Phone Calls Are a Crucible. Here’s How Not to Get Burned

How I learned to stop worrying and love phone calls.

Early in my career, I hated phone calls. They were time-consuming and inefficient. Why can’t you just email me, I’d often wonder?

My aversion was so acute that not only did I exclude my phone number from my email signature; I also recorded a message for my voice mail that said something like this: “I rarely check these messages; please email me.”

In short, I viewed Alexander Graham Bell’s invention as an unnecessary evil.

Today, I know better. I know the phone is not a burden but an opportunity. I recognize that for a relationship to thrive, you must do more than swap written words; you need to hear the other person’s voice.

You need to hear where they betray uncertainty (by, say, rambling or stuttering).

You need to hear where they channel resolve (by, say, changing their tone or pitch).

You need to hear where they exude passion (by, say, speeding up or going on).

Even silence speaks volumes.

These cues can be notoriously difficult to discern by parsing someone’s written words. Yet it’s this very ability — to recognize both sense and sensibility — which cements a relationship together. Without sentiment, human beings are robots.

This truth is especially timely in our new telemeeting milieu. Put simply, if you want to succeed in the workplace of tomorrow, then you need to master the phone call today. Here are four cold hard facts that will put you in the right headspace:

1. On a Call, Everyone Is Judge Judy

First, the person on the other end of the line is judging you. A lot. On your authority, your confidence, your tone. On your diction, your professionalism, your gravitas. Think of your interlocutor as Judge Judy: Everything you say can and will be used to judge you.

Specifically, when someone can’t see you, she’ll use every nonverbal cue to size you up. You could be the smartest person on the line. But if you don’t present that way, you won’t be judged that way.

What’s more, once you’ve dug this hole, good luck climbing out; it’s almost impossible to reverse a first impression.

2. As the Host, Everything Is Your Responsibility

Second, as the host of a call, you assume many responsibilities. Expectations are high; fall short, and you’ll dent your reputation as both a leader and manager.

We’ve all been in a conference call that was dominated by a chatterbox, or which steamrolled right past the scheduled end time, or which could have been obviated by an email. Whatever the cause, the blame ultimately falls on the same person: The guy who called the meeting.

Which is understandable: If you convene a group, it’s your duty to ensure that your event is efficient and productive. If the wi-fi at a confab goes down, you don’t fault the hotel; you fault the organizers — the people you paid. The same is true with a call: The buck stops with the host.

3. Time Is Money

Third, from your company’s perspective, an ineffective call means you’re costing them time and money. That’s how you succeed in business, right?

Of course not.

Here’s the way I like to think about teleconferences: Hosting a one-hour call with four people doesn’t cost one hour. Hosting a one-hour call with four people costs four hours.

Do this poorly, and you’ve just wasted half a day. (Likely more, since meetings are notoriously disruptive and it’s difficult to plug back in immediately afterward.) On the other hand, if you run a call well, you’ll leave each attendee with the epitome of every positive business interaction: Concrete next steps.

4. We’re All in Sales

Finally, if you’re in sales of any kind — and let’s face it: We all are — then the phone is unavoidable. A phone is to a salesman what a calculator is to an accountant: An indispensable tool of the trade.

Consider this scenario: A prospective client emails you. She says she’s looking for a writer. Yet during your intake call, you learn that she’s actually looking for — or maybe needs — an editor.

Faced with this surprise, an amateur panics. She rambles and wavers, because she has so little experience conversing in real time, without the buffer of a screen. (This was me back in my anti-phone days.)

By contrast, a pro pivots seamlessly. Whatever her solution — seeking clarification, outlining a new idea, promising to follow up after more research — she maintains her poise. That’s because she knows that these kind of nuanced but critical discrepancies rarely emerge in the exchange of emails. Instead, they almost always come into focus during a good old call.

Executive Presence

To speak with confidence and vigor when your audience can’t see you, you first need to modify your mindset. Don’t think of phone calls as mere calls. Instead, think of phone calls as telephone meetings, which in turn are part of a broader skill set called executive presence.

Embrace this attitude, and you’ll stop slogging through telemeetings as a necessary evil. Instead, you’ll start appreciating them for what they are: An opportunity to win clients and influence colleagues.

Jonathan Rick is a speaker who helps audiences communicate better. He’s delivered workshops and keynotes, in person and online, before clients such as Nascar, Visa, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, as well as federal agencies like the Food and Drug Administration and the Departments of Defense and Homeland Security.

A version of the above article appeared in Fast Company on May 5, 2020.

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