The Journal The Authority on Global Business in Japan

Leadership | Conference Calls

November 2013
Get up, get vocal, and get ready for those dreaded scheduled calls

By Andrew Silberman

Think back to your last teleconference. How did it go? If you’re like most executives in Japan, you have more than one regular teleconference, and more than one challenge with them.

Whether it’s differences in time zones (often staff in Tokyo are asked to call at 10 p.m. Japan time), cultures (your head office complains about the lack of local contribution), languages, or accents, for most of us, teleconferences don’t make our highlight reels.

Below are four tips and four tools for improving your next teleconference, whether you’re a leader or a participant.

Prepare . . . for the conference
This is common sense that’s not common practice. If you’re the call leader, treat the teleconference as you would any important meeting.

Prepare and send an agenda in advance. Let the callers know what you’re expecting to cover, ensure the right people are on the call (so as not to waste anyone’s time), take notes, or assign someone to take them.

Let people know the purpose of the call: is it to make a decision, inform, or discuss? How much time are you allocating for each item? Do all those on the call need to be there for the whole call? Have you taken time differences into account? Make your expectations explicit.

Ask the participants to prepare: “I’ll be asking each of you to give a one-minute high-level summary of . . . ” or “I’ll be expecting your input on . . .”

If you’re a participant, prepare by reviewing the agenda, and check if you would like to add anything to it. For each item you might be asked to comment on, prepare what you would say. If it’s important, practice once or twice. Record yourself, to hear how you sound to others. And be ready to help the conference along.

Prepare . . . to speak
When you’re a participant, imagine a stoplight near your phone. It turns green when you begin to speak and stays that way for about 30 seconds. It then turns yellow and, 15 to 20 seconds later, red. Get your thoughts together, and present them . . . with conviction.

You know about the famous Albert Mehrabian impact research, right? In brief: when you are presenting information, 55 percent of the impact is visual (how you look), 38 percent vocal (how you sound), and only 7 percent verbal (what you say).

If you’re on the phone, with no visual input, the percentages move to 75 percent vocal and 25 percent verbal. Don’t let yourself fall into monotone monotony!

Prepare . . . to listen
A conference call is a team event. You’re one of the players (and the leader is the captain). When not speaking (and, actually, even when speaking) your listening skills will help you and the other callers accomplish the call’s goals.

Was that other caller clear? Did everyone understand the question being asked? Is the call staying on track or falling into a series of one-on-one conversations better dealt with off line? Who is responsible for what? Are we all in agreement? Are you sure?

Prepare . . . to help
So you’re contributing, and you’re listening, and you realize that not all the answers to the above questions are positive. Another caller wasn’t clear. Not everyone understood that last question (you’re sure of this, because you didn’t). The call is going off track. What can you do to help?

Here are four specific contributions you can make that will improve your next conference call. Note that none of them require any special insight on your part, only good listening.

1. Ask (good) questions
You can ask other callers to clarify something you didn’t understand. Use their name, jump in, and ask: “Joe, I didn’t catch the last part of what you said. Can you please repeat it?”, “Kato-san, can you give an example of an actual situation where that happened?”, or “Maria (call leader), are we about where you hoped we’d be by now on this call?”

Any question that helps the call move toward the goal is a good question. This includes clarifying questions, agenda-confirming questions, or even a question such as, “Hey, can you guys take that off line so we can cover all the agenda before midnight here in Tokyo?”

2. Recap regularly
From time to time, a summary can really help move a teleconference toward the goal. It gives the callers a chance to reflect on what’s been covered thus far, it can give shout-outs to excellent contributors, and it can ensure the call stays focused on the goal.

Good call leaders will summarize the call every 10 minutes or so, and even if the call leader doesn’t summarize, you can: “So let me make sure I’ve got down what we’ve covered so far. We’ve addressed A, B, and C and we’re still looking to solve issue D.”

While you may think this slows down things, summaries can actually help speed you toward the ultimate goal, especially if they help get the call back on track.

3. Compliment and complement
A Northwestern university study shows that there’s virtually no limit to how many times you can compliment someone before it stops generating good feelings on the part of the person being complimented.

A “good point, Charlie” will score you points, too. (Yes, you can overdo compliments in the eyes of the other callers, so be judicious here).

And complementing another’s contribution with an example, a case study, or a story that supports the other caller helps everyone move toward consensus.

Radio DJs share a common enemy with teleconference leaders: silence. Remember when you offered a comment or suggestion and no one responded? How did you feel? Give others the courtesy (and energy) of “hearing” your nods of approval or questioning eyes.

4. Send out the notes
At the end of the call, volunteer to send out a final recap of the call. If you’re not the leader, email your notes to the leader for approval. Sending the notes shows you were paying attention (and volunteering to do so will keep your attention).

This will also help future calls go better by sharing how much (or little) was covered in what amount of time. Action plans will be clear and responsibilities will be set.

Final preparation tip
Amy Cudder, in a truly informative TedTalk, ( shares how your posture makes a huge impact on how you come across to others and to yourself.

Many conference callers make the mistake of multitasking, racing to the call and joining at the last minute, or of sitting and waiting until they are asked to contribute.

You can change all this. Prepare to make a difference. Raise your own energy and the whole call will go better for everyone. Watch Cudder’s talk and see for yourself. Everything she says during the video can help you on a teleconference, even though your fellow callers can’t see you.

Among her suggestions is to stand up and take a power pose two minutes before the call. And why not stand up during your next call?

My observations
I’ve recorded teleconference workshops for hundreds of call participants. The self-awareness raised by hearing how leaders and participants actually sound on a call often results in immediate changes and improvements.

Whether it’s the empathy gained from playing a role (such as the call leader) that’s usually taken care of by someone else, or from hearing how others handle similar difficult call scenarios, this is one of those skill areas where a little bit of training goes a long way.



Andrew Silberman is the co-chair of the ACCJ’s Membership Relations Committee, elected governor of the ACCJ, and author of Get a G.R.I.P.: Andrew’s Ax Guide to Global Readiness.