These general tips apply to anyone who wants to communicate effectively on the telephone but I will also look at some issues that are specific to English learners.
1. Prepare for the call
It won’t sound natural if you prepare a script, but consider what you want to say, with whom you need to speak, and whether there is any information that the other person may want from you.
Are you likely to need any specific vocabulary that you don’t usually use? If so, you can look it up before you start the call.
If you are speaking with people in other parts of the world, consider whether there is a time difference and when would be the best time to make the call.
Try to find a quiet place to make the call so that you won’t be disturbed.
2. Be clear about what you want to achieve
Before you make the phone call, think about the purpose of the call. For example, do you want to gather information, communicate information, negotiate, obtain agreement, make arrangements, sell something, or develop an idea?
There are many reasons for making telephone calls. If you are clear about what you want to achieve, it will be easier to measure whether you were successful.
3. Remember the other person has no non-verbal cues
Unless you are on a videoconference, the other person will have no idea if you are nodding, shaking your head, smiling or scowling at them! They have no visual cues, so you need to communicate everything verbally.
4. Think about your tone of voice
People don’t just communicate with their words. Messages are also conveyed in the way that words are delivered. If you sound bored, angry or disinterested, the other person may well pick up on it and it will then be irrelevant how good your proposal is or how valid your arguments. It’s true that they can’t see you, but a lot can be communicated through your tone of voice, so make sure that it matches the message that you are trying to get across.
You may feel unsure about speaking in English, but try not to let this come across in your tone of voice. Otherwise people may think that you are unsure about your message too.
5. Make sure you listen carefully
Communicating is not just about speaking. You need to listen as well.
Particularly if you aren’t speaking your native language, there is a tendency to focus too much on your own words because you want them to be right. However you are having a dialogue and the other person will also be making contributions, asking questions or directing the conversation, so you need to be aware of these things as well. You don’t want the other person to think that you are not interested in what they have to say.
6. Speak clearly and be succinct
I worked with a learner who always spoke quickly so that the other person wouldn’t hear the mistakes. The problem with this strategy is that she often had to repeat herself because she spoke too quickly and the other person didn’t understand what she said. Don’t make this mistake!
Also, try to be clear. Long sentences don’t always show fluency. Sometimes they just result in the other person losing concentration or having no idea of the actual point.
Throughout the telephone call, Try to bring your ideas across in a structured way. Don’t be tempted to hop from one subject to another as new ideas come into your head.
7. If you don’t understand something, ask
This is actually a good idea in any situation. Especially if you are communicating on the telephone, or in another language, there will be times when you are not sure about something that the other person said. It could be because they have not been clear. Maybe there was background noise. It could be that they were speaking quickly or they have a regional accent. The reason doesn’t matter. It’s better to ask for clarification than to guess what the other person meant or to be unsure about what they think or are going to do.
8. Don’t be tempted to do other things at the same time
Even if the other person can’t see you, they are likely to hear if you are walking around, answering emails, tidying up or doing other activities that take your attention away from the phone call.
Give the other person your full attention. If you don’t, it can come across as disrespectful and they could think that you are not interested in them, or that you don’t think the conversation is important enough to give it your full attention.
If something really urgent happens, offer to call them back. Try not to take other calls or allow other people to disturb you unless the matter is really important.
9. Summarise the conversation so that everybody knows what’s expected of them
You could either do this at the end of the call or you could send an email afterwards. Either way, it’s good to be clear about what was agreed during the call, who is responsible for carrying out which tasks and whether you will get in touch again to check on progress, have a meeting or involve others. This gives everybody the same information and reduces the risk of misunderstandings.
10. Voicemails – be clear and keep it short
Most of the other tips were about direct communication with people but voicemails are also a way of communicating information using the telephone.
If you need to give a lot of information, an email is likely to be the better choice so that the recipient can refer to it easily without having to write down the details.
If you leave a voice message:
* make sure that your message is clear
keep to the point and avoid long, rambling messages
* make sure that the other person knows how they can contact you and what, if anything, you want them to do.
More from English with Kirsty
If you’d like some more telephone tips, you can visit my article on ending conversations with difficult customers.
Or, if you’d like to find out about my events and courses for people who want to improve their business English, visit my English for employees page.
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