Monday, 7 July 2014

Is communicating effectively by phone becoming a ‘lost art’?

I was called recently by a journalist who was concerned that using the phone to sell an idea or product was becoming ‘a lost art’. I agreed that he may be onto something and my take on the topic was that the younger generation seem to be developing a fear of the phone – they prefer to stay behind the protective barrier offered by email and text. They need to understand that different communications methods each have their own strengths, but a phone call can truly establish a two-way dialogue and even a relationship.
This struck a chord with my enquirer because his inspiration had come from a big dose of 1980s excess – he had been to see Wolf on Wall Street and was particularly struck by the lead character’s demonstration of effective phone technique while enjoying cocaine and a range of other pleasures. “Have you got any tips?”, he asked.  “Not like that”, I replied, "but try some of these":

  • Think carefully about the name of the person you are calling before picking up the receiver – you need to be able to say it with clarity and confidence in order to get the conversation off to a good start; you are not going to engage the person you are calling if you can’t get their name right!  My own name is relatively rare but should not be a challenge to pronounce. And yet I get addressed (usually after some umms and errs) as Fizzlebert, Furzlebert and many other variations. Is that going to put me in the mood to buy something? 
  • In presentation skills ‘Firsts & Lasts’ are the most important elements, not least because these are what people remember, and this certainly applies to phone calls. You need to engage the person you are calling up front and wrap up with a ‘Call to Action’, so your opening and closing need to be carefully planned, if not actually scripted.
  • Speak with a smile on your face – it can be heard in the voice and will raise the level and tone of the conversation. You can take this a stage further by standing up to make a call – this raises energy levels and enables you to both breathe more deeply and use gestures that can’t be seen but will add impact nevertheless. Many radio studios now have control desks that can be raised to standing level for presenters who prefer to work this way. 
  • Come straight to the point. Talk in ‘headlines’, elevator messages or what Hollywood calls ‘High Concept’ (Snakes on a Plane, Giant shark terrorises holiday resort etc) up front so that the other person gets the gist of your subject matter immediately. Business communicators generally can be very bad at bringing high focus to what they want to say – they talk around the subject rather than get to the point. When offering to help associates with business introductions, legendary sports agent Mark McCormack used to brush aside long-winded credentials, saying: “give me something I can phone in”.
  • Observe basic courtesies upfront, but focus on establishing whether the other person has a moment to speak rather than asking if they are having a good day. 
  • If the person you are calling starts to speak – let them do so! Start listening - it sounds as though they are actually interested enough to start a conversation, so don’t plough on with your spiel!
  • Think carefully about a suitable time to make your call. Put yourself into their shoes and consider how they will feel about receiving your call at that particular time.

In the old days we had an expression when hiring PR people – ‘he/she gives good phone’. I haven’t heard that for a while – such skills need to be developed and nurtured.

A version of this article appeared in PR Week.

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