Conference calls

I had my first four-continent conference call this week. The morning started like this:

  • 4:03 (GMT-8): After a few hours’ sleep, I wake up, worried about missing the call. The giant red numbers on the alarm clock scream at me “You have two hours. Go back to sleep.” I obeyed…
  • 4:14: For a few minutes…
  • 4:27 through 5:15: I wake up five more times at irregular intervals, each time looking over the heap of blankets at the foot of the bed.
  • 5:58: My internal alarm goes off. I bolt up in a sub-panic, turn the alarm clock off (so as not to wake up everyone else), grab a pile of clothes, and head downstairs to join the virtual party.
  • 5:59: I unearth the dial-up instructions. Still asleep, and with no coffee in my veins, I repeatedly paste in the incorrect (of two) passwords before clueing in there’s an extra white space character.
  • 6:01: Before I’m allowed in, I have to download the particular vendor’s web technology plug-in-du-jour. As much as I hate java, at least it’s Firefox-compatible. While it’s doing it’s thing, I get some oatmeal.
  • 6:06: The presentation is still on the “Welcome” slide. This is a good sign because it means my slight tardiness will be followed by more people rolling in. Since I have a lot of extra minutes leftover on my cell phone plan for the month, I use it as a makeshift speakerphone, but muted so I can eat. I am awake enough to resist responding with “Dude” when the phone conferencing robot asks for my name.
  • 6:11: The attendees in the fourth continent have successfully rejoined the conversation. We’ll spend the next five minutes going over introductions.

This call went smoother than normal, even with the novelty of multiple continents, yet it still points to how conferencing is generally more difficult than it ought to be. The general problems I’ve seen in various calls are technological and social:

  • Special software. Because my call was early, I was working from home on my personal laptop. I didn’t have the particular conferencing software installed. Nor do a lot of people. Even though most web seminar (“webinar”) invites recommend preparation in advance, no one does this because the time says X, not X – ten minutes. Late starts are perpetuated. Attendees who are there and have the right setup get bored and check email, which brings me to…
  • Poor phone etiquette… on a webinar last month (one person presenting to many), a participant put the call on hold, treating forty of us to his organization’s selection of Barry Manilow hold music. (Just try to get Copa Cabana out of your head.) This was bad (Her name was Lola) because they only way they could shut it off (She was a show girl) was to mute everyone. (With yellow feathers in her hair…)In a conference call, you’re more likely to hear background noise from participants on an unmuted speaker phone. The Manchurian Keyboard Torture occurs when each keystroke of someone answering email reverberates around the world. It inflicts pain. The worst offense I’ve heard occurred five years ago when the sound of a toilet flushing spawned four minutes of juvenile (e.g. “male”) snickering. Ms. Manners would have gone on a killing rampage.
  • Conversations are single duplex. If more than one person tries speaking, the call becomes the human-equivalent of ethernet: (Sound cuts out) (pause) “Go ahead.” “No, you go ahead.” “Is everyone still there?” (pause, then someone talks.) Or, you might have one person chatting away, unaware that there’s some anomaly.
    The only workaround is using the word “over” and the ICAO alphabet. “Juliet India Mike, wake up. Over.
  • Volume levels are inconsistent. I don’t know why, but people nearby are always twice as loud as the rest of the remote participants. Since the remote participants are usually the ones I’m most interested in interacting with, I have to jack the volume up to eleven. Some volume acceleration can be mitigated by sitting in the same room as my cohorts. A benefit of doing so is it staves off any temptation to multi-task — like checking email.
  • Video quality is poor. When we do animations, we prep people that the initial runs will be skipping frames. Even on a “slow” animation at five frames per second, it may lose seven out of ten.


What are your conference call horror stories?


(Travel agent update: No cans of whoop-ass were harmed during this transaction. My vacation is booked at the rate quoted. The price included the hotel, essentially making it equivalent to what I would have booked on my own at the original, ultra-cheap airfare. While the final result is acceptable, the communication could have been better.)

4 thoughts on “Conference calls

  1. Single duplex conversations are terrible…but consider how it is when three of the five participants are on international satellite circuits, one of which was obviously double-hop. Actually, his delayed comments almost made sense in a bizarre, time shifted sort of way:

    Enrique, who is on the double hop circuit, is the last to join the conference –

    Moderator: “Enrique, are you with us?”

    Silence from Enrique….

    Moderator: “Guess not, Jan are you ready to present?”

    Enrique, whose circuit has finally caught up: “Yes”

    Silence from Jan, who has put the conference on hold already. Fortunately, no music on hold there.

    Moderator, who can’t recognize voices: “OK, we’re ready, go ahead.”

    More silence, Jan is on hold, Enrique is just now hearing the moderator’s comment and responds, naturally enough, “Huh?”.

    Jan figures out that the conference is finally underway, now announces: ” I’m ready to present.”

    Moderator, by now totally out of it responds as you might expect: “Huh?”

    This starts a round of people simplexing “hellos” out into the ether like some crazed multipoll network.

    Fortunately, for all concerned, the conference carrier picked this particular moment to accidentally drop three of the five participants, including the moderator, leaving, – you must have guessed it – just me and Enrique on the call. Since I’m apparently the only one who figured out Enrique’s situation, I tell him goodbye, wait patiently for the second and a half of delay, and hang up.

  2. Great (if painful) stories! Yikes.

    The only large conference call I’ve ever been on had about 40 participants, and it was mostly a “let the leader give you all information, and the rest of you are the audience” situation. We were all instructed at the beginning of the call to mute our phones, and only to unmute them if we wanted to ask a question. This actually worked, although there were several “Oh, hi, I forgot to un-mute my phone, let me ask my question again” comments, and probably several participant comments that the rest of us never heard. 🙂

  3. I participate in relatively large conference calls as a part of my job quite a bit – but not over several continents. And also, everyone’s dealing with legal documents, no multimedia presentations.

    The diverse horrors are far too familiar: the hold music broadcast to all, the person’s loud keyboard that obliterates the conversation, the person taking the call on his cell in the car with such a noisy line that no one else can hear…

    Typically on these calls, 80% of the participants are on just to monitor what is being said, and to answer a question if asked one. And then there’s a small handful of people who actually do the talking.

  4. Want to talk about conference call woes? I have plenty since I work with Shanghai, SF, Singapore, NY, etc. Heck, my team is in Shanghai.

    Talking to my Shanghai teams over the skype conferencing is so fun. Yes we are so darn backwards (or cheap) we have to use skype. We are company of $40 mil yet we cannot pay for a conferencing line like our clients do. Anyways, their English is not great and I have to be careful in using puns, acronymns, and slang terminology. Trying to explain stuff is just plain painful over the phone. Even better when the network is slow you get dropped faster that the laser guided free falling weapon.
    So being in Shanghai is much easier to deal with the teams on a personal level.

    As for the conferencing with clients, some people work from home. You can hear their children crying or talking or TV turned on in the background when they do not mute. Even better when you hear heavy breathing and everyone can hear. The best is when one guy yells to answer his wife and we get to hear some sordid details. You hear keyboards banging away as people are working. The someone pipes up and assume it is you or someone else and tell them to mute or move away from the phone. Oh the best was when some ppl are traveling and the conference in from their cell phone, you get some pretty interesting things like you hear the airport noise (i.e. boarding calls, bullhorns, airplane engines, people talking) and the best was one guy was in the bathroom and you hear toilets flushing (I kid you not). Mute is your best friend always. 🙂

    Also since we use netmeeting, it is so much fun when you netmeeting in and you see blackscreens with occasional windows dialog showing up. And when you are there because you are required to and one or two ppl dominate the conversation, then a questions props up to one person who isn’t talking, that person will say “I am sorry, could you ask that again.” or “Sorry, I was doing something personal/work what was the question.”

    I had conference calls that I *had* to attend when I was in China for months, they like to hold meetings at 2AM which is 3PM EST so I am up groggy without caffiene or trying to stay awake, you tend to say something incoherent that get’s the “huh?” comments. Conferencing is such a pain.

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