conference callsPerhaps you’ve been on one of these soul-sucking calls. There are lots of updates, most of which don’t require any action on your part. It would be politically incorrect to bail, but you and everyone else on the call would rather be getting real work done.

A direct report stops by, and, grateful for a distraction, you mouth “Oh it’s just our regular update call,” put the phone on mute and attempt to a have a meaningful conversation.

Just when you’re fist-bumping yourself for being a high-energy multi-tasker, you hear your name mentioned…twice. Oh crap. You quickly take the phone off mute, apologize and say, “I was speaking to the mute button,” which of course is technically true. The opinion you offer next is nowhere near as salient as it would have been if you had been paying attention. Your peer IMs you, “What are you doing, aren’t you going to bring up the idea we agreed to last week?” Oh boy, now you’ve ticked her off, and stumble awkwardly into, “Oh, I forgot I do have one more thing to add. You see Janet and I were thinking…” Awkward.

5 Ways to Stop Wasting Time on Conference Calls

Invite only necessary players

When you’re considering flying people in for a meeting, you take a lot of thought to the time out of the field and the expense involved. Don’t let “It’s just a conference call” suck you into a trap of over-inclusion. That kind of thinking compounds quickly. Before inviting anyone to a conference call consider, “is this the very best use of their time right now?” If the answer is no, find another way to bring get them the information they need.

Articulate outcomes

In our book, Winning Well, we share lots of tips for effective meetings, but the bottom line is this. Meetings and conference calls are for two things, to move results forward or to build relationships. If you are having a conference call for any other reason than that, you’d be better off finding another way to communicate.

Be clear on your objectives. Are you there to make a specific decision? Are you working to gain buy-in to a change? Knowing why you have each item on the agenda will go a long way to keeping the call on track.

Look them in the eye

If you want people to stop multi-tasking, ditch the conference call and hold the meeting over video. You can see facial expressions and get a better read on emotions AND it takes multi-tasking off the table.

Segment discussion

Use a narrowing agenda. Arrange the more general topics up front and then let people drop off as the topics become more specific. Explain what you’re doing and why in advance, so you don’t get people riled up about secret meetings. Be sure that it’s not always the same people invited to drop first.

End standing calls early and often

I get nervous about weekly check-in calls, mostly because discussion expands to fill the time, when a briefer discussion could do. If a regularly scheduled call is important for your team or project, craft the agenda and estimate the time you think you will need. State that intention up front. “If we keep to our agenda, I think today’s call should only last about 37 minutes. Let’s be as productive as possible so we can all have some time back.”

Done well, conference calls can be an effective and efficient way to get the results you need. A little extra planning can save hours of lost time and productivity.

Karin Hurt (Baltimore, MD) is a top leadership consultant and CEO of Let’s Grow Leaders. A former Verizon Wireless executive, she was named to Inc. Magazine’s list of great leadership speakers.

David Dye (Denver, CO) is a former nonprofit executive, elected official, award-winning author, and president of Trailblaze, Inc., a leadership training and consulting firm.

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