As with any type of meeting, phone conferences require clearly defined goals. In the words of Yogi Berra: "Know where you're going, or you might end up someplace else." It also goes without saying that participants should be selected carefully: If people don't have something to contribute, they will distract from the goal. Beyond that, meeting by phone has its own set of challenges. Here are some tips to ensure that you get the right message across.
* Pay attention to the environment. Just because the meeting isn't face-to-face doesn't mean that the atmosphere isn't important. Advise participants not to shuffle paper during a conference call, or clutter the call with any unnecessary noise.
* Select the day and time of the meeting carefully. Your corporate environment will help determine what that is.
* Start the phone meeting on time. If participants get on the line late, do not recap what has already been covered. This simple tactic lets people know that you take meeting seriously, and that punctuality is required.
* Prepare an agenda and distribute it at least a day before the meeting. This will help to foster communication because people will have the opportunity to think about each agenda item and prepare their questions ahead of time. Phone meetings should be interactive, especially if you want participants to remember what was discussed and to feel that they contributed toward the goals of the company.
* During the meeting, ask questions. Keep a sheet in front of you with each person's name, and place tally marks next to the names as people make comments. Invite those who have remained quiet during the meeting to add an idea into the mix.
* Use visuals. The more senses that are incorporated into an activity, the greater the rate of information retention. There are all kinds of ways to integrate visuals into a phone conference. You can use fax broadcast, e-mail, or new products such as Present Online, which allows people to present visuals over the Internet through a leader-controlled PowerPoint Presentation.
* Keep the meeting on track. Phone conferences should not become rambling conversations. If it sounds like the discussion is getting off the agenda, stop it. Then schedule another meeting to tackle other issues that come up.
* Always be courteous. Follow the same rules of etiquette for a phone conference as you would for a face-to-face meeting--such as waiting until the speaker is finished before adding to his or her thoughts.
* Identify yourself before speaking. Don't assume that everyone knows your voice. It is simple to begin by saying, "This is . . . and I have a question," in order to eliminate confusion.
* Conclude the meeting by asking each participant: "What is one idea that you heard about or discussed today that you are committed to implementing this week?" If participants make verbal commitments, they are more likely to follow through on them.
* End the meeting on time. This will motivate everyone to keep to the agenda.
* Follow the phone conference with another telephone call to participants a week or two later. Ask each person for a brief follow-up on issues that were brought up at the meeting. Studies have shown that people retain only 20 percent of new information if there is no follow-up.