Choosing to hold a teleconference instead of an in-person meeting often depends upon timeliness, convenience, and cost. But two communication elements must also be considered, especially if the stakes are high. Those two elements are purpose and audience.
As a communicator, you know that both are important and that to be effective, a message must be shaped to accommodate both. In similar fashion, the medium in which communication takes place must fit both the nature of the task and the capabilities of the people who will undertake it.
Some purposes and tasks do lend themselves to teleconferencing. But others—especially those that are highly collaborative or emotionally charged—do not.
BRAINSTORMING AND PROBLEM-SOLVING
When your purpose is to brainstorm or problem-solve, a simple teleconference may not help you reach your goal. The collaborative nature of these tasks flourishes best in the structured but dynamic environment of in-person meetings. Participants become more engaged and involved, more responsive to ideas and issues, more likely to be inventive because of the creative energy a group generates.
But if that's not on the horizon and you must try to accomplish either task in a teleconference, use an Internet conferencing service. Dozens of Internet-based collaborative tools exist; to differing degrees they offer audio, graphic, and video capabilities to facilitate brainstorming and problem-solving processes. Most require no special software or plug-ins; most record the virtual meeting so that it can be distributed or archived.
Such tools ease interaction but also help the teleconference proceed in a systematic way. And, while it is possible to email a document to all participants and then discuss it page by page, that practice may lack the facilitation and order-keeping benefits of a collaborative tool.
Persuasive purposes are difficult to achieve via teleconference and therefore require special preparation.
Because an important element in persuasion is ethos, or how credible listeners believe a speaker to be, providing a way to establish and evaluate ethos is essential. Use Internet capabilities to provide participants not only with auditory but visual evidence of each speaker's credibility. Many sites offer technology that allows sharing of tangible information such as documents, videos, and data. If such information is important to your persuasive purpose, make sure participants can access it.
But emotional appeals also have a place in convincing or persuading. In a teleconference, those appeals may be made through evidence but also through delivery, organization, voice, and, in a videoconference, appearance. Prepare as you would for any presentation and then prepare a little more, especially if the topic is one of vital importance, because the teleconference deprives participants of the physical presence of others from whom they would ordinarily draw cues and direction.
PARTICIPANTS' FAMILIARITY AND EXPERTISE
And so we return to the notion of audience. In most teleconferences, participants are at once speakers and listeners. The dual role is sometimes hard to maintain; they will need sufficient training and expertise with teleconference processes and tools to make useful contributions. As a group, they should know the rules and be willing to play by them in order to achieve the purpose of the virtual meeting.
Timeliness, convenience, and cost matter as you weigh the benefit of a teleconference against those of an in-person meeting. Add purpose and audience into the equation, too, to make sure that you reach the right balance.