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Conducting conference calls.

Monday, 9:30 a.m. "Amy, do you think you can set up a meeting for the latter part of this week with the executive committee? I'd like to review the proposal and get some feedback about how we should revise it before next week," requests the board chair.

Tuesday, 2 p.m. "The conference call is scheduled for Thursday at 4 p.m. Eastern time in your office All five executive committee members will be |on line,' and they will be receiving the proposal to review this afternoon," responds Amy about 30 hours later.

Think about it - a meeting of six volunteers from across the country arranged within 30 hours from when the request was made. How could this be accomplished? By setting up a conference call meeting - a meeting linked together by telephone.

Not only can a conference call be quickly arranged, it also costs only a fraction of what it would cost for a face-to-face meeting - $75 compared to about $5,000 to bring six volunteer leaders to town for a two-day, in-house meeting.

In the past year, many of the board and committee meetings of the American Society for Microbiology (ASM), Washington, D.C., were conducted by conference call. The purpose for each varied - everything from planning a major conference to coordinating the details of publishing a 55-page report to writing a proposal for a $500,000 grant. Whatever the purpose, a conference call depends on following 12 steps to make it a success.

Advance preparation

1. Identify the purpose of your conference call meeting. Know why you feel it's necessary to hold a conference call. Consider developing a succinct statement that sums up your rationale for bringing people together - it can facilitate your conversations with meeting attendees and serve as a foundation for the entire conference call.

2. Identify the person who will chair the conference call. A senior volunteer typically names the chair who will both oversee preparations for and lead the conference call. The overall responsibilities of the chair are to plan the agenda, lead the discussion, gather ideas and advice from participants, summarize information, prepare minutes of the meeting, and notify participants of follow-up activities.

3. Schedule the conference call meeting. After you have identified participants, send a calendar of only the days on which you would like to schedule the call and ask participants to indicate the return the time when they are available. Make sure that the indicated times are in one time zone. Once you receive these calendars, it is easy to identify a convenient time for everyone. ASM handles prior arrangements via facsimile transmission.

4. Plan an agenda. Think of your agenda as the road map for the meeting. What is the status of this project? What old business or new items need discussion? How should these issues be addressed? What should the conference call meeting accomplish? The agenda provides directions about what to expect during the meeting, keeps participants focused on the meeting's objective, and allows association staff responsible for coordinating meeting details to effectively manage the process.

5. Confirm the meeting with participants. Inform participants about the date and time for the conference call meeting. Identify the start time by various time zones (e.g. Eastern, Central, Mountain, and Pacific). Inform participants about how they will hook up to the call. Do they need to call the conference operator or will the operator call them? If they need to call a conference operator, give them the appropriate telephone and confirmation numbers.

6. Send agenda and resource materials to participants. Participants will be better prepared if they are given about 48-72 hours prior to the meeting to review materials. Sending materials out weeks in advance is not necessary because most people wait to review information a few days before a meeting. Use a cover letter accompanying the materials to summarize items that will be addressed during the meeting, decisions that need to be reached, and resource materials that have been enclosed. Prior knowledge of what is expected as a result of the conference call meeting enhances your ability to conduct a more productive, action-oriented meeting.

7. Schedule the conference call meeting for a maximum of two hours. It becomes tedious to concentrate on any discussion for longer than two hours. Plan your agenda so that a conference call meeting lasts for one to two hours. If more information needs to be covered, schedule a second conference call, one week apart.

During the call

8. Start on time. Earn a reputation for starting meetings promptly if you want participants to be waiting when you are ready to start. Individuals who are not hooked up to the conference call when you start the meeting may be added anytime during the call. The conference operator will handle such calls and introduce new participants as they become available.

9. Welcome the participants. If you are chairing the conference call, start with a few welcoming remarks such as the purpose of the call, the anticipated length of the call, and what you hope to achieve during the call. Also inform participants about what to do in the event they get disconnected. Conference call operators provide a telephone number and an identification number for your call. Disconnected participants will be reconnected when they call the conference operator.

10. Take control of the call, but relinquish that control to encourage participant interaction. Identifying a person to lead the discussion allows for a well-orchestrated and more productive meeting. The chair should always take charge of the call initially, but he or she should periodically relinquish that control through verbal cues to encourage active discussion from all participants.

If you're deliberating the wording of a mission statement, for example, and one participant, Ed, has rewritten the group's last version, you can encourage him to discuss his ideas by simply saying, "We'd like to hear more about your statement, Ed." Questions such as, "What do you mean?" or "Can you give me an example?" are other examples of how the chair can transfer control of the discussion to conference call participants to get sufficient feedback on an issue.

At the end of the discussion, summarize the viewpoints and ideas that participants have shared. You may wish to ask if anyone has other information to add, thus giving participants a final opportunity to respond.

11. Ask participants to identify themselves each time they speak. This is a critical step in a faceless environment for conducting a productive meeting. It's distracting to hear someone talk without knowing who he or she is. More attention is spent trying to identify the person than listening to what he or she has to say.

12. Prepare and distribute minutes of the conference call meeting. Meetings held without an agenda should never be permitted. Likewise, meetings held without a prepared set of minutes are never very useful. What a meeting accomplishes and how meaningful it truly is are conveyed in concise, action-oriented minutes.

Minutes from planning meetings should include a summary of the discussion, the overall consensus, and a section entitled "actions agreed upon." This action plan serves as each participant's "to do" list and identifies participants for subsequent tasks. Minutes from business meetings should include a section on "votes taken" to reflect any policy decisions. Finally, always remind participants about follow-up responsibilities and future conference call meetings.

If the association provides professional staff for support, work as a team. The office staff frequently serves as a source for valuable information.

For example, about two to eight hours before a conference call meeting, I review the agenda with the volunteer chair and identify challenging areas and/or issues. The chair and I try to keep abreast of potential individuals who may monopolize or take over the discussion and to develop strategies to prevent this from occurring.

This is a critical step for conducting a successful meeting. After all, in a conference call you can't use eye contact or body language to send discreet messages to get out of tricky situations. Rather, contingency plans must be identified before the meeting.

Amy L. Chang is assistant director of education and training for the American Society for Microbiology. Washington, D.C. During the spring of 1991, she participated in approximately two conference calls per week.
COPYRIGHT 1992 American Society of Association Executives
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1992, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

Article Details
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Author:Chang, Amy L.
Publication:Association Management
Date:Jan 1, 1992
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