This is my personal blog and does not necessarily reflect the collective views of Hard Limits Press

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

How to leave a good phone message

A lot of us have trouble with social interaction for one reason or another. Maybe you're on the autism spectrum. Maybe you have social phobia, or you grew up in an extremely restrictive environment and you're only now finding yourself dealing with the real world.

When I was a child I had a number of hurdles that kept me from interacting as fully as I might have liked. I didn't understand why people did things or why, partly because my blindness kept me from studying people's expressions. We learn so much from imitating each other, a limitation like that can have a profound impact.

So, here's some things I've learned. I had to make a conscious effort to watch and decode the behavior of others, so I could make the connections I wanted. Today, I'm going to talk about leaving a good phone message.

It can be terrifying even picking up the phone. If you're to the point where your anxiety won't let you interact through this medium, please consider seeking professional help. Avoidance of phones, email, messaging and so on can be a sign of deeper problems. However, if you're at the stage where you'd like to try and tackle communicating in this fashion but you still have some lingering fears, here are some things to consider:

Who are you calling, and why?

Let's say you have a question about a particular university's admission process. Let's assume that you've gone to their website and you have the number for the admissions counselor. This is the time to figure out exactly what you hope to gain from leaving your message, and what exactly your questions are. Write down your questions ahead of time. "Do I have to use sources in my admissions essay?" "Would topic X be appropriate for my social problem analyses?"

What does the person on the other end of the phone need to know about me and my issue in order to best address my needs? 

Let's look at this through a continuation of the admissions process example:

A good phone message has a progression much like a basic essay. In a basic essay you have a title page. In a phone message, this is your nuts and bolts info. Provide your name, your number, and why you are calling. Listen carefully to the message and note anything they specifically want you to add, like birth date. List these: "Hello. My name is Tiger Gray. My birthdate is <XXXXXX> and my phone number is <XXXXXXXXXX>. I am calling because I'm curious about the requirements for my written admissions essay." You can also put the phone number stuff at the end of the message if you so desire.

In an essay, we'd now go in to supporting paragraphs. In a phone message, this is the time to provide specifics. Your watchword here should be brevity. Keep it simple and direct, since this will keep you from rambling and will make it easier for the person on the other end to discern your reasons for calling. "I'm curious about whether I need to include sources in my social problem analyses. If so, what style of citations would be appropriate?" Now, plenty of folks can't simply come up with this level of precision on the spot, so again writing things down ahead of time will greatly lessen anxiety and do away with the feeling of being put on the spot once that little answering machine beep kicks in. Try to devote only one or two sentences to each sub paragraph, if you will.

Your conclusion should include an acknowledgement of the effort the other person will be making on your behalf, and a subtle prod to have them call you in return. Essentially all you have to do here is say, "thank you for your time and I hope to hear back at your convenience."

Hang up! You're done!

Other tips and tricks

Tone of voice can make a big difference. This is one of those squishy concepts that can be nigh impossible to grasp. If you have anyone you trust, ask to practice in front of them so they can give you feedback on whether you sound, bored, pleasant, irritable etc.

Many people often complain that things like small talk and good phone messages and the like are superficial and silly. Remember, these things are social lubricant and can make sharing this planet with billions of other people a little more bearable. Any time you can establish a mutually beneficial connection, the likelihood is that your experience will improve alongside.

A handy script:

1). Hello.
2). Name, phone number, other information as requested.
3). Questions you have or points you need to make, basically the reason you are calling.
4). Conclusion and thanks.
5). Hang up and pour yourself a big glass of wine. (or whatever your calming drink of choice may be.)

Hopefully this has been helpful. If you're ashamed of needing a script for something as seemingly simple as a phone call, know that many, many people trip up on things like this. It's a skill that you can learn, not an inherent quality. Good luck out there!