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Zombie Conference Calls

I was sitting in on a client’s quarterly conference call. The call consisted of 3 members of this public company’s top management team sitting at a conference table reading aloud into a speakerphone. The CFO went through the financials, the COO gave an update on operations and the CEO gave what passed for a pep talk about the company’s quarter and year so far and prospects for 2007.

As these smart, confident, charming individuals went about their business, I was thinking “If I was on the other end of this call, listening to these boring, droning, disembodied voices, would I be paying attention or would I be playing solitaire on my PDA?” Solitaire, definitely. Maybe that makes me unfit to participate in such a call and I suppose if I was going to slack off, I could fill the time with another, more productive task. I suspect however, that my reaction is not that unusual. I can easily imagine all kinds of things going on at the other end of the phone that have nothing to do with the call.

This scares me and I’ll tell you why. The analysts and financial managers who listen to these calls are supposed to be getting important information about the companies whose stock they include in their portfolios and that they that they recommend to their clients. They are also supposed to ask questions of the management team and listen to questions asked by others. If they are not focused or tuning in and out, they may miss something important. This can have devastating results for business and individual stockholders. I believe that much of the corporate malfeasance we have seen in recent years may be due in large part to people who should be listening carefully to such calls, but who are not.

I was in this meeting because the team had wanted me to help them rehearse for the call. They had this idea that their style wasn’t the most engaging and they wanted to change that. A week or so before, I received the prepared remarks of each speaker and reviewed them. What I found is what I always find – the statements were written for the eye and not for the ear. There were the usual array of un-contracted word combos like “we are,” “we will” and “will not.” There were formal, legal sounding words like whereas and herewith. Sentences were paragraphs long. Industry specific terminology was rampant.

So I changed it, fixed all the stuff I mentioned above, adding contractions, shortening the sentences, substituting speaking words for writing words and common terminology for jargon. They accepted most of my suggestions and we began to do run-throughs. It was better, but it still was not good. I knew what the problem was. I could not, however, persuade these terrific, intelligent people that reading verbatim statements was not going to engage participants in the call and they were not going to be successful in getting their important messages across — and I wrote a book on persuasion! Thankfully, the Q&A section of the call was much better because the presenters were, naturally, off script. But by that time, many of the participants, I feared, were irretrievably lost to other pressing work (or to Solitaire).

Whenever I suggest to businesses that they stop doing conference calls by reading aloud, I encounter the same objections: “The information is very technical and it has to be perfect; we cannot risk misspeaking.” Or “The legal department made me do it.” But I have heard many, many conference calls delivered by business leaders who, instead of reading word-for-word, take their cues from notes. They are also well rehearsed. As a result, their conversational tone is much more attention-getting because of the natural tendency to employ vocal variety or expressiveness, which is one of the nonverbal codes that gives our spoken words meaning. These skilled, knowledgeable executives do not make the mistakes my script-bound clients were so afraid of. Do they speak perfectly? No. There is no such thing as perfect speech.

The result? The information hits its target, and the leaders’ knowledge, personalities and passion for the business shine through, increasing their esteem among those in the financial community. The participants are less prone to miss important information, and are therefore more qualified to invest their clients’ money. All on the phone!

It’s a winner.

Copyright 2007 Ruth Sherman. All Rights Reserved.

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