Jamie Herzlich Newsday columnist Jamie Herzlich

Herzlich writes the Small Business column in Newsday.

Just like endless meetings, conference calls can be major time suckers.

But with meetings there's a certain level of engagement because you can actually see if you're losing your participants' interest.

With conference calls it can be harder to keep people engaged. A survey last year by InterCall found that 65 percent of people do other work during a conference call, and 27 percent even admitted to falling asleep.

"So much of what's happening is irrelevant to the audience," notes Dennis Collins, director of marketing at InterCall, a Chicago-based conferencing services provider. "If you can send a memo telling everyone what they need to do, then you don't need a call."

Participation. "A conference call should be for a dialogue," he notes, but it often ends up as a monologue, causing people to lose interest.

In fact, aside from falling asleep or doing work, 55 percent of people admitted to eating or making food while on a conference call; 47 percent admitted to going to the restroom; and 25 percent admitted to playing video games, according to the InterCall survey.

Many managers feel compelled to have everyone on the entire conference call, notes Collins. Instead, stagger attendees so when they get on, they're there for a reason, he says.

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"Oftentimes no one really cares about conference calls until something 'wow' happens," says Byron Van Arsdale, CEO of Austin, Texas-based LeadGreatMeetings.com, a training and coaching firm, and co-author of "No More Lame Conference Calls" (eBook; $9.97).

For Van Arsdale, one such "wow" was meeting his wife, Bernice, while leading a class via a conference call she was on 18 years ago.

Contact. Conference calls often become dreaded and boring because the leader is pushing his or her agenda on everyone else, he explains. It's fine to come into the call with an agenda, Van Arsdale says, but before getting into that agenda, try to touch on something important to each person on the call.

Get on the call early, and while attendees are waiting for others to call in, ask each participant a short question such as "What is one challenge you have around x?," he suggests. That question should relate directly to the topic of the call, he notes.

"This way, before the call even starts, you can get an immediate read of what people want on the call," says Van Arsdale.

Agenda. Joseph Milizio, managing partner at the Lake Success law firm Vishnick McGovern Milizio LLP, circulates an agenda to participants before a call. For a meeting of one of the boards he sits on, he might have a pre-call with committee chairs to set the agenda.

The agenda, listing topics for discussion and the person presenting each one, helps with engagement, but also prevents people from talking over each other or at the same time, says Milizio, who is on at least three conference calls per week.

Punctuality. Always be on time for your call, advises Clark Desmet, marketing manager at Southampton-based AT Conference, a conference service provider. Optimally, you should be on the call five to 10 minutes early if you're the host, he advises.

And be cognizant of people's time. The average length of a call among AT Conference users is 35 minutes, he notes.

Definitely take no more than an hour, or you'll lose people's attention, says Milizio.

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Also be sure to pick the right device and location, advises Desmet. Call from a landline if possible; it offers better clarity than a cellphone. If you're calling from an airport, try to find a quieter spot, he notes.

"What your surroundings are will be projected throughout the entire call," says Desmet.