• Why conference calls should be more like Twitter

    There’s a very good reason why many people check out of conference calls and meetings to focus on their smartphones or to other things on their computers. Very often almost anything else one can do with those devices is more interesting and fun than the meeting. The paradigmatic example is tweeting instead of listening or engaging.

    I think it’s foolish to say such behavior implies there is something wrong with people or culture or that Twitter (or Facebook or email) is too distracting. The real problem is that meetings are too boring and old school. In my case, I find it too much work to get a word in, so I contribute a lot less to the conversation than I would otherwise, and far less than I do on Twitter or through this blog.

    The flip side is that I think others generally talk too much, speaking up when they have no point, a bad point, or even a good point, but in all cases frequently rambling or belaboring it. But, recognizing my own bias, I turn this around and apply it to myself. When I do speak up, after about the second or third sentence, I worry that I’m going on too long. I often stop short, and people wonder if I’m done, or so I perceive. (Really, if you can express the thought in a tweet—and most thoughts can be, even very good ones—why say more?)

    So, in several ways, meetings and conference calls are inefficient, with roadblocks to contributions participants might want to make. The serial access nature of them makes them dull, at least relative to the more vibrant, parallel access exchanges one can easily find elsewhere. E.g., when you’re tweeting to your followers, I can still tweet to mine or at you, etc. The usable communication space can’t be hoarded.

    There’s an obvious solution to all this, which is to make conference calls and meetings more like Twitter. This sounds insane, until you see something like it in action. Last Friday, I did. I participated in a conference call with a dozen or so others using ThinkTank. Questions and issues were raised by the call’s leader and appeared on participants’ screens. We typed our responses and everyone could see everyone else’s. We could respond to each other through our keyboards in much the same way one does so on Twitter. I didn’t count characters, but I believe the vast majority of ideas exchanged were below Twitter’s 140-character limit, proving my point that longer is (generally) not necessary.

    I thought it was a huge improvement over a traditional conference call. I participated way more, checked Twitter and email way less, and felt like I provided all the input I could. There was a lot less droning on and floor domination as is typical of calls and meetings. We got a lot done, and there’s a written record (the minutes write themselves—they’re crowd sourced).

    I’ve seen the future of conference calls/meetings, and it’s good. We should embrace the draw and power of social media for meetings, not fight against it. That battle is already lost.

    @afrakt

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