Best Practices: Ensuring Comprehension During Conference Calls

Conference calls may be one of the most excruciating experiences for non-native English speakers. Personally, as a native English speaker, I often have difficulty understanding participants due to a number of factors:

  • Sound quality
  • Subject matter
  • Number of participants
  • Effective leadership during the call

I remember a conference call I heard recently. There were 18 participants and it was led by an American in the United States. There were about 10 native English speakers and 8 non-native English speakers. A Frenchman, with a good English level, was responsible for taking the minutes.

10 minutes into the call, he politely asked the leader to speak more slowly and clearly. The leader turned his request into a joke. He said "OK, this is my version of speaking slowly", and continued to speak as fast as a high-speed train. 

You should have seen the Frenchman's face.

The video below shows an extreme example of speaking fast, which could happen if you are not aware of how comprehensible you are when you speak:

Here are four tips to have more productive and successful conference calls as a leader or a participant:
  1. Articulate and speak slowly and comfortably. Try to remove all unnecessary noise from your oral communication. For example, make a conscious effort to eliminate "Uh", "Right", "Uh-huh", "Um", "Like", and "You know".

  2. Slow down the communication process. Pause between ideas (every 3 to 5 sentences) to give people an opportunity to understand before continuing.

  3. Be proactive. During the call, regularly remind participants that they may ask for clarification. Tell them that it is important to you that they understand. Give them permission to ask for clarification.
    After important points and at the end of each topic, ask everyone, "Does that make sense?", "Do you see what I mean?", "Was I comprehensible?", or "What questions do you have?"
    Do not rush into the next topic. Be sure to give at least 30 seconds between topics for questions and clarification. At the end of each topic, rephrase important details and actions, even if participants do not ask for clarification.

  4. Be an effective conference call leader. A leader ensures that comprehension is a priority. Leaders do not focus on the agenda, data, or action plans. They concentrate on creating a communication-friendly environment for everyone to appreciate and enjoy. Of course, the minutes of the meeting often follows the call. However, productive and rewarding relationships are at stake. If there is little or no comprehension during a call, then people may as well not participate. They may feel alienated and understand more from the written minutes.

    An effective conference call guarantees that:

    • Every participant articulates, speaks slowly, and mentions his/her name before speaking to facilitate comprehension

    • Participants actively ask for clarification

    • Participants understand by clarifying important details and actions at the end of each topic

    • If there is background noise, the call is put on hold until the noise is removed

    • There is feedback at the end of the call to see how communication could be improved during the next call


What are your best practices when you lead or participate in a conference call?

Have you ever been on a horrible conference call? Why was it such a bad experience?

Tell me by leaving a comment below or in a message by E-mail at, if you like.

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  1. Thank you, Terry, for the great learning resources, which you make available on you website.
    As many other people, who habe been one day involved in a telephone conference, I have some funny experiences, as well. Although, there were only native German speakers, participants could hardly unterstand the chairman due to his Viennese slang and speaking manner. Well, it all boiled down to the checking the minutes in the end in order to make sure, we understood the matter. So, such things might happen quite often. I would also add that everyone involved in the conference should avoid using slang words, because I makes it difficult to maintain a comfortable and productive flow of conversation.

  2. Thank you for your comment and I agree with your advice!