Marybeth Bordeau Flynn


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We’ve all been there. Whether you work in an office, from home, or have to join from the road, conference calls are awkward. Next time you have to dial in, consider these 11 Conference Call Fails and tips for turning them around.

Joining Late.
In my company, if you have a scheduled call at 2PM and you’re not dialed in and accounted for by 2:01, your IM blows up with other attendees wondering where you are. So if you’re going to be really late, like 2:06 late, don’t make a big deal of announcing your arrival, explaining why you’re late, then forcing the leader of the call to recap what you missed. This guarantees to irritate everyone else on the call, who are by now IMing each other about how you are an inconsiderate time waster.

Turnaround Tip: Master the beep and creep. Ignore the recorded order to state your name, let the beep announce your arrival, then wait for a lull to let people know you joined. Don’t insist on a recap. Matriculate and catch up later.

Sitting Near a Window (or Outside).
When I’m on a call with a colleague and I hear birds chirping in the background, I pay less attention to what she’s saying and more attention to where she might be sitting. On a porch with a glass of lemonade? In a field? Is she dressed as Snow White? Is there a robin on her shoulder? Because it sure sounds like it.

Possible Depiction of Work Colleague

Possible Depiction of Work Colleague

Turnaround Tip: Leave nothing to the imagination. It’s great to have the flexibility to work anywhere, but there’s no mistaking the whir of a Starbucks espresso maker. Think about how any background noise might come across.

The crunch of crudite. The rustling of a poorly placed potato chip bag. Whether back-to-back meetings force your hand or someone thought it was a good idea to bring food into a meeting, everyone on the line can practically feel the crumbs flying out of your mouth and hitting the speaker phone.

Turnaround Tip: Discreating (discrete eating). Don’t announce that you’re eating, wait until the one person who considers their opinion the most important (and there will be one) starts talking, then remember to mute while chewing. In general, though, it’s a don’t.

Heavy Breathing.
Remember the kid who sat next to you in Algebra whose mouth breathing distracted you from acing a quiz? He grew up, got a job, and is a regular conference-call attendee. Don't be that kid.

Turnaround Tip: Maybe your heavy breathing is a habit, or maybe it's a nasal issue, but it's time to get aware. If it’s unavoidable, see Mastering the Mute Button, below.

Not Mastering the Mute Button.
 Nothing screams unprofessional like dogs barking and directives to your spouse or kid to “Get the door.”

On the flip side, if when asked a direct question while in the middle of contributing something brilliant you hear, “Mary. Mary? Are you there?” because you’ve forgotten to take yourself off mute is also a fail, and it’s happened to me more than once.

Turnaround Tip: Stay on mute until it’s time to speak, but know the code to turn mute off like a pro. The mute button. It’s important. Learn to use it. I will, too.

. Most people are too busy thinking about what they’re about to say than actually listening to what’s being said. On a conference call, it’s rare to hear a person finish speaking before another attendee (often more than one) interjects with what they believe to be more intelligent, important, or interesting than what's currently being said. This is inevitably followed by: “I’m sorry, go ahead.” “No, you go.” “No, go ahead.”  “No, you,” and is especially frustrating when you were the one speaking in the first place.

Turnaround Tip: I have tried to cope with this one a few ways. Deep breaths, kind responses, and powering through. What I learned? Interrupters cannot be beaten at their own game. Plus, they don’t even know they’re playing. I generally choose a combo approach: deep breathing (not to be confused with Heavy Breathing, above), then finishing what I was saying in the first place.

Stealing the Show
. How about letting someone get a word in edgewise? No one likes a monopolizer, and everyone else on the call is rolling their eyes at you (or worse).

Turnaround Tip: 🤐

Putting People on the Spot.
I’m all for a spirited debate, but if you have a real issue with the subject matter or the person presenting it, take it offline. Recently, when meeting with HR about work we’d have to take on—work HR would typically do—a leader in my organization proclaimed, “So, basically, we’re going to be doing your job.” Unnecessary and awkward (albeit true … WTH?).

Turnaround Tip: Unless it's meant to be a topic of discussion, write down your gripe and follow up later.

Playing Mime.
Leading a call is especially tough when you get zero reaction from the other people on the line. It leads to a lot of long silences as you wait for responses, and quite a few, “I’ll take that as a yes,” remarks in response to said silence. Sometimes when I’m running a call and no one is speaking, I picture everyone dressed as mimes or giant crickets and think I might as well record myself and send it out as a .wav  

Turnaround Tip: Active participation. While this contradicts my earlier tip of Mastering the Mute Button, an occasional “Mmm hmmm,” or, “I agree,” is a nice touch.

Don't Be This Guy

Don't Be This Guy

I can hear you typing. I can practically hear you reading your email. Your weak responses make it obvious you aren’t listening and are probably scrolling Instragram, playing HQ, texting someone about plans for the weekend.

Turnaround Tip: Now might seem like a great time to freshen up that manicure (not that I would know), but resist. Do your best to be present.

Attempting Humor.
I am guilty of this. Less than perfect conditions aside, what you view as comedic genius will most likely fall flat over telecom. Not everyone’s sense of humor is the same (or exists at all).

Turnaround Tip: In my experience, the group must be no larger than three people and the relationships must be solid to truly get your funny on. Learn from my mistakes. Don’t do wit.

The truth is, this is just scratching the surface. I could go on, but I don’t want to monopolize your time. Besides, I have to make a quick sandwich and head outside before I hop on a call.

Marybeth Bordeau