Tips For Better Conference Calls

Recently in an interview with a company that has overseas offices, I discussed some tips I picked up while working at Chevron on how to have a good teleconferencing experience. Lots of companies have conference calls, but in my experience not many do a good job of hosting the call or running the meeting when on the phone. Here are a few tips I shared with them.

Background

After I left Chevron, I sort had the assumption that every company did things in the same way. Big companies often get criticized for having a lot of bureaucracy and you might feel burdened to conform. But, although they may have a strong culture, sometimes its for the best. In this case, I thought they did a great job with helping employees have conference calls and not feeling like someone was left out because they weren’t on the phone. Here are a few of my own tips, along with a few others I found online.

Tips

Be on time. This comes from Entrepreneur.com, and I agree. Since you have many people calling in from different locations, it’s a huge waste of time and money to have people sitting on a call waiting to start. If one person is in charge of the host line, and that person is running late, either let everyone know and/or give out the host passcode so that someone else can start the conference call. Plus, many people will simply hang up after 15 min if the host hasn’t joined.

A round of introductions. At the start of each meeting, everyone should say their name and possibly title, if it’s unclear who does what (if that’s important to know). If someone joins late, whomever is speaking pause long enough to make sure to let that person introduce themselves. Don’t sit in the back without speaking up.

Identify yourself. This is one of my pet peeves. Whenever someone in the conversation begins speaking, that person should say their name out loud, so that everyone knows who it is. This isn’t as important if someone has a distinctive voice, if it’s a small group of people, or if only one person will be speaking, like the CEO. But for a group of people that don’t know each other, saying your name before you speak will help personalize the entire experience.

Keep noises down. Side conversations during a conference call are a big no-no. This includes people in the room chatting quietly together or someone who gets a phone call. The microphones in conference call phones cannot distinguish between the noises next to the phone and those far away. So all the noises sound the same, which means that it’s hard to hear the person currently speaking. People in the room, or on the phone, should request that side conversations end so that people on the phone can hear what’s happening.

Mute is your friend. Likewise, use the mute button if you’re not talking. This goes for someone calling in from their desk, or people in a room together. However, if you’re in a room together, you need to be careful to know when the mute is on or off. I remember I once called into a meeting when I was at home with a head cold. I assumed my phone was on mute, but unfortunately it wasn’t before I blew my nose. Trust me, no one wants to hear you blow your nose or bite into your sandwich. Mute your phone.

Watch the microphone. Microphones can be good at picking up stray noises. Don’t be the dreaded mouth-breather! Learn to use your headset. (OK, this one was a useful tip, but also pretty funny. And a true story!)

Present documents slowly. Screen sharing apps are great but they can be kind of slow. Sometimes the people on the other line are still on page one, when you’ve jumped to page 3. Scroll slowly, or a little as possible, to give the other line a chance to catch up. In addition, use the cursor and a good description to help people orient themselves in the documents. I’ve seen companies present documents as though the people on the other line have worked on putting the presentation together with them. This leads them to give short and fast explanations, without giving the people on the other line a chance to understand what they’re seeing.

Be polite. The last tip comes from Jabra.com, and it might be the most important. Actually, I’d say to be extra polite. Tense conference calls are no fun. Give people the benefit of the doubt.


Ultimately, the goal is to run a good meeting. Other websites had tips about taking notes, stating the agenda, not eating, and paying attention, which are all tips about running a good meeting, too.

I hope these tips help you run your next conference call more efficiently and with better communication.

Getting Simple

52weeksofUX.com has an article called, “What Does It Mean to Be Simple?“, published in 2011. The goal of the article is intended to help clarify what it means to be simple, when it comes to user experiences. It lists 3 main points:

  • Have a single core idea (not several ideas, or a partial idea)
  • Improve clarity over time (don’t overwhelm with inappropriate details)
  • Use consistency (avoid using unnecessarily unique interfaces and messages)

The author subdivides each point into more specific points, such as:

Be consistent through…Occasionally breaking the rules – know when an interface is genuinely unique–it’s probably not as often as you think.

I’d say that a lot of this advice is helpful and similar to concepts found in Don’t Make Me Think and in cognitive psychology. It’s a short read and I’d recommend the few minutes it takes to read it.

Shortly after reading the article, I came across a related question on Quora, “How to make my life simpler?” Having recently read the UX article, I wanted to see if I could extend the points in the article to other aspects of life. What I liked about doing this idea, is that 3 tips on keeping a simple life is incredibly to remember. Once you get to 5-7, even though those are easier to remember than, say 20, it’s still a lot to apply to all aspects of your life. I also liked the idea that repurposing these UX ideas would require them to become distilled down to basic points, that would possibly relate to day to day life, as opposed to just UI design.

Here is my response.

1. Focus on making your decisions binary. For example, President Obama said he chooses either a dark gray suit or a navy suit. “You’ll see I wear only gray or blue suits,” he said. “I’m trying to pare down decisions. I don’t want to make decisions about what I’m eating or wearing. Because I have too many other decisions to make.” Why Obama Doesn’t Pick Out His Own Suits: Decision Fatigue and How…

The goal is to reduce the amount of time you spend deciding on simple tasks, so that you have a greater cognitive reservoir for more important decisions.

2. Refine your life over time. As apparently many people have been doing, I recently read the book, “The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up”. This process of tidying is something that is part of Japanese culture. There are actually a few Japanese authors who have written books on this topic, but the book by Marie Kondo is most accessible to English speakers. The main point is of this book to only have items around you that “spark joy”. In practice, this means pick your best gray and navy suits, and toss those other suits that you don’t really care for. This process involves a lot of introspection and reflection on your lifestyle and your needs. Once you do it, however, you will have a good idea of how to manage your life.

The goal is that by practicing this over time, you will eliminate items you don’t care for and only buy or keep items that bring you joy. I’ve been practicing this for a few months, and it’s so much of a relief to only keep items I truly love. (I also save money because I only shop for what I need or what I truly love.)

3. Focus on a routine. Basically, do the same thing every day. For instance, even my iPhone has started suggesting that I go to sleep at the same time every day. (I’ve actually had an alarm, for this purpose, for years.) Some people eat dinner at the same time every day, or workout early in the morning. Find your good habits and repeat them every day.

The goal is to find a pattern that works for you and that you’re comfortable with. Sometimes you’ll need to break your routine, or even change your routine, but the fact that you have one will keep your life simple.


I thought it worked, but there was still something missing. I thought about what the core message was: introspection. Understanding what’s important to each person…because having the best advice in the world means nothing if it’s irrelevant.

Several years ago, I saw a documentary film called Enlighten Up! at the IFC Center. The documentary is a skeptics take on the world of yoga. (Actually, it’s the filmmaker’s vicarious and voyeuristic film project.) Eventually, the skeptic ends up in India where he meets a guru, and is determined to get the guru to tell him which form of yoga is best for him to achieve enlightenment. The answers from the guru were enlightening:

“Everything depends on you. Hangs on you. You should feel the importance of yourself. You are the most important person for any decisions, all the decisions…

[Q. How to achieve happiness?] This is a good question. Let me put a little stress on it: [Look at how hard you are working to achieve your happiness.] Is there any happiness [in that]? You will have to question yourself. Where is it? Where can I get that happiness?

[Q. I am not a religious person.] If you don’t like [something], don’t do it. But you can still be a religious person.

[Q. How can that be?] Be yourself. Be your true self.

[Q. How do I do that?] As much as possible, try to get rid of what you are not and what you are unnecessarily wearing on yourself.

(Emphasis added.)

The guru’s final statement is what led me to add the following to my Quora answer – that ultimately what makes for a simple life is to understand of what is and what is not important to you, and to let life take its course naturally from that.

Whether or not you choose to follow these 3 tips or not, the decision is yours. To reiterate, the main thing is the self-examination of your life. In fully committing to this act, understand and appreciate your own self-worth. Understand and pursue goals that are important to you. When you find out what is truly important to you, allow yourself to decide and naturally remove what is not.*


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So how would I turn the guru’s response into tips for simple UX design?

  1. Clearly define your goals. Know what’s truly important to achieve your goals. In the guru’s words, “Know what is true.” All manner of churn and delay will follow when goals are poorly defined.
  2. Stay on track. As much as possible, eliminate everything that doesn’t achieve these goals. This is probably as close to the 52weeksofUX article as anything.
  3. Don’t force it. If it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work. A related Italian saying, coming from the perfectly-imperfect Italian fashion sense Sprezzatura: “Always cut. Never pull”. Whatever the end result is, it should feel natural. For example, I once presented two designs for a website to my design colleagues. Everyone unanimously decided that they liked choice A over B, yet the group continued to discuss how to make B into a better design. In the end, I as the designer, recognized that the reason the group was still discussing B was because it was inferior but they were trying to force it into a better design. It was my own suggestion that because we had a good option already and we should simply eliminate option B, rather than force it to be something it wasn’t.

*Note: If I could include a clip of this one scene, I would. Unfortunately, most of the clips I found on YouTube were not great, so I’m not going to include them. I found an extended bonus clip, but it doesn’t include the parts I’m quoting above.