Conference calls are an almost unavoidable part of the professional world, but they can be a drag if no one is excited about the topic or participants struggle to stay on task. The purpose of the meeting is probably necessary, but you have better things to do than listen to people go on tangents or make sense out of chaos—right? No one likes wasting their time, but mastering teleconferences is not a precise science. Here are a few ways you can make your conference calls as productive as possible

Make sure the call is necessary

If you are the organizer or host of the conference, ask yourself first: is it necessary to be a call at all? You’ve doubtlessly been in a boring, two-minute meeting and thought to yourself, “This could have been an email.” If you have something to communicate to your colleagues quickly, they’ll appreciate written message over asking them to take time out of their days to hop online. 

Consider using a calling service 

It’s also worth considering using a conference call service. Many apps and websites enable conference calling, but not all of them are designed to make them as efficient as they can be. They may even require users to have accounts already, and you don’t want to make participants outside your business go through the trouble. Instead, specialty conference calling services like ConferenceCalling.com even provide operator-assisted calls, recording options, and scheduling abilities. Do you know what will derail a remoting meeting faster than an irrelevant anecdote? Faulty technology. 

Begin conversations with an icebreaker

While you don’t want people straying from the topic during the bulk of the meeting, it’s a good idea to warm everybody up with some small talk or an icebreaker. A meeting’s success is dependent upon how comfortable people are with each other, so proceedings may be awkward if everyone is stiff and unfamiliar. Over-formality is part of why people dread conference calls. Ask people to share their highs and lows for the week, or begin each meeting with a fun “would you rather” question. 

There is another purpose to this idea, though: according to LoopUp and Sapio Research, 61 percent of businesspeople (out of 1,000 survey respondents) still dial into meetings with codes and numbers. As such, over 50 percent of respondents said that it’s normal not to know who else is on the phone meeting. If you are not using a screen-based system where names are clearly displayed, having participants share something lets everyone else know who is listening. 

Follow a predetermined structure

Once people are well acquainted with each other (and know who not to gossip about), it’s advantageous to have a predetermined agenda to follow. Make sure everyone knows the purpose of the meeting well beforehand and what is expected of them so that everyone shows up prepared. Having a clear end goal in mind will help keep people focused on the topic at hand. 

Also, have a timeframe in mind. People have busy schedules and do not like virtual meetings to run overtime, so do your best to estimate how long the meeting will take so that people can fit it into their calendars accordingly. If more time is necessary, it’s alright to schedule another one and finish the discussion later. 

Address people by name

Conference calls carry a certain kind of awkwardness because there is no eye contact the way there is with in-person meetings (even with video conferences, do you look at your device’s camera, or the screen? To everyone else, it appears as if you’re looking down). To avoid confusion over who is talking to whom, set a clear rule that everyone is to use each other’s name when addressing them directly. Not only is it polite and more productive, but it makes a significant difference in the meeting’s atmosphere. 

Ask for people to think of questions ahead of time

Most teleconferences end with a moment for questions and concerns. You can save a great deal of time waiting for people to think of their questions, though, if you tell them to do so at the beginning or halfway through the meeting. Isn’t it frustrating when you ask for questions to be met with uncomfortable silence while people scramble to come up with something? You think everyone is good to go, but someone chimes in at the last second. Reminding people that question time is approaching will make sure people with legitimate questions get a chance to do so as soon as you’re ready to answer. 

Make sure everyone’s goals are clear

A meeting has fulfilled its purpose if everyone knows what their next steps are. What are their responsibilities and deadlines? You began the meeting with an agenda, so conclude it by reviewing that again and double-check that your business is heading in the right direction.

Conference calls can be hit or miss, but approaching them with a defined strategy and a few interpersonal tips will help ensure proceedings stay on track. How do you make your meetings as productive as possible?