Work from home essentials: Hosting winning calls and online meetings

Melissa Elliott, Director of Strategic Communication Services (Email)

Nothing conjures more eye rolls and groans than the invitation for a conference call. From the “who just joined,” the “can you hear me now,” the dog barking in the background, and the loud eater, we’ve come to loathe the conference call. But it’s not just the poor connection or sound issues, Forbes reports that an average conference call lasts 38 minutes, takes 8 minutes to get started, and includes 13 minutes of distraction and wasted time.

We can do better, and for this new business normal that requires only virtual meetings, we owe it to each other and ourselves to be better. This article offers the top tips for hosting a flawless conference call or online meeting.

The Flawless Call

Great calls don’t just happen. They are the work of a thoughtful and prepared host. If you are the host of the call, there’s work to do to prepare before the call and you must actively manage the call.

Before the Call

  • Create an agenda with times and assigned speaker for each topic.
  • If you don’t need someone for the whole call put them at the top of the agenda.
  • Provide the agenda 24 hours in advance and give speakers a head’s up that they have a role.
  • Try out your technology to make sure everything works.
  • Notify attendees 15 minutes ahead of call.
  • Open up files you need to share.
  • Turn off all notifications.
  • Dial in early.

During the Call

  • As the host, it’s your duty to be the first one on the line.
  • Welcome participants and avoid too much small talk. Some is good, but don’t let it go on too long.
  • Say hello to each new beep and let them know you’ll start in a minute.
  • When it’s time to start the call, which should be no more than 3-5 minutes of the scheduled. start time, welcome everyone, introduce yourself, and take attendance by running through each invited name and asking them to signify by saying “here.”
  • Be aware of leaving people in the waiting room.
  • Say your name and repeat it every time you speak. Ask guests to do this as well, especially for new teams and teams of large people if you are not on video.
  • Mute the line if you are not speaking. This goes for everyone.
  • Explain how you are using the technology – before you dive into the topic, make sure everyone understands how the software works. Talk about muting lines, using the chat and how to ask questions.
  • Review the agenda and ask for any edits.
  • Briefly recap any previous meeting.
  • Share new information.

Manage the Call

As the host, you are the most active participant. It’s your job to ensure the call has flow, is organized, and that everyone is heard who wants to be.

  • Encourage use of the chat function.
  • Keep track of who is talking, and who is not. Call on specific people, especially if you haven’t heard from them.
  • Help facilitate decision making by directly asking, “Can we make a decision on that?”
  • Repeat decisions, then record them.
  • Allow for silence, but don’t leave too much, as it may make participants wonder if they’ve been dropped or you’ve been muted.
  • Start and end on time to honor everyone’s schedule.
  • Be present. Don’t multi-task.
  • Prior to ending the call, recap the decisions and actions items, noting deadlines and whose responsible for each.

Video Meetings

The pandemic has required most of the business world to work remotely. Of course, we could get business done by phone and email, but we really shouldn’t, for a number of reasons: consider first that just 7% of your communication is actually the words you say, 38% of communication is tone and 55% of communication is visual. That means half of your message is completely lost on phone. That’s why the most effective communication is in person and video conference calls are the closest we can get to this right now. If you have discomfort with this, that’s normal. Practice will make you more comfortable.

Mastering the Video Meeting

  • Lighting — Light your face with either a desk lamp or natural light, but turn off any backlighting and don’t have a window behind you, as that will make it hard for others to see you.
  • Steady Cam – Do not hold your phone, as it will provide a shaky image. Place it on a stand or a surface, or use a laptop and put your webcam at eye level. You may need to raise your laptop on a book to get it right.
  • Check your sound – The best sound is usually achieved by using headphones, not your computer’s microphone. If headphones are not an option for you, then make sure you are close to the computer’s mic, and try to be in a room with no interruptions. Don’t move around too much to ensure consistency of sound and always face the mic while speaking.
  • Dress for the meeting – Suits are likely not needed for online meetings (except for perhaps an interview). Dressing for the meeting means looking professional for clients. Avoid patterns and flashy jewelry so you don’t distract others. For coworkers, make sure you are presentable. Avoid t ’shirts with colorful language or distasteful imagery.
  • Check your background – Everyone is inspecting the room around you. Make sure there is nothing there to distract them from you or the topic. Don’t let there be a tv running in the background or an offensive image or anything like that. Some software enable you to blur your background or even the chance to create one. Remember less is more.
  • Focus – Most of us just look at our computers for these meetings. Do your best to look at the camera, not your image. It’s hard, but it is the only way to get that true eye contact. If you need to, put a yellow sticky next to the camera that says “look here” to remind you.

Final Thoughts

Do your prep work prior to online calls and videos. Remember as the host, you run the meeting. Watch long periods of silence as it can be mistaken for a dropped call. Solicit responses from people by asking them directly, “Susan, what do you think,” especially if Susan has been quiet. Smile as you speak, as this adds energy and rich tone to your voice, and this will come through. For video calls, it’s all about lighting, sound and visual appeal. Finally, don’t sweat it, just practice! Each time you do it, it will get easier.