Facilitating Good Conference Calls


Facilitators: Max Toth and Taylor Johnson


I. Names and intros

II. Icebreaker: ‘That’s Me”

III. Goals review

IV. Conference Call Tips and Tricks

V. Role-play with prompts/spikes

VI. Debrief role-play

VII. Game of parallel telephone

VIII. Paired Work Plans—plan an upcoming call in real life

IX. Debrief and share out work planning

X. New technologies in conference calling brainstorm session

III. Goals review

              i.         Have everyone leave with at least 1-2 new ideas or methods to try with their next call

              ii.         Share ways to make conference calls great! Or at least, not painful

             iii.         Give tools to determine whether the conference call is the right tactic

             iv.         Start to practice employing these tips

IV. Conference Call Tips and Tricks

•There are different types of calls: coalition calls, national organizing calls, strategy calls or check-ins, etc

•One must always ask the question and evaluate: is a call the right tool? What are you trying to accomplish?

•Better conference calls have viewed it as a tactic, with facilitators deciding beforehand that the format of a conference call is the best for reaching the decision in question

•Questions to ask yourself before you plan a call:

      • How many people are on the call? Number of people really effects the quality of the conversation
      • Are they all part of the same org or working group? A set of volunteers? This all impacts the call
      • Do decisions need to be made? Can you articulate those decisions clearly before you get on the call?
      • What is the relationship of people on the call? Do they already know each other/are comfortable with each other?
      • Always assign a notetaker and a timekeeper so that the facilitator can pay attention to the job
      • Take care to repeatedly share materials before call: code, number, the time, the agenda
      • Announce the call, announce again. People will forget
      • Unless it’s a regular call, prep people and tell them the “basics”
      • If you join late, don’t announce yourself! It’s distracting
      • Mute/unmute
      • Don’t interrupt others
      • Ways to take attendance:
      • Roll call
      • Do it from one coast to another and then reverse the next call
      • Facilitator can say who they think is on the call and then ask if they missed anyone
      • Traffic control:
      • Take a tally next to people’s names to know how many times somebody’s spoken/is taking up more space than others
      • Asking folks who haven’t spoken if there’s anything they’d like to say
      • Sometimes it is important to carve out spaces of silence, suggesting “let’s take 30 seconds to think about it” before soliciting opinion/discussion
      • If two people are talking, try to see if you can tell who they are and just establish who goes first. People will appreciate the efficiency of that measure
      • On Google hangout, the order from left to right at the bottom of the screen appears the same on all participants’ screens, so facilitator can ask everyone to speak from left to right
      • Plant strategic questions to get the conversation going
      • Accessibility:
      • Cost-accessibility is important; be aware of the fact that only 800 numbers are free. Others use up folks’ minutes and can be a burden if the call is regular and long
      • Try to find services that let you record calls for those that couldn’t make it—on Google hangouts, you can publish to a Youtube channel, Soundcloud, etc.
      • Across oceans and languages:
      • Use Skype—it’s more common
      • Having a chat function on the call so that if you have an interpreter, they can translate and reinterpret pretty fast (requires research beforehand)
      • A low-tech version is having a shared document and having the interpreter use that as a “common” base
      • Remember to troubleshoot and test tools beforehand: plugins, call numbers, any other software
      • If you’re a facilitator, DO:
      • Plan ahead
      • Flag potential barriers to accessibility beforehand or at the intro
      • Get there at least 3 mins early
      • Think through your engagement strategy: turn your computer off!
      • Start the call when it’s supposed to
      • Step in and redirect conversation to the goals and the agenda and make note of additional discussion that needs to happen either in future calls or between individuals

V. Roleplay

Scenario I. Nat’l call

Scenario II. Coalition Strategy Call


National Organization Weekly Call

You are on the staff call for a national organization. Half of you are in the LA office and half are in the NY office. The organization is holding a conference for 500 people next month in Chicago. You must arrive to a decision– should the staff meet next week to go over the details of the conference in person? Person X firmly believes that this planning meeting must happen to iron out the details– the more planning, the better. Person Y, on the other hand, thinks that the travel is too expensive and that the conference will work itself out. Person Z is more concerned about the front page article in the Washington Post saying that the organization has committed tax fraud and doesn’t want to talk about the conference OR the planning meeting. Will there be a planning meeting or not?

Coalition Strategy Call

You have been invited to be a part of a new coalition to end war. This call is to come up with the coalition’s first kick-off event. Person X believes that they should lobby Congress. Person Y, thinks that the coalition should organize a large rally at the White House. Person Z thinks the only way to end war is to wage inner peace– they want to focus on organizing a meditation retreat. The coalition has to come up with a strategy by the end of this call. Will they ever agree?

VI. Debrief Roleplay

•A lot of the difficulty is when people have opportunities to work things out in person before the call

•Interruptions exacerbate the situation, even the roleplay included distractions that should otherwise be avoided. Be in a quiet place

•Facilitator should do backend conversations and relationship building before the call

•How do you make everyone feel invested in the call?

       •Tip: Do a spotlight on a different person every month, have specific introductions to them and their project

       •Tip: quick session of “highlights and goals”

•Have people send in questions/specific concerns beforehand to avoid any “surprises”

•What if you don’t reach a decision at the end of the call?

•Determine if the “decision-making process” is really feasible in a conference call format

•Try splitting up into a planning group that works on the issue, have a follow-up conference call with some ideas already in place

            • This is especially useful for coalition/strategy calls

•Think strategically about your words and ask pointed questions to make the most of every participant’s input

VIII. Paired Work Plans (Breakout Session)

IX. Debrief and share work plans

•Continued conversation about investment in call

•Have people send in campaign reports and plant questions beforehand so they have an opportunity to present something they’ve been working on

How to avoid glitches in the call?

•Try to have a shared document/chat option available with the call so that the conversation keeps flowing. Disengagement from the call is bad

•Make the agenda “interactive”

•Try to have a decision, big or small, at the end of the call, so there is always a purpose for folks to be there

            • How many people need to be there to reach that decision?
            • Is it a formality or is it truly necessary?

•Be aware of people’s needs—if somebody has problems hearing or speaking, make sure that you have done research into tools to assist them

•Prep way ahead of time so there are no surprises

•Don’t expect to accomplish something too unattainable in a call, view it as an organizing tactic, not the only tool for organizing

X. New technologies in conference calling brainstorm

       •Base Camp: https://basecamp.com/

       •Asana: https://asana.com/

       •Google queues

       •Jitsi: alternative to Skype (more secure): https://jitsi.org/

       •Google hangouts

       •Pirate pad (central document to work on during call, more secure) http://piratepad.net/front-page/

•Hackpad (good for task management) https://hackpad.com/

•Join.me (good screenshare): https://join.me/

•Try reverse training in screensharing: if you’re the one doing the training, make them share their screen, instead

•Jing: http://www.techsmith.com/jing.html


•Free Conference Call