Excessive background noise on conference calls is a common annoyance, but it can be avoided with the “mute” button.
When video is used for a meeting, the “mute” button can do only so much. Even in silence, the now viral video clip of the BBC interview with Korea expert Robert Kelly probably would still be amusing. If you haven’t seen the video, the first 90 seconds are straightforward: A news anchor asks questions about the March 10 impeachment of South Korea’s president, and Kelly – doing everything he can to look professional, from his blue blazer and red tie to the world map behind him on the wall – answers.
Then, Kelly’s 4-year-old daughter enters the room; Kelly said in a later interview with The Wall Street Journal that he had failed to lock the door, part of his usual routine. His daughter prances right up to her father as Kelly continues speaking and the BBC anchor makes mention of her presence. Then Kelly’s younger son comes rolling in on a walker. Kelly’s wife darts in, trying to get the children out and shut the door, knocking over neatly stacked books in the process. At last, order is restored, though the sound of crying is still heard, 40 seconds after the first child is seen on screen.
Dan Griffiths, CPA, CGMA, saw the clip, and he could feel Kelly’s pain. Griffiths, the director of strategy and leadership at Tanner LLC in Utah, has taken part in calls or videoconferences that have been disrupted for any number of reasons. He recommends setting expectations in advance of such calls, but he also has a story that taught him such lessons.
In the fall of 2013, the Griffiths family, including four children under age 10, took a trip to Disneyland. About seven hours into the drive down Interstate 15, they were in the desert near Barstow, California, “the most boring part of the drive,” Griffiths said.
Griffiths needed to join a phone call – an important merger-and-acquisition call.
“You tell the kids, ‘All right, everybody’s got to be super quiet, because Dad’s got a super-important call with a client,’” Griffiths said. “I’m right in the middle of talking about one of the deal points” and one child pinches another. Then comes a loud scream. “I completely lose my train of thought,” Griffiths said. “Everyone on the call starts laughing. Thankfully, it was a client that was understanding of my personal situation.”
The lesson Griffiths learned helped him with future calls in several ways. First, he alerts others if there’s a chance of background noise or video distraction.
“It isn’t so bad to tell people up front,” Griffiths said. “‘Here’s where I’m at. I’m driving down I-15, going to Disneyland with my family. I’m willing to take this call because I know it’s urgent. So if you hear anything, that’s what’s going on.’
“I think most people are pretty understanding. I’ve learned that I can do a better job letting people know what’s going on. Like, ‘I’m calling from an airport.’”
When a snowstorm prevented him from getting to the office to take part in a 6am videoconference, Griffith put black tape over the camera on his laptop and joined the conference from home.
“I knew there was too great a risk that one of my kids was going to come down in pyjamas” and disrupt the call, Griffiths said. “I muted my audio, except when I needed to ask a question or participate in some way.”
Duncan Brodie, FCMA, CGMA, a coach, trainer, and speaker at UK-based training provider Goals and Achievements, said he has been using videoconferencing since the late 1990s, when he worked for EY. He offered the following advice to have a better at-home experience with a call or videoconference:
Silence other devices. Brodie recommends turning off mobile phones, computer alerts, and landlines, including the answering machine if you still have one. “Nothing worse than your mum trying to leave you a message on the answerphone,” Brodie said.
Inform others of the meeting. Make others in the house aware of timing and make clear that you are not to be disturbed during that time. On that topic, Griffiths recommends, even in the office, to inform coworkers. He puts a large orange sticky note on his office door to alert others when a webinar or videoconference is in progress, and he instructs his office receptionist in advance not to send anyone to his office during those times.
Strongly consider your background. Your look should be professional, and that includes the lighting. Don’t sit with your back to a window in daylight; you’ll show up as too dark on the screen.
Finally, consider outside background noise. Even if the door is locked and children cared for, there can still be a barking dog or ringing doorbell. Considerations should be made to move as far away from potential noise-makers as possible. Brodie recommends a condenser microphone with a windscreen, if you can add those accessories. They cut down on background noise.
—Neil Amato (Neil.Amato@aicpa-cima.com) is a CGMA Magazine senior editor.