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.)