Nobody's paying attention: don't panic

2014

Do you sometimes feel like no one is paying attention on your conference calls? Are you actually reading this during a conference call, which only goes to prove my point? Here are two things you need to know: 1) there’s plenty of evidence you’re not alone, and 2) there are plenty of things to do about it, and the most important is not to panic.

I recently received (from 12 different people to be exact, so please stop now!) a link to an Atlantic.com article that studied what people do on conference calls. It seems to show that trying to get people to pay attention is something of a mug’s game. We’re too busy emailing, texting or playing Candy Crush. Personally, I’m a Mine Sweeper kind of guy, but I guess that’s not the key learning point here.

While the article points out the problems with conference calls (which is like pointing out the liquid nature of water), I actually took some action items from the article. Here’s what I learned:

You’re not alone, and it’s nothing to be ashamed of. Very few human beings are capable of maintaining absolute focus at all times. We all drift off on occasion. The trick is, can you limit the number of mental side-trips, and can you stay involved when you have to? More importantly are the people organizing and running the call doing what they can to maintain your focus and involvement?

Sometimes (and only sometimes) doing that other work matters. If we’re being honest, sometimes getting that minor task out of the way helps you stay focused. If you’re being pestered by a particularly insistent coworker on Instant Messaging, answer their question and maybe they’ll go away. If you’ll be so distracted by the task hanging over your head that you can’t pay attention, remove the distraction and refocus on the task at hand.

Shorter, more frequent meetings are actually more productive. The longer the call, the greater the odds are that at least part of the meeting will have no impact on your life whatsoever. When you schedule meetings focused on one objective, you can invite the relevant people and let the rest get on with their lives. Also, people (at least most of us) are capable of sucking it up and paying attention for at least some short period of time, just don’t push it.

Brainstorming is overrated - plan for better input. We spend a lot of time meetings trying to brainstorm and generate input. We struggle to get people to pay attention and speak up. The problem isn’t the meeting format or the technology, it’s just bad technique.

There’s lots of evidence that actually, just throwing people online and expecting brilliance to happen is asking too much of people. In fact, there’s plenty of evidence that if you let people think, noodle and come up with ideas on their own first, THEN have them share with the group you get far better responses and better outcomes. Try getting people to generate ideas on their own before the meeting is called.

Put the most important action items first. One of the ideas in our book, “Meet Like You Mean It- a Leader’s Guide to Painless and Productive Virtual Meetings” that has generated the most comment is a simple but powerful idea: put the most important action items at the beginning of the meeting while people are more likely to be fresh and focused.

If your call kicks off with half an hour of “administrivia” that bores your audience to death, you can hardly be surprised that they’ve lost their edge, their focus, and possibly their will to live. They are also probably on the third level of Candy Crush by now, and don’t want to be disturbed. That’s your fault as the meeting leader.

Plan for interaction, don’t expect it to magically happen. Plan for moments in your meeting when you expect to hear from people, and let them know it’s coming. Usually, getting everyone involved early in auditory, visual and kinesthetic ways is more effective than having them be passive for long periods of time and then expecting them to spring into action.

We know the problem with conference calls. There are options for making them better if we’ll only step up.

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About The Author

Wayne Turmel
Wayne Turmel

Wayne Turmel is a speaker, writer and co-founder of The Remote Leadership Institute. He’s passionate about helping people present, sell and lead people and projects using today’s virtual communication technology. His books include Meet Like You Mean It - a Leader’s Guide to Painless and Productive Virtual Meetings. Wayne is based in Chicago, IL.