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I Forge Iron

The perils of speakerphone

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Over the last ten years, I've noted a distinct trend towards teleconferences and away from face-to-face meetings.  Since the nature of my projects involve "teams" it's fairly common for several people from a given firm to use a conference room speakerphone for these teleconferences.

The two most common speakerphone malfunctions are clipping and echo.  Clipping is where the output exceeds the system's capacity which results in momentary dropouts which sounds like a robotic effect on voices.  Echo is pretty self explanatory but it's generally mitigated by adjusting speaker or microphone volume.

It's been my experience that speakerphone technology hasn't adapted to suit certain vocal tics. I've witnessed several situations where this unfairly influenced how the affected speaker was treated during the calls.  I suspect that these individuals are unaware of how their particular vocal tic is incompatible with speakerphones. 

For example, some men in loud industries have developed a stentorian voice to be heard clearly.  Johnny Cash through speakerphone sounds like a diesel powered robot.  Anybody using headphones to participate in that teleconference is pulling them aside to avoid hearing damage.  

There are a lot of younger folks who increase the cadence of their speech to convey confidence and slow it to convey uncertainty.  Sometimes these same people use a sing-song inflection when listing off related items. When speakerphone echo layers the cadence and inflection changes, the result is unintelligible.  I've been on teleconferences where a speaker was so unpleasant to listen to, that other people interrupted to ask them to just email their statements.  

Another unfortunate aspect of speakerphone in business settings is that some conference tables are just huge.  A person shuffling paper next to the mic generates background noise that can obscure a speaker at the far end of the table.  When that person can't be heard, everyone on the teleconference asks them to speak up.  I have a theory that insecure people tend to avoid sitting close to the microphone because they're trying to avoid being the center of attention.  Maybe I'm wrong, but whatever the reasons, it's been my experience that the mousy voiced person will invariably be seated the farthest from the microphone.

Many vocal tics take on a different intonation when the speaker strives for volume.  Stutters, lisps, and vocal fry come across very differently when the speaker is going for volume.  

Loud porky pig with clipping and an echo sounds like a machine-gun Yosemite Sam.  Yelling with a lisp can make it really hard to tell an S from a six which is a big deal when you're reciting part numbers.  Kim Kardashian shouting with speakerphone clipping comes through like a morse code of screeches and growls. 

My point here is that speakerphone tends to makes vocal tics and speech impediments into a major communications obstacle.  Currently, there's a lot of emphasis on collaboration and teamwork in business.  Huddling around the conference room speakerphone is a popular physical embodiment of this philosophy.  Unfortunately, these deficiencies in technology lead to situations where the expert in the room is as unintelligible as they are irritating to listen to.  It has become quite common for a co-worker without a vocal tic  to act as a "translator" for the teleconference.  This diminishes the expert, and creates a delayed response to every question.  I've participated on many such teleconferences where the client grew so frustrated with stilted nature of these exchanges, that they canceled the teleconference in favor of email.

It may not be stylish, but using a cellphone with a talkset to connect directly to a teleconference can dramatically improve how you are perceived and understood in that meeting.  Many people avoid topics that could lead to conflict, so it's very unlikely that a colleague will be forthright enough to mention if you have a vocal tic playing havoc with speakerphone.  Everyone pretends that there's something wrong with the speakers phone connection.  I've been on weekly teleconferences where a key player is regularly dismissed by everyone else because "their phone is acting up again".  She's perfectly understandable whenever she works from home, but not when she's sharing a conference table speakerphone with co-workers.  Nobody's willing to risk offending her by pointing out that she's the only one on that speakerphone that's impossible to understand because she has all of the above vocal tics.

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 Another trend these days is to offer information and training through “webinars“, which for some reason are almost always scheduled right after lunch. Last year, I got two consecutive emails — one asking me for feedback on a webinar about estate planning and taxes, the other asking about a recent hotel stay — which I realized could have had the same review: “I slept very well”!

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So much of communication between people, especially with strangers, is in body language. There are both pros and cons to not being able to see the other participants. One of my rules is that if I wouldn’t say it directly in person you don’t say it. It is very easy to say derogatory things to or about a person when not facing them.

Going for an inexpensive poor quality speaker phone for your conference room is false economy.

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On 1/20/2019 at 4:06 AM, ThomasPowers said:

Working on international projects there is a great tendency to have one group or another to have side conversations in their native language. Often forgetting that other people on the project  may speak that language too....

Ha ha, so true! Especially if your ethnicity makes others assume you can not possibly speak "their" language. i had to tell people off many times by simply saying in their language ..." do you think you speak a secret language?" :P

As for face expressions, they are indeed part of what you say, however most people are well trained in communicating on the phone and know how to overcome the lack of it. Teleconferencing biggest shortcoming is the tendency of some to hog the microphone and prevent a rising hand and an "excuse me" to stop the tirade and allow for a word in. 

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I tend to quote from a 16th century version of  Cantar de Mio Cid Campeador sometimes in an Castellano accent.  I've also overheard a lot from Mennonites waiting in line at Customs/Immigration on the Mexican side and sometimes have been able to help some in German. I've had some of my coworkers tell me that my English is a foreign language...

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