I teach seminars and consult on how to run effective meetings. Many of my clients must attend conference call meetings because the participants are so geographically diverse. Here are some killer conference call tips. 1. Establish a call-in and start time. Make the call-in time about five to seven minutes before the meeting starts. For example, "Call between 8:53 am to 8:57 am. The meeting will start promptly at 9:02 am."
Make your times weird; it causes people to remember and it is more likely they will arrive on time. It also shows you are paying attention to and respecting time. Stick to the times. Start exactly on time whether or not "the right" people are there. Even better, block late-comers from the call. You will only have to do this once or twice before everyone arrives on time. (This is true for in person meetings too.)
2. Allow some cacophony at the beginning of the meeting. Have everyone say hello simultaneously before you master mute them and ask them to mute themselves. This gives people a feeling of being in a virtual room together.
3. Establish a speaking order. You can't see people raise their hand if you are on the phone. It's too easy for people to either talk over each other, or be too polite and say nothing. Print the speaking order on the agenda. When you do a round and it's a person's turn, they can either speak, pass, or say "come back to me."
4. Have an agenda. All meetings must have one. It should be well thought out with realistic time frames so that items are not cut short, but the meeting ends on time. Each participant should receive the agenda before the meeting.
5. Keep group notes of people's contributions. As people speak, someone who is designated as the flight recorder should write the essence of the point each person makes (in a couple of sentences or less). After each speaking round, the flight recorder summarizes to the group what she recorded and asks the group if that correctly summarizes the points people made. Another option is to have the flight recorder summarize the point right after each person makes it. Each participant should also write down the flight recorder's summary so they can see it in front of them. By keeping notes visually as opposed to just listening, it allows the group to more easily understand and integrate different points of view. Continue to do speaking rounds as the agenda time permits. (After the call, the flight recorder should email her notes to all the participants.)
6. At the end of the call have everyone un-mute themselves and say good bye together. Again a little cacophony gives people the feeling that they have been together.