Conference Call Sins: By Example

The following audio clips are examples of the most common mistakes people make during conference calls.


1. Not Announcing You Joined

Here is an example of what it sounds like when people don’t announce that they have joined a conference call:

When people join a conference call, there is usually an audible beep. Some conference systems ask for your name before joining a call and then automatically announce your presence. If your conference system does not do this, it is often best to say your first name softly immediately upon joining, even if someone is speaking. To reduce the likelihood that someone is talking when you join, it is always best to join the conference call before the meeting begins.

2. Joining Late

Here’s an example of how awkward it is while people wait for someone late to join a call:

Just as with in-person meetings, it is rude to show up late for a conference call. When you are in a room with other people waiting for someone to join, there is an opportunity for appropriate small-talk to kill time until stragglers arrive. However, small-talk is much harder on conference calls as there are no non-verbal indications of when someone should stop speaking, and the meeting should begin. The resulting dead-air as everyone waits in silence can be extremely awkward even if it’s only a for a few minutes. For every second that ticks by, frustration will mount, creating unnecessary tension before the meeting even begins. All of this can be avoided by joining conference calls a few minutes early.

3. Volume Trouble

Here’s an example of a situation where people have the volume both too soft and far too loud:

Checking your speaking volume and microphone levels before a call begins should be second nature. Provided you joined before the meeting early, ask people on the call if they can hear you. If you are too quiet, they will usually share that with you, and you can increase your speaking volume or adjust your microphone. Unfortunately, if you are speaking too loudly, it can be challenging to get this feedback without being told, “Can you quiet down,” or “Can you speak more softly?” as people don’t want to come across as condescending. Often people are forced to tolerate these overly-loud speakers for the duration of the call, with the offending person never being told what they are doing wrong.

4. Connection Problems

Here’s an example of what it sounds like to other people when you have connection problems:

People who connect to conference calls on their cell phones will always run the risk of having a bad connection. If you don’t have a good connection, you will have no way of knowing if people can hear you unless they tell you, which can be frustrating for them and embarrassing for you. For calls that require you to be an active participant, consider joining over a wifi connection instead of cellular. If you know you will be physically moving during a call (e.g., walking through an airport or driving), let everyone on the call know that your connection may not be stable, so you may not be saying much. If you are asked a question, and your connection is bad, you will at least have set the expectations that you may be difficult to understand.

5. Background Noise

Here’s an example of what it sounds like when there is too much background noise:

It is tough to gauge if people on your conference call can hear background noise in your environment. Some microphone systems are sophisticated enough to filter out everything but your voice, but many are not. For example, microphones built into your car tend to do little to filter out background noise, where those in your earbuds tend to do a lot. Furthermore, you may forget that you have consistent ambient noise, such as the background drone created while driving, so you must be conscious of both your microphone type and environment. To play it safe, try to join conference calls in a quiet environment with a microphone that is known to do a good job filtering out any background noise.

6. Forgetting You Are Muted

Here’s an example of a situation where someone tries to answer a question while muted.

It is common for people on conference calls to put themselves on mute while others are talking, but then forget they are mute when answering a question. The only sure way to avoid this is never to mute yourself, but this is often impractical. One solution is always to have your device’s mute status indicator in your field of view. For example, if you are joining a call on your cell phone, keep the phone’s screen unlocked to remind yourself that you are muted, and to have quick access to unmute if you are asked a question.

7. Not Listening to Answers

Here’s an example of someone not listening and asking questions that have already been asked and answered:

It can be challenging to pay attention to lengthy discussions on conference calls, and it is common for people to lose focus and drift off when they feel that someone is speaking to someone else. However, paying attention to discussions during calls is an assumed responsibility of every participant, and if you do not, you run the risk of missing critical information. If you ask for information that was already shared, it sends a clear signal to everyone that you don’t pay attention on conference calls.

8. Dominating the Conversation

Here is an example of someone dominating the conference call:

Knowing when you are speaking too much on a conference call can be tough to gauge. There are many valid reasons why one person may do all of the talking in a meeting, such as one person presenting or fielding questions. However, if everyone is asked to share their opinion, your perspective will only be one of many. While there are no set rules of how much time you should speak, as a rough gauge, divide the number of people by the time allocated for opinion sharing, and don’t go over your allotted time. For example, if there are 15 minutes at the end of the meeting reserved for questions, and five people are on the call besides the presenter, everyone should limit giving their feedback to under 3 minutes. Honoring self-imposed time-caps will limit the chance of being accused of dominating a meeting.

9. Sighs

Here is an example of what it sounds like when someone sighs in the middle of someone else speaking:

Long, protracted exhales are a typical response to boredom, and microphones are very good at picking up breath-noises. When sighing into a microphone, it may sound to other people like you’re breathing into a megaphone. Even if your intent is not to express boredom, the likelihood that people on the call will take offense if extremely high. Unfortunately – or fortunately – on a large conference call, it can be impossible to identify who exactly is sighing, but if it happens repeatedly can become a series issue. Ultimately, to sigh while someone is speaking is incredibly rude and could be cause for managerial escalation and intervention.

10. Interrupting the Person Speaking

Here’s an example of someone not letting someone else finish speaking:

As everyone on a conference call may have different cadences to their speech, it can be challenging to know when they have finished speaking. Combined with the natural impatience that comes with long meetings, it is all-to-common for people to be interrupted before they are finished sharing their thoughts. Avoiding this situation requires giving ample time between someone saying their last words and someone else speaking, which can dramatically slow down the pace and flow of the meeting. The alternative, however, gives the impression that you don’t care what your colleagues have to say.

Bonus: Not Yielding When Speaking at the Same Time

Here’s an example of people speaking over one another:

As everyone on a conference call may have different cadences to their speech, it can be challenging to know when they have finished speaking. Combined with the natural impatience that comes with long meetings, it is all-to-common for people to be interrupted before they are finished sharing their thoughts. Avoiding this situation requires giving ample time between someone saying their last words and someone else speaking, which can dramatically slow down the pace and flow of the meeting. The alternative, however, gives the impression that you don’t care what your colleagues have to say.

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