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Conference Call Etiquette

By Merrilyn Astin Tarlton

I once sat through a two-hour conference call listening to someone’s very loud grandfather clock chime every quarter hour. A friend participates in a monthly call with roughly 250 people at 27 different locations around the country—many are emergency responders. Think about the impact of just one unmuted departing siren on the progress of that call. Then there’s the excruciating first conference call with a new volunteer leader where a dozen people dialed in to lurk, but no one else spoke, not a one, unless directly addressed (at which point they deftly deferred to another—absent—party).

We all have our own inane conference call stories. It seems a medium designed for the ridiculous and irritating and fraught with, well, stupidity. While the technology continues to improve, our conference call behavior seems impervious to basic common sense. So let’s get some simple rules on the table and see if we can’t clean up our acts.

Rules for Better Conference Call Conduct

Come prepared. It’s just like any other meeting. Even if you are in your office and free to rummage through file cabinets and cruise the Internet for crossword answers. Don’t. People on the other ends of the call deserve your full and involved attention.

Find a quiet place. I know, I know … one of the great things about cell phones and conference calls is that you can do business from anywhere. But that doesn’t mean that you should participate from the Fort Worth Fat Stock Show and Rodeo. Find a room away from barking dogs, crying babies and construction noise and then close the door. And if that was your grandfather clock, please turn off the chime for the duration of the call.

Participate. Facial expressions just won’t work at this meeting. So if you want people to know what you’re thinking you’re going to have to say so. And if your group is like the volunteer group above, puh-leeze give that poor leader a hand by facilitating discussion. The good karma will make it worth your while.

Use a good phone. You know it’s true. Some phones just carry your voice more clearly than others. And while you may hear everyone else just fine, if you come through crackly or broken, you run the risk of being ignored or, worse, irritating people.

Introduce yourself before speaking the first time. Then say your name before speaking each time after that. (Unless you’re the only guy on an all girl call or vice versa.) Obviously the other people can’t see you. And that means they won’t be able to take cues from your body language, either. Be brief. Don’t speak over others. And avoid side conversations.

Use the mute button. If you must eat, drink, chew or yell at a colleague while you’re on the phone, make sure you aren’t sharing the experience with the others. But remember to unmute once you’re finished or you’ll find that you’ve just carefully shared a brilliant idea with … no one. Don’t use the hold button unless you are DEAD certain that your phone system won’t then play music.

Use the handset, please! Okay, this is a pet peeve. But surely I’m not alone. When you pop the phone into speaker mode, lean back and put your feet up, it may be a lot more comfortable for you, but it makes you sound a) pompous, b) as if you are shouting, c) like you think you are more important than everyone else on the call, or d) all of the above. Don’t risk it.

Speak up. Whether you are running the meeting or someone else is, you can help things along by simply saying so when something disruptive is going on. If someone is tapping a pencil on their desk or shuffling papers near the mouthpiece and it interferes with the call, just say so. Wouldn’t you be embarrassed if it was you unknowingly making offensive noises each time you moved in your leather chair and no one told you?

Merrilyn Tarlton has been helping lawyers and law firms think differently about the business of practicing law since 1984. She was a founder of the Legal Marketing Association, President of the College of Law Practice Management and an LMA Hall of Fame inductee. She blogs about innovation.

Categories: Communications Skills, Daily Dispatch, Lawyer Productivity
Originally published April 19, 2011
Last updated May 5, 2018
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Merrilyn Astin Tarlton Merrilyn Astin Tarlton

Merrilyn is the author of “Getting Clients: For Lawyers Starting Out or Starting Over.” She has been helping lawyers and law firms think differently about the business of practicing law since 1984. She is a founding member of the Legal Marketing Association, an LMA Hall of Fame inductee, and a past President of the College of Law Practice Management. Merrilyn was a founding partner of Attorney at Work. 

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