Recently, I worked with a chief executive officer who was known throughout the company as an inspiring presenter. When her company transitioned to virtual meetings, she consistently received negative feedback on her conference calls. People complained that she sounded hesitant, unclear and unfocused — completely different from how she delivered a live presentation.

When asked to explain this discrepancy, she responded, “When I’m leading a call, I feel like nobody’s listening anyway. So, I just try to get through it so everyone can get back to work.”


Conference calls are hard enough given their faceless nature, and they are made even tougher by the belief — epitomized by my client — that whatever one says on a call will be ignored.

This attitude engenders a self-fulfilling prophecy of failure: Because my client assumes that no one is listening, she speaks as if no one is listening. Her voice becomes more monotonal. Her language is less compelling and memorable. Her message is less clear. And her audience tunes out.

The solution? Do exactly the opposite, and overcompensate. In order to make up for the virtual disadvantage, work even harder to engage the audience. How? Here are three strategies:

1. Speak to Individuals

One reason people tune out on conference calls is a psychological theory called the Ringelmann effect, which posits that the larger the group, the less effort each individual in the group will put in to a singular goal. This tendency may be because each person feels less essential to reaching the goal — no need to engage if someone else will carry the load.

On a conference call, the Ringelmann effect is magnified. While there may only be a few people on the call, the listener, who cannot see anyone, may feel like there are an infinite number of listeners. As a result, each person puts in less effort.

The answer to solving the Ringelmann problem is to work even harder than you would in person to make each person on the call feel as though you were talking just to him or her. How? Imagine that there is only one person listening to you and speak directly to that person. Try to channel your voice like a laser. Speak in a warm, lower tone, like you would when talking to a close friend. If each person on the call feels personally addressed, he or she will be more motivated to participate.

2. Make the Participants Essential to the Success of the Call

People tune out on calls because they don’t feel that their participation is necessary. They are not held accountable, and they are not engaged personally. Make their participation essential to the success of the call. Delegate roles beforehand, use people’s first names and ask individuals for feedback.

If you ask someone to speak on the call, take a few seconds beforehand to establish his or her credibility. Say, for example, “Rebecca, you’ve had success tackling a similar project last spring. Could you take a moment to give us your perspective on José’s idea?” This approach sets up the speaker for success and also gives him or her time to think.

3. Speak to Emotions

People stop listening when they do not feel emotionally engaged in the conversation. They also need to feel emotionally engaged in order to remember content. On a call, the listener lacks visual cues and, thus, has a harder time grasping the emotional context of your message. Therefore, you have to work even harder to add emotion to the call. In a Harvard Business Review article, international speech coach Nick Morgan advises the virtual speaker:

“Label your emotions, and ask others to do the same. Lacking visual cues, we have a very hard time reading other people’s attitudes, so make yours clear and train other people on the call to do the same. Say, ‘I’m excited about this next bit of news, because it means that…’ Or, ‘Jim, I’m really surprised to hear that third quarters numbers aren’t improving. Surprised and worried, actually. How are you feeling about them?’ You’ve got to put back in what the phone lines are removing.”

Fortunately, this extra work to express emotion on the call can pay off. In a Psychology Today blog post, Emma Seppälä Ph.D., shares a fascinating study by Michael Kraus at the Yale University of Management that found that people are actually better able to read emotion in someone’s voice than in their body language. According to Seppälä, ”When we only listen to voice, he found, our attention for the subtleties in vocal tone increases. We simply focus more on the nuances that we hear in the way speakers express themselves.”

In other words, if you can get people to listen, they might even demonstrate more emotional intelligence over the phone than they would in person — which is good news!

Certainly, even the best conference call is no replacement for a face-to-face conversation or even a video meeting. But you can significantly minimize its disadvantage by working even harder to connect with your listeners.