Master the Teleconference

As a Toastmaster, you have fine-tuned your communication, listening and leadership skills. You are comfortable speaking in front of small groups. You have applied these skills at your business or organization. But how are you at leading a telephone meeting?

Remote meetings conducted by telephone are known as teleconferences or conference calls and are common in the workplace. Mere mention of a teleconference can conjure up thoughts of long, boring, pointless calls that are less effective than they should be. In their book, Boring Meetings Suck...the Time, Energy, Creativity and Money Out of Your Organization, authors Jon Petz and Don Snyder contemplate the effectiveness of teleconferences. “With tight budgets and ad hoc meetings being set up quickly,” they write, “conference calls are often thought to be the most efficient way to accomplish the objective while keeping people at their desks and squeezing the meeting into an already overpopulated schedule. So how can we do this effectively? Is it even possible?”

When you are the teleconference leader, your challenge is to make the meeting as productive as possible. You can do this by employing your Toastmasters communication and leadership skills. These additional tips will help you maximize the productivity and efficiency of the conference call:


1. Consider a videoconference. Videoconferences are no longer the stuff of science-fiction. Also known as webinars, webcasts and Web conferences, videoconferences allow your participants to interact using video and audio. With Web sites such as Skype and WebEx, all you need is a Web camera and a microphone to be seen and heard by your participants. If you do not have the necessary computer equipment, businesses such as FedEx Office and Regus rent meeting rooms stocked with videoconferencing equipment. The videoconference gives you the benefit of being seen as well as heard – an advantage that will make your remote meeting more effective.

If your meeting doesn’t require a service as advanced as videoconferencing, but you want to conduct your conference over the Internet, VoIP (Voice over Internet Protocol) and PBX (Private Branch Exchange) allow you to do just that. Dozens of applications exist for VoIP/PBX conferencing; many of them can save you and your company money over the cost of regular conference calls.


2. Have a realistic agenda. Teleconference participants should have a copy of the agenda in front of them. This helps them follow along and prepare their thoughts for when it’s their turn to speak. It’s always a good idea to create and send an agenda ahead of time.

Your agenda should also be time-realistic. Don’t try to fit an hour’s worth of topics into a 30-minute call. Prioritize the topics, pick the most important ones to address and place those early in the agenda. It might be helpful to have an “optional topics” section in your agenda in case you are left with extra time.


3. Start positively. Just like a Toastmasters speech, a teleconference should have a clearly organized structure. It should have an introduction that clearly states the purpose and objectives of the meeting. Then the body should carry the bulk of the message and issues the call is intended to address. The conclusion should tie the teleconference together by summarizing the key points and action items.

If you choose to include a roll call after your introduction, you can ask all participants to describe their role in the organization or on the project team, or you may ask them an icebreaker question unrelated to the call topic – it’s up to you. The roll call gives everyone a chance to speak and identify that they are there, listening and contributing.

If you lead a teleconference without video, and your participants can’t see you, remember to smile anyway. Your grin comes through in your tone of voice and the participants will know you’re smiling.


4. Be inclusive. Remember, this is a teleconference, not a tele-presentation. One person shouldn’t dominate the conversation. Instead, actively encourage all participants to weigh in. Gathering input from everyone keeps the participants engaged and interested. You can also ask the speakers to identify themselves before each speaks – each time – so everyone can track who is speaking.

You might run into the situation where people speak at the same time – this is humorously called “stepping on” each other. As the moderator, your job is to keep the discussion flowing in an orderly manner. How you do that is up to you – you may choose to call on each participant individually, ask them to speak in some predefined order (geographically, by business unit, etc.), or let them figure it out themselves.


5. Monitor your progress. When you develop your agenda, it’s a good idea to indicate how long you expect each item to last. You can do that on the meeting agenda, or simply annotate your own copy.

As you move along in the teleconference, occasionally check the time. If you’re running behind, step up the pace. Alternately, you can cut less-important sections from the schedule. If you choose to alter the agenda, be sure to communicate this to the participants.


6. Take notes. Don’t forget to take your own notes during your call. You should assign the task of keeping the meeting minutes to someone else, because you, the moderator, must keep track of key points, decisions and action items as they happen. You’ll depend on these notes at the end of the conference call when you summarize and conclude.


7. Use vocal variety. What’s important with an audio/ video combination becomes even more important if you’re using audio alone. Those attention-grabbing visuals that help when participants can see you will no longer be there; thus, the absence of vocal variety in your speaking style might put your listeners to sleep. Using vocal variety when leading a teleconference call is as important as it is in a successful Toastmasters speech.

Be sure to vary your volume, pitch and rate – as appropriate – to make your point. You want to be expressive enough to maintain the interest of your listeners without going overboard. Constructive pauses will help to emphasize your points. As with Toastmasters manual speeches, your presentation will improve if you rehearse in advance.


8. Create and distribute visual aids. If used correctly, visual aids can help engage your audience and enable them to better understand and retain your message. So make sure you have everyone’s e-mail address. You can send photographs, charts or tables, or slideshow presentations. It’s generally a good idea to e-mail the materials before the teleconference to allow participants time to review and print their own copies. However, Internet-based technology is evolving rapidly; there are now free and subscription data services that allow the participants to see your slideshow or computer programs in real time. These technologies make it easier to distribute and use teleconferencing visual aids.


9. Know when to quit. Teleconferences often don’t end right on time. If the call finishes early, you won’t get too many complaints. But when a call runs long, you have a decision to make: You can let the conference run overtime, or you can cut it short.

In many cases, it is best to pose the question to the participants and let the group decide. Some participants may have full schedules, so by extending the call you might lose those people. In this case, the best decision might be to stop the meeting on time.


10. Summarize and conclude. When your call is winding down, two final steps will wrap up your teleconference neatly. Using your notes taken during the call, summarize the key points. If you generated action items, clarify them in detail. List the action items, the person responsible for each item and the deadline. If you plan to have a follow-up call, remind the listeners of the time and date of the next teleconference. Conclude with a final remark, such as a challenge or an inspiring call to action.

Teleconferences are a necessary reality of business communications today. As a Toastmaster, you already have the skills to turn a potentially gloomy, boring conference call into a positive and productive experience for your participants. Pay attention to these Toastmasters-inspired tips, and you can transform a run-of-the-mill teleconference into an efficient, productive work session. Next time you lead a conference call – Toastmaster it! 


Jason Kent, ACB, is a civil engineering manager and a member of Electric Toasters in Portland, Oregon. Reach him at Jason.Kent@yahoo.com





Shrinking Your World

How your computer can help you meet with others, anywhere, virtually.

By Jeff Bailey


In today’s world there is a pressing need to collaborate and share information. Imagine your vice president membership has had a “Eureka!” moment like the ancient Greek thinker, Archimedes. She is developing a can’t-miss program guaranteed to double the club’s membership. She needs help developing her plan and wants to show it to someone, now! Unfortunately, no one is available until next week’s meeting.

There is a solution to this problem and it’s as close as a mouse click. Virtual-presentation environments are almost magical. You can deliver presentations, conduct effective meetings and collaborate with co-workers over the Web. Such programs allow you to share your computer screen with other people. You can share applications and documents, and since everyone is seeing a similar display (the presenter’s view is slightly different than the attendee’s view), the opportunity for confusion is greatly reduced.

It’s easy to get started. You simply go online and sign up with a provider. Each vendor uses different technology. Some run everything on their servers (big computers running in a huge data center). Others require that the presenter and participants install special software on their machines. There may be other differences, too. You can visit a few Web sites and find the one that best suits your needs.

I suggest that you start with www.Dimdim.com. Simply click the “Sign Up Now!” button for free access. Dimdim can handle the spoken communication in your meeting by using Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP). This is just a fancy way of saying you don’t need to use an actual phone – an inexpensive microphone attached to each computer will work just fine.

Once you’re ready, here are five ways that you can supercharge your next virtual presentation:

• Understand your virtual-presentation environment. Once you have registered for the service, take time to play around with it. Don’t forget to watch videos and read the online help. It’s a lot of fun to discover how these things work. As you explore, imagine how you might use each feature in a real presentation.

• Practice! Practice! Practice! Make sure you can find the options without having to hunt for them. Use the recording feature and review your practice sessions. This is the most important tip.

• Find a friend. Learning to present over the Web is much more effective, and fun, if you have a friend to help. Try setting up two computers in the same room. This allows you to explore a feature and instantly see what appears on the other person’s screen. Then you can see what happens on your screen when he types something. It’s also okay to try this with a friend who is set up elsewhere. Simply describe to each other what you see throughout the session.

Here’s an idea: Take a laptop and a data projector to your club meeting and make an event out of it. People are often amazed when they first see Web conferencing (virtual presentations). Chances are, some of your fellow Toastmasters will want to participate in your learning adventure.

• Load documents into the tool. If you need to display PowerPoint slides or a PDF as part of your presentation, make sure that you display each using the virtual- presentation tool. If you load your PowerPoint slides into Dimdim, you can draw or type on them to highlight a point. Do this before attempting a real presentation. Carefully test slide animations. Finding yourself in a panic because you “thought it would work” is no fun.

• Focus on your voice. Your voice is your human connection to the audience. Think back to the virtual presentations or conference calls you have attended. Did they seem monotone – and as a result, uninspiring and boring? It’s important to make the most of your Toastmasters skills. You’ve practiced vocal variety in your speeches. Now, practice it online!

Effectively delivering virtual presentations is a great way to increase your influence and impact in the community. Distance will never again be an obstacle to meetings with your friends or business associates. You’ll be able to meet with them, anywhere, anytime. Plus, it’s fun! So find a friend and say hello virtually. You will be glad you did.


Jeff Bailey is a computer consultant and trainer in Cary, North Carolina. He writes about presentation skills on his blog, Wired Presentations. Reach him at wiredpresentations.com.

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