Achieving Business Excellence with John Spence

How to be More Effective on Conference Calls


1. Realize that much business is now done through email and over the phone. These are both lousy ways to communicate important information, but we are stuck with them.

Research shows that 93% of communication is non-verbal, including such important cues as body language, facial expressions, and eye contact. On the phone, at least you have some additional tools such as pace, volume, and tone of voice, inflection and the ability to adjust responses in real time. Email, however, can be extremely dangerous and leaves you completely vulnerable to hordes of miscommunication marauders. So when you are trying to communicate very important information-especially in situations that are highly complex and confusing, fraught with emotion, and/or involve floating new ideas – try, if at all possible, to communicate in person. Your second choice should be telephone; your very last resort should be email.  With that said, we all understand that in today’s fast-paced, global business world of virtual teams across multiple sites and time zones it is often necessary to conduct a large part of your work via the dreaded “conference call.” Since there is no escaping them, here are some suggestions to help you make every call as focused and effective as possible…


2. Sit down at least three or four minutes before the call, take out a piece of paper and prepare for a phone conference just like you would prepare for a meeting. Have an agenda, a specific goal for the meeting, and a list of information that you need to share and information that you need to collect. Even if you are not running the call, you should still be extremely well prepared.

3. Before you make the call, clear your desk and your mind.Turn off your monitor, turn off your CrackBerry, and clean a section of your desk so that you can sit and take notes without any distractions. Focus completely on the call; do not try to multitask.

4. Have any information you might need for the call already at hand, including calendar, reports, data, memos, organization chart, etc. You don’t want to have to search for these things during the call. Make sure that you have carefully read any pertinent memos or information before the conference call.

5. When the call starts-whether you are running the call or not-make sure that there are clear ground rules and expectations for the call. Someone else may set these rules and expectations, or you can offer them: How long will the call be? What is the purpose of the call? Who is on the call and why? What, specifically, is the desired outcome of the call?

These questions should only take a few seconds to answer, but asking them is important to set the tone and verify why the call is necessary.

6. During the call, use these tools to keep the conversation focused and on track.

  • Perception checking. Does that sound good? What problems do you see? Is anyone at all uncomfortable with this? Does anyone have a concern? Is that 100% clear? Does this seem reasonable? What else do we need to talk about while we have everyone on the phone?
  • Roll call. Check with specific people from time to time to make sure they are engaged or to elicit their unique expertise or opinion. John, what do you think about that? Wendy, do you have anything to add? Bob, I’d like to hear your thoughts on that. Sue, we have not heard from you in a while-what do you think about this idea?
  • Qualifiers.  It helps to control how much information a person delivers-either a very focused answer, or a very broad answer. Please tell me what you feel are the top three reasons…; Could you share with us everything you feel we need to know about…; What is the number one issue with…; What are all the issues around…; What do you see as the top two or three most important…; In as much detail as possible… .
  • Cushions. You can soften a difficult or pointed question to show other people that you are asking this tough question because you are trying to help them. So that I can better support your team, could you explain to me…; In order for me to make sure you have what you need, will you please share with me…; Because I know this is important to you, will you take some time to go through… .
  • Condition. You can put a condition on a difficult or pointed question to explain why you are asking it. I was looking over the report and noticed XXX, which made me wonder…; I was talking to Fred over in IT and he brought up an excellent point; he felt…; I was reading the Wall Street Journal this morning and saw an article on XXX, which prompted me to think about…; how do you see it?

Below is a list of types of questions that will help you keep the conversation focused, productive, and on track.

  • Go / No Go. Do we even need to discuss this? Do we even have the authority to make this decision? Are we the right people to be discussing this? Do we have the all of the right people on the phone to discuss this now? Is now the best time to be discussing this?  Is this the correct thing for us to focus on right now? Would this be better handled through an in-person meeting or an email?
  • Clarifying. What, specifically, do you mean? In other words, it seems like what you are saying is…; From everything I have heard, it feels like the main issues are…; I am not sure I understand exactly what you are getting at, could you take a minute to clarify…; According to the numbers you have given, it looks like… is that correct? Could you be more specific? Can you give us a bit more detail?
  • Assumptions. How do we know this is true? How can we be sure these numbers are right? On what assumptions are we basing that conclusion? How did they measure that? What was the methodology for collecting that information? Who supplied this information? What else is this like? How is this different? What might possibly go wrong? What is completely unique about this?
  • Causation. What caused this to happen? What do you think was the root cause? What triggered this to happen? What do you feel were the main drivers of this? What led us to this position? Who was responsible for this happening? Who made this decision?
  • Impact. What do you think will happen? How will this impact…? What will the likely outcome be? What alternatives do you see? What do you think is the probability of this happening? What do you see as the benefits? How might this hurt us?
  • Actions. What do we need to do first? What should the next steps be? Where do we go next? How do you want to handle this? Who will be responsible? How will we know what success looks like? What is the plan for implementation? Who has accountability?


Note: These questions are based on a superb system called Precision Questioning taught by Vervago. I have been certified in this system, and found it to be extremely useful. If you can ever go to one of Vervago’s programs, it is well worth the time and investment. Here is a link to their site if you’d like to learn more:

7. Since you are asking superb and well-worded questions, the next key is to be excellent at listening to the answers. For me, the only way to do this is to remove any and all distractions. I actually close my eyes while listening, so nothing can pull my attention away. I also repeat what the person is saying over and over again in my head to keep the mental chatter at bay and help me lock the information into my brain. I constantly summarize and paraphrase their comments, keeping focused on what they are saying, what important points they are making, and the main ideas they are expressing.

8. Along with superb listening goes superior note taking. The key here is to create a personal system for quickly and easily capturing all of the most important information-a kind of personal shorthand, with symbols and words that make sense to you. I cannot stress strongly enough how valuable it is to take good notes; this has been a career saver for me more than once. Be sure to date all notes, list all people on the call, and circle or star the most critical information.

9. Never-ever-end a call without clearly determining what will happen next and, specifically, who is accountable for making it happen. The next step might be another call, a meeting, or the launch or termination of a project. A good way to summarize the next step is to use your notes to give very quick highlights of all of the main topics covered; check in with others to make sure your information is correct; list the action steps and action owners; and then, ask for verification.

10. I typically end calls by offering one last opportunity for anyone to offer an opinion or concern. My standard line is: Before we hang up, are there any questions, concerns, issues, pushback, feedback-anything else to offer? 

11. Immediately after the call-while the call is still fresh in your mind-take a minute or two to review your notes, add information, re-write things you can’t read, and list next steps. Then, file the notes.

12. If appropriate, I will often follow up a phone conference with a very brief summary of the key points and action steps/action owners. I do this as soon as possible after the call.

13. On those rare occasions when a call really does not seem to go well, I will immediately call one or two of the key people who were on the call to get their opinions of the call and talk about any concerns or issues they might have.

As I said at the beginning, you probably know many of these things. The simple question, however, is: Do you do these things on each and every important conference call?


Hope you found this helpful – John


  1. Derek Lewis says:

    Great tips that can be broadly applied in other venues. Thanks for the tips!