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A pilot’s guide to hosting a conference call

In this guest post, pilot and Ketchum colleague RP Kumar applies lessons from the air to international conference calls.

By RP Kumar

I’ve been on a couple of conference calls this week that were great reminders of everything that’s frustrating about these inescapable staples of office life.

They also reminded the pilot in me of what we can all do to make conference calls more productive.

As background, I had dinner some time ago with my good friend Stephen Waddington.

Over dinner, I was wistfully talking about how the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) mandates aviation communications, and how business conference calls would benefit greatly from following similar principles.

He suggested I put together a blog post on the subject. So I turned to my training as a private pilot to share my perspective.

Thanks also to my good friend Noam Gelfond for his sharp editing and excellent suggestions.

Let’s fly.

#1 Push to talk

In the cockpit, we have to push a button to talk. In other words, the default is that the microphone is not on.

In our daily lives though, the microphone is always on, and this is a huge problem. Our phone microphones are very sensitive.

Background noises: babies crying, papers rustling, cats meowing, keyboards clicking, even snoring (it’s happened) and toilets flushing (yes also a victim).

The simple solution for all this is to use the push to talk approach but in reverse.

Flight plan (what we should do):

  • All of us should be on mute by default, unmuting our phones only when we speak.
  • If you are on the agenda to speak, be prepared to unmute on cue, so folks are not waiting for you to figure out that you can’t be heard.

#2 Kiss the microphone

In aircraft communication equipment there is a button that controls microphone sensitivity, and we pilots adjust it at the beginning of the flight as per the background noise.

At maximum setting, it squelches all the sound; we reduce the squelch progressively until our voice is able to activate the microphone. In our conference calls, we don’t have this.

Instead please get your mouths as close as possible to the microphones. This allows us to hear your voice clearly and minimizes background noise.

Flight plan (what we should do):

  • For normal phones and cellphones: be especially careful that one of your fingers isn’t covering the microphone.
  • Stop cradling the phone between your jaw and your shoulder while you make your tea or flush the toilet or whatever.
  • For headsets, bring the microphone not more than a few inches from your mouth. For mics on earphone bud wires, dangle the mic close to your mouth.
  • For speakerphones: ensure there’s nothing between your mouth and the mic, point your mouth directly towards it and project your voice clearly. Use extension microphones where available.

#3 Holding pattern

Even though electronic signals travel at 186,282 miles per second, please remember that conference calls go through multiple layers of electronic relays and switches, each one of which adds its own delay to the signal.

That’s why we tend to talk over each other. We either think the other person has stopped talking or can’t hear them when they start. So: let people know you’re done – that others may now have the floor.

Flight plan (what we should do):

  • Allow the other person to finish what they’re saying, then speak
  • Say, for instance, “this is RP”
  • No need for the old-school “Over” as in WW2 movies. Just a polite indication like, “So that’s my opinion – what do you think guys?” Or “Back to you Juliette”.

#4 Short and sweet

Haven’t we all gritted our teeth listening to interminable monologues from some colleagues who are just “thinking out aloud”, meandering from point to point, wasting valuable executive time?

Maybe it’s not having the visual cues from other participants, but if it’s rude and inconsiderate in real-life meetings, it’s absolutely infuriating on conference calls.

In contrast, here is my typical call to Morristown Tower: “Morristown Tower, Cardinal 17142, 10 North, Inbound with Whiskey”.

The bare minimum of words for maximum effectiveness in communications. Keep it short.

Flight plan (what we should do):

  • Think what you have to say before you say it
  • Rehearse it lightly. Identify at which phrase or word you’re going to stop
  • Wait for an opportunity in the conversation
  • Announce who is speaking
  • Say who you’re addressing
  • Say it – keep it short
  • Let people know you’ve finished
  • Hand over to someone by name, or say something like “What does the team think?”

#5 Air traffic control

When I fly there is no doubt as to who the boss is: it’s the controller, making sure the traffic flows smoothly and safely to its destination.

All conversation is directed to and from them, while of course all other pilots are listening.

I am not suggesting that our conference calls be like this. But I am suggesting that all conference calls should have a clear chairperson who steers the conversation, cuts short long-winded people, and propels the meeting towards the successful completion of the agenda.

Flight plan (what we should do):

  • Prior to the call, appoint a leader
  • The leader assertively manages participants to ensure the free flow of ideas, ensures that everyone gets a chance to speak, calls upon those who are unmuted and adding to the noise, encourages people to speak into the microphone, etc.
  • For more formal calls, such as those involving a client or prospect, or when you have to make an important sale, even more order and discipline protocols are required.

So there you have it – five simple rules that’ll make conference calls way more productive, less frustrating and guaranteed to lead to more smooth take-offs and landings.

Over and out.

About RP Kumar

RP is EVP, Dirrector International Research Insights-Planning at Ketchum based in New York, US.

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Stephen Waddington

Partner and Chief Engagement Officer, Ketchum and Visiting Professor in Practice, Newcastle University.

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