Handling conference calls can be trickier than people think

  • Business
  • Saturday, 22 Mar 2014

Helping technology: It's never been easier to have an audio or even video conference call, but the entire process can still be improved.

THE awkward silences. The false-starts. The odd background noise. Crying babies, barking dogs, hammer drills.

For anyone who’s every been on a conference call, you know the symptoms of a terrible conference call.

There was a time when only big time executives actually got to sit on a conference call. With Skype, Viber and a host of other conferencing solutions, it’s never been easier to have an audio or even video call with one, two or a dozen people.

Even news agencies have taken to using freely available video conference solutions to get experts dialed in to provide perspective on breaking news stories. If these types of communications are so prevalent, why are they so universally despised?

The key is that most people don’t think before conferencing.

A few simple pointers can help in both audio and video conferencing.

Keep it short We, as humans, are genetically programmed to respond to visual stimuli. We work best when we can see people, watch the changing flow of emotions across their faces. Remove four of the five senses and we quickly lose interest. Most experts suggest keeping a call to no more than 10 minutes so participants don’t have a chance to lose interest in the call.

Remember where you are — Human ears are really, really good at filtering background noise. Provided with the right environment, we can tune out dogs, cars, construction noise and focus on the conversation in front of us. Microphones on most computers and cellphones are omni-directional and pick up most of the sound from as many sources as possible. As a result, your voice can get lost and all that noise gets loaded onto the call. So think about where you are before the call. Avoid busy places like public spaces. Try to find somewhere quiet so people at the other end will be able to hear you.

Get a headset — Unless you have a nice quiet office to yourself, holding a call on a speaker phone or the speakers on your computer is just plain wrong. Even though the call may be critical to you, not everyone else in the immediate vicinity will agree with you.

If you happen to be on a conference call with video, there are a few additional things to think of. This is especially true if you use Skype or some video calling software on a computer.

Get a headset with a microphone — Avoid the microphone on your computer – get a headset so the microphone will be more directional and closer to your mouth. Never, never, ever use your cellphone for a conference call. Do anything to avoid being the person on the call on the noisy, distorted cellphone. Same goes for being on Skype on a bad internet connection.

Look at yourself — Before you subject the person (or people) on the other end of the call to your video signal, take a look at what they will see. Cameras on laptops tend to be down on the desk so they look straight up your nose. Try to raise the camera so it is at eye level rather than leaving it on the desk. If necessary, use a separate USB-connected camera in preference to the one on your laptop.

Look around you — Look behind you at the office wall, the bookshelves, the mess in the living room. Consider where you angle the camera. Try and be in a room with good natural light. Face a window so the sun lights your face otherwise the reflected light from the screen will make you look like an extra in The Walking Dead. If you are on a call at night, consider angling a desk lamp to light your face so the light warms you up rather than casting you in blue and green tones.

Applying some of these ideas will do nothing to minimise the agony of being on conference call after conference call, but they will improve the experience for the people you are speaking to. Maybe, just maybe, the improvements may result in quicker, more effective calls. Let’s just hope!

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