How to Talk on the Telephone. Duh.

I know. This seems like an awful simplistic article for a Communication Studies website. After all, people around here discuss such lofty subject matter as communication theories, rhetoric and scholarly papers. And here I am telling you I am going to talk to you to speaking on the telephone?

Well, I’m sorry to say that many of us need some instruction on how to speak effectively on the phone – not just using proper telephone etiquette, but also, how to clearly communicate with the other party. A telephone call may be the first and only communication you have with a potential employer or friend. Don’t blow it and make it your last call with the person just because you never took the time to hone your telephone skills.

Pay Attention

Since the person on the other end of the line cannot see you, it’s easy to multitask and try and do other things at the same time as holding the conversation. You might be cooking dinner, watching TV, or skimming a newspaper. Someone might be talking to you at the same time. You might even just be concentrating on that chewing gum. While you think you can do both things at once, you really cannot as well as you think. You will come off as distracted to the other party, which translated means uninterested. It’s a sign of a lack of respect.

Not only is it rude, but you could miss out on some key information. And if your head is not in it, you’ll most definitely miss opportunities to add to the conservation, pick up on ideas, and generally let the conversation develop to its fullest extent. If it’s a business call, that could mean money. Or even your job. In a social relationship, it could be the end of it.

Be present in the conversation. Block everything else out.


Try and smile during the call. Research abounds that shows the act of smiling actually triggers biological functions that cause to you be happier, or at least reduce any stress and anxiety. If you can come across on the phone as more calm and content, or God forbid, even happy to be on the phone, the other party will sense it, and will be more likely to think that you are pleased to be on the call with him or her.

Do this quick test: call a friend and ask him or her to listen to you say something with a smile and then again say it with a grimace. Don’t tell them which is which. Ask which one sounds more friendly and enthusiastic. They will notice the difference. The voice you project is important to your career and your personal life. According to a study by John Robertson, 87% of a listener’s opinion of you is based on how you speak, and only 13% is based upon what you say.

Take Notes

If you can resist doodling (see section on paying attention), have a pad and pencil close by the phone. You can then jot down things that you might want to remember for the rest of the call, or after the call. In a social call, it could be the name of a friend, restaurant recommendation or any other item. Repeating back any of this information in the call lets the person know you are paying attention. And the information could be of value later. If it’s a business call, you should jot down the new ideas, data and other important information that is being given to you. You don’t want to hang up from your boss and later have to go back to him asking what it was he said.

In addition to recording spoken information on notes, having a notepad handy is great for something else. As the other party is speaking, you will often think of something related you want to mention; or even something unrelated that you don’t want to forget to bring up. Jot it down quickly and let the other party continue with what they are saying so you don’t interrupt them. With it written down, you can stop occupying your mind with thoughts of “don’t forget to bring up….” And you can remain present in the conversation. Then, when you have the opportunity, look down at your list and discuss the matter you wrote down.

Speak Clearly

Some people, particularly some younger people I’m sorry to say, do not speak clearly. Whether it be mumbling, talking too fast, speaking too quietly, it can be a grueling task to interpret it. It’s hard enough to understand speech like this in person, but it comes across worse through the phone. With the young adults, it must be because they’ve grown up texting and seldom seem to pick up the phone and dial. It’s almost as if it’s an annoyance and inconvenience that they have to actually speak, instead of tap words and acronyms into the keypad.

The interesting thing is that those that speak like this, won’t admit they do. So, unless you are a member of Speech Club, you might want to ask a family member or coworker who has heard you while on the phone talking to others what you sound like. You might be surprised what they tell you.

If you want to have an effective conversation on the phone, treat the call as importantly as if you were speaking to someone in person. Speak clearly, slowly, and articulately.

Stand Up

For some people, standing up while talking makes for a vastly more effective telephone conversation. It will create a more natural sounding voice because it reduces pressure on your diaphragm, which will improve resonance. And some find pacing around helps them think.

Don’t be afraid to gesticulate with your free hand (or both hands if you are hands free). Doing so, especially if you are Italian like me, helps you to express yourself. Remember, all the person at the other end of the line hears is your voice. You don’t want to bore him with unexpressive words – let your physical movements translate into more expressive dialogue.

Let the Other Person Talk

This is for both telephone and in-person conversations: do not monopolize the conversation. If you don’t give someone a chance to talk, not only are you going to have a one-way dialogue, but you are going to lose favor with the person (read the classic, How to Win Friends and Influence People). The same goes for interrupting, which is all too easy to do on the phone – you may think the other person is finished with their thought, and then you both speak at once. If this occurs, just say, “excuse me, go on.” And for God’s sake, let the person complete everything they want to say. There’s nothing more irritating than someone else hijacking the conversation so they can hear themselves talk.

Use Caution With Speakerphones and Headsets

A Bluetooth headset or a speakerphone, is a handy device. But it may only help your end of the call. If you have a device with poor quality or you have not practiced how to best use it (distance from voice, other noise in the room, etc), it can be a conversation killer if the other party cannot hear you well, gets only muffled words or even hears an echo. Test your equipment well before using. Let someone call you from your headset or speakerphone so you can hear what they sound like.

Don’t Drive and Talk

Putting aside the fact that it’s not safe, it simply not good way to conduct an important phone call. First of all, there are simply way too many distractions, and the person you are speaking with will notice your wavering attention and perhaps even your cursing at other drivers under your breath. Furthermore, do you often smile while in traffic? Are you able to take notes? Can you stand up and move around? Is your bluetooth device top quality? Will you drive through dead zones?

Everything is against having a good phone conversation while driving. So don’t even try. Either ask the caller if he can hold on for a moment while you pull over, if this is possible, or ask to return the call when you can pull over.

Make Every Call Count

Treat every caller with the same respect you would give someone you were speaking with in-person. Treat every call as if this is the last time you may have the opportunity to speak with this person, and make it a positive experience. Make every call count.

About markhenry 1 Article
Mark Henry is co-founder of, which provides information for disadvantaged Americans to help them obtain cell phones, through the federal government's Lifeline Assistance program.

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