Tele Talk


If you're a professional who does a lot of business over the phone, listen up.

Many professionals do a great deal of their business communication over the phone or through teleconferencing. People who work remotely, have many international clients, or make lots of sales calls depend on telecommunication to reach out, connect with, and influence others. Since so much of communication is nonverbal (one study says as much as 93%), you have only your words to carry your message--no observable facial expressions, gestures, eye contact, or body language. And you have your voice.

How can you make certain that you are conveying your message most effectively, especially with someone who has never met you in person? You need to make sure that your vocal impression conveys the qualities and image you are trying to put forth. Those most likely include professionalism, knowledge, experience, and warmth.

The bandwidth over the phone is limited and sound quality becomes degraded, which makes speech signals harder to understand. So, the first thing to consider is that you need to speak slightly slower than usual, and articulate with more conscious precision and clarity. Some people get nervous over the phone and speak too quickly or mumble, making it hard for their listeners to follow. A strong accent may also make speech more challenging to listen to. When people have to strain to listen to you, they get tired and don't want to listen.

High frequency sounds like f, s, and th can be difficult to discriminate over the phone if there isn't enough redundancy in the context. When spelling out names, certain letters can sound very similar and be confusing; for example, s and f, m and n, t and d, and p and b.

Letters and numbers

If you have a name that may be difficult to understand or spell, give example words for the tricky letters. Try to use all names of people, animals, or countries, so the listener can have a frame of reference. For example, "This is Judith Weinman-W E I N as in Nancy, M as in Mary, A N." When using numbers, it's easier to understand "6664" than "triple 6-4." Likewise, it's easier to understand "3-1-7-0" than "thirty-one seventy." Be consistent by using "o" or "zero" in the same number; don't switch between the two.

If you have a strong accent, you might want to give example words for each letter; for example, "My last name is 'Fan'-F as in Frank, A as in Amy, N as in Nancy." Numbers can also present a problem. 30 vs. 13, for example. The numbers ending in 0 sound like this-THIR dee, FIF tee, with the stress on the first syllable... The teen number sound like this-thir TEEN, fif TEEN. This can be very important when discussing money, medication, dates, or a host of other things!

Sit up!

Posture impacts speech. Bad posture can decrease breath support, making speech weaker and less intelligible. Using good posture also helps you remain alert and to concentrate on your speech. If you have a very important phone call, it might even be a good idea to stand. You will sound more energetic and have an easier time projecting your voice.

Smiling and other appropriate facial expressions can be "heard;" they affect your tone, intonation, and make you sound more relatable and engaging. Smile when you say the first sentence and when you say goodbye. Visualize the person with whom you are speaking. Imagine that you are having a face-to-face conversation.

Keep your message clear and concise. Try writing down important points of what you want to say to your listener in advance. You don't necessarily need to write the whole message out word for word-you don't want to sound like you're reading. Making a bullet pointed list with general ideas is a good way to go. If you have a strong accent, you may want to write down some of the key words and highlight the sounds that you want to make sure are produced clearly. For example, if your native language is an Asian one, just by making sure you pronounce the end sound in every word will make you much clearer. "This is Andrew Chan from Bloomberg." "This iz Andrew Chan from Bloomberg."

Practice speaking clearly and slowly in front of a mirror. You could record yourself speaking, and see what changes affect your clarity the most. This will give you feedback and you will become more comfortable and confident speaking at this pace and manner on the phone. Just by changing one element you will immediately become clearer.

K.I.S.S. (again)

When leaving a voicemail, be succinct and specific, and try keeping the message under thirty seconds. Listening to voicemail is a chore for most people, so leave the most important points of the message-who you are, why you're calling, what you want, and your contact information. It's a good idea to say your phone number two times-once at the beginning after your name and once at the end. That way, the person doesn't have to listen to the whole message again to hear your number.

Since you can't visually gauge how your listener is reacting to your speech, you must carefully monitor your listener's verbal reactions and be alert for clues that they are not fully understanding your message. If they are silent or not reacting in an expected way, check in verbally, periodically asking them if they have any questions. It's also a good idea to paraphrase the points just made, to confirm that you are communicating effectively. If you are confused by what they are saying, you may ask, "So you're saying (reiterate)..." or "Could you just repeat the last part of what you were talking about?" or "I'm sorry, what was the last point you were making?" or "I'm sorry, I didn't catch what you said. Could you repeat it?" If a word or expression is new to you, you may ask, "I'm sorry, I'm not sure I understand what you meant by (word or expression)."

Sometimes in teleconferencing, there is a brief delay in the sound. In that case, it may be a good idea to have a signal to show that you are finished speaking, like raising a hand, or saying, "Finished." This can prevent awkward moments of speaking over each other and missing parts of messages.