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Sometimes terms can be confusing. The term teleconferencing used to refer only to what is also called conference calling—when several people are able to speak to each other at the same time via telephone. Today, teleconferencing includes any medium that allows several people to communicate at once. In order to distinguish the media, this section is now being called audioconferencing, which means that there is no visual communication included.

The Important Differences Between Face-to-Face and Teleconferencing

In a perfect world, all meetings would be face-to-face. The whole point of communication is to make connections; it's much easier to connect with a live person than with a disembodied voice. There can be no eye contact over the telephone, and the eyes, as you know, are the windows to the soul. There's no better way to tell what a person is feeling than by looking into his or her eyes. When this is not possible, you have to rely on your listening skills to get as much information as you can from the other person's words, tone, and vocal inflections.

The Added Importance of Your Voice

We get visual clues from people all the time, and we give them as well, whether we know it or not. If those visual clues are not available (which is the case in audioconferencing), we have to rely solely on our voice to convey our meaning and messages to the other parties. In Chapter 8, we learned that how we look forms 55 percent of people's initial perceptions of each other. When that is taken away, we have to fill in that huge space using only how we sound and what we say.

Therefore, practicing the voice techniques in Chapter 8 is more important than ever. Practice your vocal variety and your diction. Tape record yourself, play it back, and make sure that you can understand every word clearly and distinctly. Leave voice messages for friends and family and ask them to evaluate your clarity and articulation.

Look for ways to be sure your voice is commanding. If you have a breathy voice, breathe more carefully (and from the diaphragm) so that your voice sounds firm and you're not breathing directly into the telephone or microphone. Watch the sounds that are easily distorted over the telephone, especially at the ends of words.

If you're leading a conference, you want to be sure that your voice is welcoming and warm. At the same time, it has to have authority. You want to use good articulation, and you want to sound sharp. You don't want to drop sounds—it's much more powerful to say "going to" than "gonna."

Practice building a stronger, more resonant, more authoritative voice because when you're on the phone, your voice is your entire image; it's the only perception people will have of you.

Distractions and How to Deal With Them

When you're doing a telephone conference call, there will always be distractions. People may be sitting at their desks sending and receiving e-mail while they're talking, they may be sending hand signals to officemates, they may even be wolfing down a Tai chicken wrap and a latté while they're participating in a teleconference. You have no control over those things.

There are also many different kinds of audioconferences. There are audioconferences between two or three people that are very much involved in an issue. Distractions are usually not a problem in this setting. There are audioconferences that are held weekly with staff members all over the world who have to keep in touch and give reports on what they're doing. Some people, who are not as interested in reports about A or B, may lose interest until it's their turn to make a report. Then there is the large audioconference (50 people or more), where people come and go as needed.

There are some things you can do to keep distractions to a minimum. Have an important person as one of your participants. That way people are anxious to be heard—to make an impression on the "boss." Let people know that their contributions are valuable. Call on individuals by name. Ask people to summarize from time to time so everyone can stay on track. One of the best ways is to make sure that only people who really need to be involved are taking part, and schedule people for when their areas of interest are going to be discussed. If people sense that you're making an effort to appreciate their time, they will be less distracted.

Techniques for Keeping People Involved

The best way to keep people involved is to ask interesting, engaging questions. Instead of asking, "What did you think about such and such?" ask, "Mary, what did you think about the relationship between A and B?" Ask specific questions of specific people. Then people will know that you're going to do that. Ask thought-provoking questions. For example, in a trip to Cuba instead of simply asking people there, "What do you think about Cuba," we asked, "As Fidel Castro goes around this country, what do you think he feels are his biggest disappointments?" That's a question that got people to think. Try not to ask closed-ended questions that begin with who, what, when, and where.

How to Use the Equipment

If you are using the phone to communicate to a large number of people (or more than two, at least), then sound quality is the key. Conference calls on low-quality speakerphones can ruin an otherwise well-planned meeting. Communication will suffer because whole words and phrases will be "swallowed up" by the equipment, leaving listeners wondering what they've missed. And you must be sure that if you're calling among numerous locations, that all callers can hear each other clearly.

Whatever equipment you're using, contact the manufacturer or distributor. They have booklets or brochures on how to make the best use of the equipment. Many of them also have helpful materials on how to run a successful teleconference.

Tips for Leading an Audioconferencing Meeting

If you are asked to lead an audioconference meeting, you are responsible for making it both effective and efficient. Here are some tips to help you make that happen:

  • Be ready early. The better you have prepared, the better the meeting will go.

  • Start the meeting on time. Everyone's time is valuable. If people are late, they will catch up.

  • Make sure your meeting has a clear, stated purpose.

  • Communicate to the group all "ground rules" you have established. Can they interrupt with questions? If so, how should they do it? Will there be a question-and-answer session at the end of the presentation (or at the end of each, if there is more than one)?

  • Briefly review the agenda at the beginning of the meeting.

  • Set a time limit for each agenda item, and abide by your schedule. Let people know that a segment is ending by saying something like, "We have five minutes left, so we can take one more question on this topic...."

  • Address issues that affect the total community—don't discuss anything that can be discussed outside of the conference call.

  • Speak and act naturally.

  • It's easy for people to get bored or distracted when they are on speakerphone. If there has been a long presentation or monologue, be sure to follow it with something that will reenergize the group. This is a good time for a question-and-answer session, or an activity that allows everyone to participate.

  • Ask participants to identify themselves when speaking, even after you've introduced everyone. It can be difficult to identify people just by their voices, especially if the equipment is not quite up to par. Also, ask people not to use acronyms or jargon unless they're absolutely sure everyone listening will know what they mean.

  • If the microphones are sensitive, let participants know that rustling papers or fidgeting in their seats will be distracting to other people. Don't expect everyone to sit completely still, but ask them to be aware of making unnecessary noise.

  • Make sure that you are not focusing attention during the meeting on one site or person more than others.

  • Summarize the meeting before ending.

  • If appropriate, plan for the next meeting.

  • End the meeting on time.

  • Follow up the meeting with written notes or minutes by mail or e-mail, and send these to people who need the information, but could not attend the conference.

    Many of these points apply to videoconferencing as well.

Questioning Techniques to Gain Involvement and Control Results (Audio- and Videoconferencing)

  • Phrase your question clearly and concisely.

  • Ask questions that require participants to draw on their own experience.

  • Ask questions that encourage the participants to explain their own viewpoints.

  • Direct questions and comments to specific individuals or locations.

  • Word your question so it is clear whether it is intended for the whole group or for a specific participant.

  • Try to begin your questions with what, why, and how. Or, use other, more descriptive words such as list, prioritize, explain or describe.

  • Ask questions that cannot be answered in one word.

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