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Chairing meetings

How to really run a conference call: with equality!

Once a team gets over a certain size, is spread over various locations (and timezones) conference calls become a necessary evil. They are a way of getting decisions made and actions allocated without physical presence.

But, how do you make them work for 100% of the participants?

I felt this very keenly at my last place of work where as a slightly hearing impaired person (I struggle to hear people speak in a noisy room) I found conference calls almost impossible to interact with.

So, you’ve been asked to arrange a conference call, how do you set it up so it works to maximum effect.

My principles are as follows:

1. Failing to plan is Planning to fail

Just like any meeting the more preparation work you do, the better your meeting will be. A conference call is a meeting just like any other. It should have an objective, a chair and an agenda.

(See our guidance on good agendas). Additionally the conference call should have clear technical details on how to dial in. A good chair will take the time to provide location specific dial-in details – “if you are calling from Canada then use this number” for example.

2. Start the meeting 5 minutes early.

As chair you must be in the conference call 5 minutes before everyone else. This is because most conference call facilities have a “wait for chair” feature – there is nothing more frustrating for a participant than to sit on a phone line with the words “your conference will start as soon as the chair arrives” while a meeting is happening elsewhere on a different PIN number.

By starting the meeting early you can ensure that none of your meeting attendees ever hear that message.

3. Text and Email out the conference dial-in and PIN as soon as you’ve arrived in the call.

Most people have trouble dialling in to a conference call. It’s a technical hurdle and the sooner you get people started on doing it the better.  Sending out the PIN and telephone number by text message is a great way to make sure that everyone has it to hand.

4. Strive for bandwidth equality

Bandwidth equality means that everyone should be as equal in terms of being able to hear and to speak. Here are some example permutations for 5 people:

5 people each individually dialling in from their desk landline. This is the ideal situation – all 5 participants have equal sound quality and no-one can see each other. All are equal.

4 people in a room including the chair, 1 person on the phone.  – This is the one of the most problematic situations. It is classically caused when someone says “I can’t make it but I can dial in to the meeting…” and is a management headache.

There are two potential problems with it:

the person on the phone will either have too much power and not realise it – continuing to talk long after the meeting participants have started shifting in their seats. Their point of view receives too much priority.

Or, the person on the phone is ignored by everyone in the meeting, cannot really hear the conversation and so does not participate. Their point of view is lost.

To deal with the problem you need to act as the “conversation controller”. This means repeating key points to the dialled in attendee and requesting their confirmation that they understand. It also means bringing in the dial in person “John what do you think?” or even cutting them off mid-flow “John, can I just stop you there and see what others think”.  In this way, you are acting as the eyes of the person on the phone and relaying that information to them verbally.


3 people in one room, 2 people in another – this is a valid permutation but can create a “them and us” culture in a meeting. A typical example might be a conference call meeting between head office and a satellite office or between a client and an agency.  The problems with this are that you have a naturally divided team where the people in the same room together will use visual cues to engage each other which will usually take precedence over what is being said ‘blind’ down the end of the phone.

To counter this it is important as chair to recognise that there are 5 individuals in the meeting and repeatedly canvas each person in turn. By focusing on individual points of view you can break down the feeling of “them and us” and have a more productive meeting.

3 people in one room, 2 people on different phones. I don’t like this permutation, let me tell you why. It gives far too much control to the 3 people in the room. The meeting will be dominated by the physical meeting room as whenever conversation occurs between them the 2 people on the phone are at a disadvantage as they cannot fully hear what is being said as it is not directed down the phone.

As chair I would advise you not to allow this permutation to take place and instead force the 3 people in the room onto the same bandwidth as the two people dialling in by conducting the conference call from their desks.


5. Keep repeating stuff

Whatever the permutation, as chair its your job to make sure all participants hear and understand everything that is being said (even the small talk). By repeating what has just been said, albeit in a short paraphrase, you ensure that everyone has full understanding of the conversation and does not feel left out.

Finally it should go without saying that meeting minutes are critical in a conference call as in any other as many participants will simply not have heard some of what was decided or an action given to them. They will check the minutes afterward to clarify their understanding.

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