Trouble Shooting a Conference Call in Real Life

Ryan Murphy
July 28, 2015

There are so many things that go wrong before and during conference calls… and none of them have to.

At this point we’ve all seen Tyler and Tripp’s “A Conference Call in Real Life.

You laugh at almost every part of this because chances are you’ve personally experienced every part of this in a real conference call.

These distractions and technical roadblocks cause meetings to fall apart. When communication breaks down, minds wander and productivity goes out the window. It’s frustrating stuff.

Here’s a helpful look at what issues are happening, why they happen in a conference call, and how to troubleshoot them to improve your conference call experience in real life.

Mistaking the Speaker (0:24)

Tripp mistakes a female voice for that of his friend Tyler. Pretty big mistake, but not UNHEARD of (get it?).

Analog phone lines carry a fraction of the bandwidth over which the human voice travels, making the voices sound dull and flat It’s easy for a person’s signature voice characteristics to be lost.

The solution here is using a conference phone that uses VoIP technology and has a speaker that uses a broad audio bandwidth. This way, all tones and intonations are recreated faithfully. Not only will you be able to tell the difference between the voices, but you can pick up on meaning and implications in speech.

The other solution is, of course, video conferencing. More on that below.

Plain Old Awkward Interaction (0:30)


Sometimes human beings are just awkward, right? There’s really no way around it. And awkward situations get all the more awkward when speaking on the phone, because you can’t see one another.

The only possible answer to alleviate the tension in a spot like this is being able to see one another via video conference. Communication is easier, body language is readable… and you can even be seen pretending to be busy if there’s just nothing to say. Shuffle through your papers or something. Write something down.

People Getting Kicked (0:59)


Representing this by having Tyler speaking to a blank wall outside the conference room? Hilarious. Well done.

In real life this has got to be one of the most disruptive experiences associated with the modern conference call. Not realizing you’ve lost the connection. Having to troubleshoot the drop. Reconnecting. The interrupted flow of the meeting. The resentment.

It can be caused by things like bad internet connections and overloaded servers.

I won’t list and provide solutions for everything that can cause a meeting attendee to get booted from a call. What I will say is that there are more fool-proof systems than others, and that you do get what you pay for.

If conference calling is a big part of your business, you should be investing in the right conferencing system. Get a high-quality conferencing solution with a dedicated VoIP server and encourage those that you’re collaborating with to do the same.

Access Codes to Get Into Meetings (1:07)

There truly is no way to get around this one. Access codes are a staple of conference calls around the world, and there’s little reason to abandon a relatively effective system.

Having a tough time getting into meetings, if it’s not a connection problem, is usually due to human error. While clear communication ahead of time will always help, your conferencing service provider can assist with this as well. Choosing a company that gives you your own unique moderator codes on a wallet card will let you dial the same number and enter the same code every time you make a conference call.

Because it is so pervasive in modern business, everyone assumes that everyone else knows how to use this stuff. But it isn’t intuitive – newcomers need some hand holding. Go with an audio conferencing company with good customer service to help make sure everyone can get up to speed.

People Speaking Over One Another (1:28)

It’s tough to time conversations when you can’t see the people you’re speaking to.

There are visual cues that folks use to make it obvious that they have a point they would like to make or have feelings about the topic being discussed.

Even if you can hear one another clearly, you might be missing out on a load of very meaningful and telling body language.

Speaking face to face is the clear solution for this one. If it’s too costly or you’re unable to do it in person, hold your meeting via video conference instead.

Voices Cutting Out (1:48)

Nothing causes minds to wander like someone’s voice cutting in and out intermittently.

This can be cause by “packets” getting lost when using VoIP on an overloaded server. Talk to your service provider about getting a dedicated VoIP server – it can solve this and a ton of other conference call issues.

Another potential cause is that if the phone are not using full duplex technology, voices on one side of the call are getting cut off when mics on the other side pick up voices or random sounds. Phones without full duplex don’t let people speak at the same time on opposite ends; you can’t speak and hear what the other person simultaneously.

So, make sure you’re using a conference phone with this feature for best results.

Unknowingly Speaking While Muted (2:03)

If John is muted and all by himself, who’s going to know? They can’t see him, and in a case like this, it’s his own fault.

While it seems like an overblown solution to a simple and rare problem, the video conference is an easy way to avoid silly accidents like this one. It’s certainly no justification to go to video conferencing in and of itself, but it’s nice to know that stuff like this wouldn’t be happening if all of these people could actually see one another.

Wandering Attention (2:17)

Attentions wander at the best of times. It doesn’t take much.

Do what you can to keep meetings short and to the point.

Otherwise, double down on the points that we’ve discussed above:

Make sure that communication is clear. If you’re dropping people, or if they’re cutting in and out, or if the conversation is not fluid for any reason, you’re going to lose people!
Another benefit to video conferencing: people focus when they’re on display and it keeps them accountable.

Needing to Be on the Same Equipment (2:22)

Sometimes, people aren’t terrific at communicating. Hardware and software requirements should always be communicated ahead of time.

“We are all using Macs, I assume?” Trypp says in the video. It’s a big assumption or a big ask that everyone is buying into and using the same hardware.

Here comes the miracle of modern cloud computing to the rescue! Is there nothing this “cloud” thing can’t save us from?

Use a web-based file sharing or presentation program. Everyone logs into one website and voila! Integration complete. There are programs that are even integrated into cloud-based conferencing solutions.

They can be accessed from any device connected to the internet – even via tablet or smartphone. No downloads or plug-ins required.

Picking Up Collateral Noise (2:31)

There’s a good chance that some of the folks on any conference call will be working in an unconventional space. In the video, we have Paul working at home (as indicated by his dog barking) and Beth working in a coffee shop being hand-delivered a noisily-made drink.

The issue here is the collateral noise being picked up by what they call an “omni-directional” microphone. It’s a mic that will pick up whatever sounds are happening within a small radius around it.

Extra sounds are especially noticeable in an office setting. Typing, whispers, fax machines – you name it. You risk feedback, buzzes, and echoes.

Better conference phones use directional microphones – ones that will pick up only the sound of what is directly in front of them and ignore everything else.

Echoes (2:47)

Echos on calls are likely caused by poor acoustics in the room being used. If the space has not been treated to absorb and dampen sound, those sounds waves are going to bounce and get picked up by the mic, then replayed, bounced and picked up, then replayed, bounced and…

If you have the resources, getting professionals in to deal with the walls is going to be a huge help. Barring that, fill that room in! Furniture, fixtures, plants, humans – pack it with things that absorb sound waves. Reduce those bald, flat, hard surfaces.

Bonus Suggestion: Don’t have multiple speakerphones in use in the same area. If calling in from multiple phones that are near to one another, use headsets.

Nothing is Accomplished (2:58)

“Happy hour in 5,” Tyler says in the video — of course he’s ready to bail. He has brain fatigue. His meeting was useless and no one was able to communicate effectively.

Let’s remember the point of all conference calls: effective communication. If you absolutely have to have a meeting, make it a productive one. Don’t waste your own time or the time of others with a dreaded conference call if you don’t need to.

After all, you don’t want to find yourself in a similar situation to the video where the simple sending of an email could have accomplished the same as your meeting, in much less time.

Whether we like it or not, conference calls are integrated into business life and are here to stay. Not every call has to be a chore, though — there are ways to make audio conferences more productive!

Have you run into any of these problems on a recent conference call? Let us know some of your favorite stories in the comments.

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