Guest post by Caitlin Douglass
We spend so much of our work life communicating. I use e-mail as much as possible, and sometimes an instant messaging program for quick chats. If you're like me, you try to avoid those never-ending conference calls and boring meetings. That works for a while, but eventually, the need for a meeting becomes too great. It's inevitable, and I subscribe to a variety of services to make this as easy as possible.
Recently, I started thinking about using all these services and gadgets for something other than business. If I could use them to talk to my long distance family -- and keep my in-laws from actually coming to visit -- it could be fantastic!
If you've ever had to set up a conference call at work, you know how easy it is, and you may know exactly where to go to get it done. But if you've only been the victim, er, participant, you might be at a loss as to how to set up such a call for your long distance family. In reality, setting up a conference call to bring your family together is both easy and affordable. And it just might get you out of having to sleep on the pullout couch so your in-laws can have the bed.
This is probably the easiest method, but at the same time, the most limiting. I already use this to talk to my mother and sister at the same time. But only three people can participate, and at least one person has to have the feature included in her calling plan (that person is the one who will have to initiate the call). There's usually no extra charge if it's a standard feature, so it's a very affordable option. If you've done what I have in the last year and dumped your landline in favor of a mobile phone, three-way calling is available on cell phones too. Mobile three-way calling is very convenient, just make sure to use a hands-free device if you're driving!
Video Conference Calls
Remember when you could talk to anyone on the phone and it didn't matter what you were wearing, or whether your hair was combed? While that may have been nice, now there are a variety of services that let you see and talk to each other, all in real time. All it takes it a simple download of a program like Skype to your computer, and you're on your way. I use video chats like this with my girl friends from college so we can stay in touch. Either everyone on the call can have the software on their computer for a group call, or several long distance family members can gather around one computer. It doesn't really matter because either way, you'll all be talking over each other anyway.
Traditional Conference Calls
You've seen them in action at work. You've participated. You've fought to stay awake through them, and won most of the time. This was my recent stroke of genius: I could use my traditional conference call service at home! Conference call services aren't just for business anymore. It's actually quite easy, especially because I am already paying for it. I just set up an account, got the call-in number, and then started getting in touch with family. The most difficult part about it was coordinating everyone's schedules.
To make it even more affordable, get a few long distance family members to pitch in for the cost of setting up the service. If you have got a speakerphone, you and the kids can gather around to hear grandpa tell his stories, or you can listen to grandma explain how to make her sour cream coffee cake while you and your siblings are in your respective kitchens putting the ingredients together. There's nothing that says you have to just sit around a table for a conference call. Use some imagination to make it a true family event.
Keeping in touch with family via conference calls is the easy part. What's difficult is getting everyone together at the same time -- and then getting a word in edgewise.
Photo by BillSelak via Flickr
Caitlin Douglass is a freelance writer specializing in telecommunications, technology and productivity.