HYCS #18 – Mastering the Phone Meeting, Part 1

HYCS #18 – Mastering the Phone Meeting, Part 1

Can a phone meeting ever be as effective as an in-person meeting?  It can be more effective.

Word Count: 1109

Reading Time:  4.2 minutes

Assignment Time: 10-20 minutes, and so worth it!

When we don’t think of 1:1 conversations as meetings,  we don’t structure them.  This is a mistake, especially when you are meeting with a client.  When you are meeting with a three or more people, not paying attention to good meeting structure is a disaster.  If you are meeting virtually, it’s a cataclysm.

On the phone, everything takes longer.  It’s like trying to rush underwater.  The effect of this is funny, unless you really need to get somewhere. Even worse, everything you believed no one noticed in the in-person meeting is painfully obvious in the phone meeting:

  • You can’t sneak in late, because that big bonging sound announces you.
  • When you talk over someone else, neither of you can be heard, so you both stop.
  • There is no way to know that people are paying attention
  • You hear distracting noises in the background
  • People drop off the call, then come back in, accompanied by the bonging sound

This bursting of denial is what I love most about phone meetings.  Because let’s get real:  Most meetings are ghastly.  Utter travesties.  A staggering waste of time.  And when they aren’t, they’re too long, take on too much and ignore what groups are good at.

Good meetings only do what only groups can do.

In his stellar book, “A Writer’s Time,” Kenneth Atchity lays out his time management system, the cornerstone of which is this rule:

Do only what only you can do.

If someone else can or will do it, let them.  If it will take care of itself and therefore doesn’t need to be done, don’t do it.  When we apply this to groups, it becomes immediately obvious we are wasting vast gobs of time in meetings.  According to research done in the 1980s, about 80% of meeting time is wasted time.  Yikes!

When we spend group time on the unnecessary, we don’t have time for the good stuff.  Isn’t that your experience with personal time management?  Groups are no different.

Atchity’s rule is easy to apply to meetings: If individuals can do it, let them.  Save for group work what only groups can do.  Only groups can make:

  • Lists that reflect the contributions of everyone in the group
  • Plans that incorporate the needs of everyone present
  • Agreements that are informed by the whole.

These are meeting outcomes.  They are the results that only groups can produce.  These are the only reasons for calling a meeting.

There is one other thing that only groups can do:  Provide an audience for a speaker.  I mention this only to distinguish the group’s need from the speaker’s need.  Here is the litmus test:  Present only the specific information a group needs to make a list, plan or agreement.  Anything beyond that has to do with the speaker’s need, not the group’s.  In addition, when presentations go too long (over 10 minutes), they contain too much information for the group to metabolize and use on the spot.  It can be helpful to remember that every minute you talk at a group is a minute that spawns hundreds of thoughts in your listeners.  Long and irrelevant presentations splinter a group’s attention and make concerted action more difficult.

Good meeting design takes this fact into account:  Even in the presence of a stimulating speaker, we are all listening mostly to ourselves.

Getting the presentation OUT of your phone meeting is the second step to a good phone meeting with clients.  The first is having a clear outcome.  Is it a list, a plan or an agreement?  For your meeting as a whole, choose the outcome you want to end with.  I think of this as the penultimate outcome.  As I reach for this penultimate outcome, I may need to employ other outcomes for each step of our conversation.

My penultimate outcome is always a plan.  To get there, I may ask my client to create a list of issues and goals, hopes and fears in order to agree on what our work together will include.

This gives me a bias toward action that is the hallmark of a good meeting.  Good meetings exclude the extraneous.  Good phone meetings are simply good meetings conducted over the phone.  To improve your phone meetings, you must improve your meetings.  We’ll talk about the specifics of that in the next few installments, including how to make the technology of phone meetings work for you.  For now, let’s start small, with your denial.

The most reliable indicator of a meeting’s effectiveness is how interested you are in it as a participant.

Think about the face of a child when they are bored and whining about it, and their sweet, delighted face when they are enraptured.  That’s you in a meeting.  You’ve just learned to hide it, or worse, to rise above it.

In a recent meeting, I asked participants to raise their hand the minute their attention started to wander.  Only one person was brave enough to do it, and the meeting leader – her boss – immediately changed course each time.  The meeting was much more lively and relevant to everybody, and the leader was grateful for the feedback.  There’s a rule of thumb that applies here:  Meetings are always more engaging for the person talking.  That’s what the research says.  It’s not a personal failing, it’s just the way of things.

Until we break our denial about how little most meetings engage us as participants, it’s going to be very, very difficult to make meetings better.  If you are not dissatisfied with the status quo, how will you find the courage to change it?


  • In 3 meetings you attend, make a tiny tick mark every time your mind wanders.  If you aren’t shocked, you may be overriding or discounting your boredom.  Be fierce!  Make a mark every time you get more interested in your own thoughts than what is happening in the room, or get distracted by anything – a stiff muscle, a sound, your stomach growling your next meeting, what you are going to say next.
  • Calculate your Distraction per minute rate.  Add up your tick mark total and divide by the total minutes of meeting time.
  • Email me your distraction per minute report when you complete this assignment.  Please give yourself a deadline and mark your calendars now.  I am very interested in your results, and I will respond.

I’ll go first.  Mine is about 40 per minute as a participant, and that’s in a good meeting.  As you can see, my motivation to change the status quo is quite high.