Talking on the Phone: Better Communication

I interact with a lot of people in a given week, a few in person and far more on video and conference calls. I don’t claim to be a perfect person to talk to on the phone, but over the past several years I’ve noticed how painful some conference call experiences can be. As more and more work is conducted virtually and not face to face an ability to do communicate well on conference/voice calls is tied to what success you can deliver. It isn’t about having a fancy phone or high bandwidth video call–though that can at times be useful

Let’s start with local/remote teams

This one is a huge problem as companies go from 100% local to partially remote. When you start a meeting take note of how many folks are local vs. remote. If you have the majority of attendees on a video or conference call you’re likely fine. If however the majority is local you need to make a concerted effort to pause and ask for input from the phone. This is doubley true on large conference calls… in those cases it can be best to explicitly call out remote folks to chime in.

Talk to the phone

When you’re in person folks can tend to wander, look away, work on a whiteboard. All of these things can be very collaborative when in person but are absolutely terrible on the phone. When you’re not speaking into where the microphone is you will immediately come across choppy. The subtle take away is you’re not a professional. That doesn’t mean you’re doing it intentionally, but when interacting via voice you have to be extra intentional to come across how you intend.

Strong, short words

This applies when in person, but is especially true on the phone when you can’t read someone else. If you don’t have verbal cues to feed off from the other person then you need to listen to audible ones. If you’re talking for 5 minutes non-stop then you’ve learned nothing about how the other person is reacting. At times you may need to talk that long. I like to talk, but after 5 minutes talking non-stop on the phone I have to make sure I stop and say I’ve been talking too long. One it is only fair, and two it is a converation and you need to ensure that it’s flowing both ways.

Gone with the wind

Your environment and surroundings are absolutely terrible to a productive conversation. If you’re walking and there is any sense of wind, if the room is echo-ey, fix it. I’ve seen this both with people taking calls in transit, but also with conference rooms that weren’t well designed. For in transit invest in a great headset if you’ll be taking calls. Test several, read some reviews. If it is a conference actively ask others on calls with you. To just assume it’s fine will lead to people silently dismissing you’re not serious because calls with others are smoother.

Overcommunicate

Speed up, slow down, raise your voice, lower your voice. On the phone you only have one form of expression: your voice. Use it. For some this takes practice. Whenever I’m talking to press or analysts I make sure I’m standing. I make sure to not have coffee 3-4 hrs before because otherwise I’m overly animated. Make sure to take pauses. An explicit pause can give others a chance to chime in and ask questions. When you hear someone on the phone asking a question and you already started talking because of latency finish, then apologize, and ask for them to go ahead.

Be intentional

No matter who you are or what you do you’re on the phone plenty. Whether a 1:1 call or a conference call. Most of use don’t like these calls and feel drained or frustrated by them. I don’t claim that most of my calls feel like a friday night our at a baseball game, but by being explicit in how we communicate I do feel that you can make calls not feel like busy work. Instead they can be a productive way to communicate if you make sure you’re communicating clearly and explicitly, but also listening and engaging equally with the other side of the line.