable was to compliment and thank my colleagues.

I knew that one of the finance staffers was always taking credit for his subordinate’s work.  So on every other call, I would find a way to compliment the junior staffer or thank her in a way that still gave the senior staffer a small bit of credit.  For example, “John, I really appreciate you making Jane available for that event.  She did such a wonderful job of collecting donations and building relationships.”

Being able to thank him while complimenting her soothed their relationship by giving them both value, and helped her move into a more senior role where she didn’t have to deal with him anymore.  And since her family were deeply involved in state politics it created a valuable ally.

Rule No. 3: Appear on Video Whenever Possible

Like many people who work remote, I don’t always wear makeup during the workday.  So I was darkening my screen during video conference calls, as was almost everyone.  Kyle cautioned me against this.

His feeling is that leaving your camera on during a video call increases trust and improves visibility.  You only have so many opportunities for your boss to literally see you working, take them.

If you need help creating an eye-pleasing background for your call, check out this Fast Company article.  High Five also has an article featuring body language tips.  And Entrepeneur discusses some simple tips for shining on video conferences.

Do you participate in a lot of conference calls or video calls?  What are your best tips for being seen and heard by your colleagues and supervisors?

{image found on The Everygirl}

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  1. Jill says:

    Also new to video calls. At my office, someone takes typed notes on the agenda during the call and sends out post-call notes with action items in yellow highlight by person. Helps to ensure that tasks are fulfilled. If the call is recurring, the agenda/notes document is evolving each time. Also love when colleagues end a call earlier than the time allotted. The agenda keeps the call on track and sometimes, blissfully shorter. Thanks for this interesting topic.

  2. Amanda Walker says:

    Thank you for this! I hate video calls. This will help make them more productive.

  3. Ann says:

    As someone in a senior leadership position in my firm who works 100% remotely and runs a lot of conference calls, please do NOT do #2. Your strategy for the call is to enable the group to make the decision, share the news, brainstorm solutions, whatever the agenda is. I would be highly annoyed if someone on my calls did the items in #2 just to try to further their own position. I would also check with the person in charge of the call before distributing my own agenda. If a member of my team did that, we’d have a side conversation about overstepping boundaries. If the person who owns the call doesn’t supply an agenda, reach out to them ahead of time, don’t blanket email the whole group.

    • Belle says:

      There was no one specifically in charge of the calls in my situation. The candidate’s body man sent out the call in number, but no one ran them. Which is part of the reason they were a disaster. Of course, if there is a strong structure in place, you shouldn’t overstep. But most of the calls I’ve been on in the political realm have no clear leadership chain because they’re set up to connect people who work in different locations as opposed to having clear goals.

      As for #2, I think it depends on what kind of call it is. As you mentioned, if there is a meeting goal or an agenda, don’t steal spotlight. Kyle’s advice was related primarily to weekly calls that function as a staff meeting. But even on another type of call, a call about an ongoing project, it might still be possible to say, “Hey, Jane did a great job on the marketing, and now we’re ready to decide on the rollout details,” or something like that.

    • DCP says:

      I think that this is useful advice for what I’ll just refer to as “less structured” offices (which includes most legislative offices) but would caution anyone who works somewhere that has their business processes down pat against trying some of these techniques. My company is 100% remote and it would seem like you were trying to hijack the call if you did #2. We’re also pretty strict about sending agendas though. In any environment, I’d recommend making sure the leader of the call (if there is one) sees an agenda before it’s circulated or you’re almost guaranteed to make an instant enemy.

  4. Dee says:

    Belle, Great advice and integration of your perspective and Kyle’s advice. And in case you need another visual for this article, may I suggest the “instant classic”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cbhMgvvcL4g

  5. E says:

    Is there any concern that distributing an agenda makes you the de facto secretary for the call? I would have concerns that as women, we are asked to do the office “housekeeping” tasks and that this could further that issue. I am an attorney with over ten years of experience, but I certainly get asked to do more secretarial type items than my older male boss does. Therefore, I try to avoid tasks that look or feel secretarial like the plague. But maybe I am overthinking this and being oversensitive just because of that???

    • Amanda says:

      I initially had that thought! I think there are a couple of variables though. At the start of my career, it was important for me to do this because I was at a smaller company with no support for note taking or agenda setting. I was able to step in and facilitate that for upper management. I was rusty but they were forgiving and just glad to have some help. It eventually resulted in being involved in big projects with important decision makers. You help them with one small task, and the next thing you know, you’re on a big project. So I could see how Abra’s situation was clearly beneficial for her. Especially if it’s something she was happy to do & it did not cause her additional stress. In my case, I absolutely hated it but saw the strategic value of doing it, and doing it well. I do agree it’s hard to break free from that role though. I eventually left the small company for a larger one, which had admin support and project management to handle that stuff. I was happy to leave those tasks in my past. But, I do help out with IT stuff now, because I kind of like it and it brings me more pain to watch my team struggle with it. So I have become someone who helps occasionally for video conferencing support, technical issues with our laptops and such. It’s not a great comparison but I think it’s all about adding value in small ways that don’t make our job harder. I have been called away from my desk by someone in a senior leadership position to help out once – They knew who I was, knew it wasn’t my job, & was extremely grateful for the help in a stressful moment. Not sure what that will get me, but I believe I could approach that person in a professional career building capacity and at least have somewhere to start.

    • Allison says:

      I think setting an agenda ahead of time communicates that you are action oriented, have set goals, are organized, and respect other’s time. It also allows others to be prepared. I assign someone to note taking for each call, I can’t feasibly lead a call and take notes. This keeps me from being secretary, and my team is surprisingly receptive to note taking because they get visibility into more senior calls that they don’t necessarily need to be on.

      I’d like to add another suggestion to Belle’s list- Follow ups/action items sent after the call. This sets accountability, and ensures that what was agreed on in the call gets done.

    • K says:

      I agree with Allison’s points. I also think a key distinction to this versus taking minutes is that what Belle described is asserting control over the meeting by insert in order. You become a gatekeeper, and set yourself as a person with leadership skills. That’s why other posters made the points about stepping on toes.

  6. cait says:

    If your webex has a chat feature, than can help drive participation, especially if it is a large number of people.

    I work remote about 75% of the time. My #1 biggest pet peeve is people that don’t put their phones on mute when they are typing/eating/not speaking. Be aware of your sounds (microphones pick up everything) and be sure to speak clearly and usually louder than you normally might to ensure you are heard.

    If I’m leading a meeting, I make sure to pause every 10-15min or so and check in with the group. Ask people specifically if they have anything to add (gives the quieter ones a chance to speak up).

    In terms of team meetings, I think it is important to verbalize the usual non-verbal cues. Instead of nodding in agreement – say yes out loud.

    Be wary of asking questions for the sake of asking questions. That quickly becomes extremely irritating and most people can see right through that.

    Finally, be aware of the time. Especially if you’re asking questions to stand out. Dragging something out makes a call go longer than necessary and that usually irritates most people.

    • Sarah says:

      100% agree on using mute. We all have times where a pet starts making noise or someone comes in to ask a question, but there are always people who don’t mute themselves and proceed to pound away on the keyboard or wash dishes while listening.

      I would also add making sure you know how your headset or microphone sounds. There will obviously be days when tech just doesn’t want to work, but a lot of time it’s simply testing on Skype or whatever you’re using to make sure you sound normal.

    • Belle says:

      Agreed about mute. I once listened to a guy eat half a bag of Fritos before someone said something.

  7. Jennifer says:

    I work at home 1-2 days a week and have worked for years with remote employees and clients, so I’m on the phone a lot. Almost all conference calls that I lead or participate in are task-focused (e.g., project meeting with clients or internal staff). I run many of them myself, and an agenda and notes are a requirement. As administrative assistance has dwindled throughout most industries, I’m often the one taking notes for the calls I lead. The exception are calls to collect data via interviews; there is always a designated notetaker for those. The biggest challenge I have is not recognizing voices which makes for a lot of “Who said that?” and follow-up. It’s not a problem for regularly scheduled calls with the same people, but video for group interviews would be great. Unfortunately, not everyone has that capability or wants to use it :-(. Biggest pet peeve is people who join calls from airports – could there be a noisier or more distracting environment? Finally, anyone who is on conference calls regularly can play this game: https://www.conferencecallbingo.net/blog. Perhaps “Sorry, I was on mute!” should have been the title for this post 🙂

    • Belle says:

      I am never sorry I was on mute. 😉 Mostly because my dogs bark at every bird, squirrel, etc. and Avery has the most piercing shriek in history.

    • pam says:

      very good point I’d like to echo that when you are on meetings that are not routine it is often good to state who you are before you speak – particularly if not everyone would instantly recognize your voice blindfolded!

  8. Pam says:

    I have a remote team in india – I try to insist on video for the reasons above, even if I am calling from home. I want people to see they are getting my full attention and engagement (I’m the boss) and that I’m not double tasking while I speak with them. It is also so much more informative to see the body language. And be able to see when is the right time to speak up or chime in – which can be hard (especially if some people are together in a room and you are the one calling in ). Agree with the rule video always. Also the leader of the meeting should always ask those who haven’t spoken if there is anything they want to add or expand upon – when you aren’t physically present, and you can’t see those cues that someone needs/wants to speak – sometimes they don’t opt to insert themselves, pausing in a discussion and making sure anyone who wants to speak has the opportunity seems to improve the effectiveness of the remote situation.

  9. K says:

    I’m new to conference and video calls, and this is super helpful. Thank you!

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