Even when carefully planned ahead of time, a conference call can easily turn into the proverbial three-ring circus. It never ceases to amaze me that although they may have the best intentions, even the most tech-savvy and well-educated business people occasionally do things that fall outside the realm of acceptable behavior during conference calls.

A recent study confirms that conference calls are failing as an effective form of communication. People are simply not engaged, and many view conference calls as a "time-waster." Likely in the near future we will embrace a more technologically enhanced mode of conference communication, but for now we are stuck with our 20th-century ways--so why not strive to do better?

I am sure that some of the following may seem painfully obvious but judging from experience, I believe these seven issues are the most lamented gaffes--and they definitely bear repeating.

The 7 Deadly Sins of Conference Calls:

  1. Step Away From the Kitchen

    This can also be referred to as the "no running water" rule. No doing dishes or unloading the dishwasher. This rule also applies to the bathroom. If you have to go, please, don't bring your phone with you!

  1. Doggie Distractions

    If you have a dog that is prone to barking, howling, or otherwise making noise put Fido outside or somewhere where he won't disrupt your call.

  1. Kid Calls

    If you are working from home and have children, make arrangements for their care. If you have older children, make sure to lay down the ground rules for when mom or dad is on the phone.

  1. Digital Disruptions

    This means turn off mobile phone ringers and all notifications. The same goes for Skype--just shut it down. There is nothing more disruptive than someone talking on Skype (or taking any call) during a phone meeting. Acquaint yourself with the mute function on your phone, so if an emergency arises, you can deal with it quickly instead of sharing it with everyone else on the call. If putting your phone on hold is unavoidable, be aware of any "hold music" or announcements that may blast over the conference.

  1. Expect the Unexpected

    Be mindful of other possible distractions, particularly if you are working from home. Is the buzzer on your washer or dryer going to go off during your call? Is your neighbor cutting the lawn? Does your dog bark each time someone passes by your home? (See No. 2) Think ahead and make plans to prevent any conceivable interruptions.

  1. Eat, Play...None of the above

    We've all been in a situation where we are rushed to eat during the work day and require fuel to carry on but eating on the phone can send the wrong message. It's not only distracting, it is also a little off-putting. If you need an energy boost, grab your snack or drink before you get on the call. As for "play," this refers to a long list of diversions such as checking emails, engaging in social media, playing online games or shopping--any activity that takes you away from the focus of the call. As tempting as it may be, this is not the time to multi-task. Conference calls are often a time when decisions are made and plans are set in motion. You could very well miss an important piece of information because you "checked out" during the call.

  1. Get Ready

    Are you ready for the call? Should you prepare notes or a written update ahead of time in order to provide a valid contribution? If possible, obtain an agenda to confirm all conference call details. If you are the host of the call, vet your service provider to ensure you know how the system functions and that it will handle your conference call needs. Send an email to all participants (or use your productivity app of choice) with an agenda and some ground rules for review a day or two in advance. Try to obtain confirmation that each participant is available for the entire call. (There is nothing more frustrating than calling upon someone for comment and realizing they have already left.) Try not to start until you have everyone present. It is better to delay the meeting by five minutes than to be constantly interrupted with people jumping in. When you are ready to begin, introduce everyone and call upon each one of them for comment at least once during the conference. Let participants know upfront how you will be handling questions--or simply ask them to hold all questions until the end of your presentation to minimize interruptions. In the end, this saves time for everyone involved.

A conference call is not unlike any other interaction in life. It may sound trite but by simply employing basic manners and respecting people's time, the outcome will be far less irksome and more productive for all.

What are your suggestions for better conference calls?

Published on: Sep 18, 2014
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.