Many big businesses have offices in different states and countries, so sometimes, a conference call is the only way for managers to communicate with various teams across the globe. One of the downsides to remote meetings is the lack of engagement, which causes many professionals to disengage or multitask during a call. Many managers prefer face-to-face meetings over remote ones. Distraction is tough competition, especially when participants are hidden from view. However, there are ways to improve remote collaboration.

Create an agenda

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Before any conference call, plan ahead and write down your goals and objectives. Think about the purpose of the call and what you want to address in it. Is your meeting all about producing new ideas? Are you meeting to discuss an issue or conflict? By setting your objective, you get to manage expectations.

If you are the moderator, send emails to everyone the day before the meeting to remind them of the time and subject matter, and to provide them with a list of all the participants and their respective titles. If the call includes a client, mention the product or service to be discussed. Be sure to ask if any of the attendees need to leave early, as this may affect how you structure and prioritize the agenda.

Send out a copy of your agenda as well as any materials to all the invitees so they will be able to review and prepare ahead of the call. Be clear about the estimated duration of the meeting so your participants can plan their schedules accordingly. Outline any rules or instructions prior to the call so your attendees know what is expected from them. This includes requesting them to put off all other communication, such as emails, phone calls, and private discussions, until after the call. This way, they will be less likely to attempt multitasking.

When the call starts, introduce the participants, along with their title, to each other even if only a few are present. Have them name themselves whenever they speak to let others know who is talking. Next, lay out the agenda. Stay on topic and keep the discussion flowing linearly. Do your best to stick to the projected timeframe so you do not lose participation and attentiveness. If you must extend, give the attendees the option to drop out at the scheduled time. This way, they will feel your respect for their time and might even consider giving more of it to you.

If an attendee has a question that may steer things off course, make a note of it and tell them you will be happy to discuss it with them after the call. This way, other participants will not be hostage to a conversation that has nothing to do with them. However, if the question will benefit others, go back to it when you have wrapped everything up or have time left.

Manage distractions

Keeping everyone focused during a conference call is difficult. These remote meetings are often plagued by common distractions that result in others losing focus. Background noise, for one, is an irritant. It makes hearing the conversation over the phone line hard, making others miss important information. If you are using a microphone or speakerphone, be aware of your location and surroundings. You do not want your device to pick up every little sound you make. Be also aware of your electronics as they can cause interference, affecting the quality of your call.

If needed, mute. Sometimes, you or your participants may have to sneeze, cough or talk to someone else during the call. Let your attendees know beforehand that if they encounter an issue, it is important to put themselves on mute so others can keep focused. If you rely on a speakerphone, mute until you or someone else in the room has to speak.

Another distraction is putting a call on hold. If all your attendees have call waiting, just think about the number of beeps and tones everyone will hear during a single call. Remember that a conference call should always be a priority and that other callers can always leave a message or call back.

Encourage participation

Keeping your attendees engaged during a conference call is important. You don’t want them to get sidetracked as well as the conference. Getting them to participate in discussions is one way to keep them focused. Encourage real conversation by asking them questions and directing your speech to them. Pause every now and then to give them time to compose their thoughts. This way you keep them thinking and on their toes.

If you can, talk less and listen more. This way, your meeting does not turn into one long monologue. Ask your participants questions about relevant topics and have them voice out their opinions every now and then. Keep the spotlight on the participants and they’ll be less inclined to retreat from the activity.

While some suggest that engaging in small talk just takes up unnecessary time, others say it helps people feel connected. When you are working with remote colleagues, it is best to keep them involved from time to time. A quick and light conversation every now and then may be just what they need.

It is important to make every person feel like they have the ability to contribute to a project, so you can assign roles to participants to involve them in the meeting. When people are kept busy, they’ll have no time for anything else. Their focus is all on you, resulting in a more productive conference call. You can split the roles by making one a facilitator, minute taker or timekeeper.

As you go through your presentation, call on random people to keep them on their toes and to garner contribution from as wide a spectrum of the people as possible. Of course, some people are less confident and willing to talk than others, however, no one should mind being asked their input in a conference.

Consider video conferencing

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Audio-only conferencing can make others feel invisible, so instead of actively participating, they take on a more passive role. Keep your attendees engaged by using visuals such as graphs, charts or slides. In order to do this, consider video conferencing. It is a great way to share documents and visuals, so your participants better absorb the points you are making. While it may not be ideal for all meetings, it can enhance communication and build rapport.

With video conferencing, you can use screen sharing to share illustrations. If the visual content you are sharing is a presentation, be sure to make it interesting by using only relevant and attractive images or graphics. Keep the number of your slides to a minimum and do not try to overcomplicate your visuals. Focus on the quality of your content rather than the quantity.  For instance, you can use images instead of texts to convey your message. Overdoing the text won’t capture your participant’s attention because not a lot of people like to read lengthy content. By reading long texts, your attendees become distracted instead of listening to you speak.

When using screen sharing, be sure that attendees are able to view your visual automatically without having to download any software. This way, other people’s time is not wasted and no one gets distracted. As you present, talk to your audience as you would if you were standing in front of them. When you act like you are presenting in person, you prevent monotony and get others interested in what you have to say. Smile, because they will be able to hear it in your voice. If your energy falls flat, your participants may lose energy, too.

While visuals help in presenting new ideas and livening up a meeting, they need not be used in every conference call. Too much focus on images and texts can become an annoyance especially if they provide more than enough information. Keep your visual presentation short and to the point, so you can immediately move on to the next item on your agenda.

Use high-quality audio technology

Conference calls are all about the audio, so it is important to choose a quality provider that offers the best audio service and uses reliable audio technology. When researching conference providers, look out for track records, reliability ratings, and a robust product portfolio. Read all testimonials and reviews to know what people are saying about the quality of their calls and their customer service experience.

Once you have chosen a provider, ask how broad their geographic scope is. Because you will be communicating with various individuals all over the world, you will need a provider that offers both global and local support. It is important to know if they are able to maintain conferencing security and quality regardless of where the calls are placed. This is to ensure they have the capability to offer technical support when you need them. Ask if they offer training, online help or live troubleshooting, as limited options for assistance such as long response times can greatly affect your productivity. Finally, check if they have their own networks or if they outsource them. Providers with their own networks can better control their infrastructure and address any issues than those that outsource theirs. Because outsourced networks cut costs, there is a chance that the quality of your call will suffer in the process.

If your provider offers the option, go for an analog audio service over VoIP (voice over internet protocol). This simply means choosing a traditional phone line over internet radio. The reason for this is VoIP is subject to internet connectivity, which means that a busy or slow network will affect your call. Noises such as pops and clicks are also more frequently experienced with internet audio due to the digital sound file. On the other hand, traditional phone lines provide clear audio that can be integrated into a web conference by phone. But if there is no option for a traditional phone line, make sure your business has a high-speed internet service or connection that is fast and reliable enough to prevent delays and your participants talking over each other.

Since conference calls are audio-only connections, there will be times when you will have to switch audio during a meeting to accommodate a video call. Having a flexible audio option makes it easier for you and your participants to switch from one device to another, eliminating the distraction of going from the phone to the computer or headset. It also allows everyone to easily join the call whether they are at their desk or in the field. Speak with your provider about flexible audio conferencing solutions that can be adapted for various applications, so you do not have to rely on your IT group for setup. This way, you will know how to evaluate technologies, configure and support different device connections.

Collaboration is very important in any enterprise, which is why conference calls are one of the tools your company needs to communicate with your flexible and remote workers. The biggest challenge, however, is keeping your participants engaged and interested throughout the call. You can overcome these challenges by incorporating these guidelines into your next audio meeting.

At Lingo, we provide small to medium-sized businesses and consumers modern and efficient IP-based Cloud voice and data as well as other unified communications technologies. We are an Atlanta-based company that has an expansive network across the US, including 120 fiber-route miles, 4 POPs and partners like Cisco, Neustar, Broadsoft, and GTT. Learn more about our products and services by contacting us today.