Help me stop sounding like such a ditz on the phone!
August 4, 2009 7:02 PM   Subscribe

Help me stop sounding like such a ditz on the phone!

I've been doing a lot of information gathering for grad school lately, which for me has meant talking with professors from my undergrad school and some from schools I might like to attend. Since I work full time and a good deal of professors in my field are technophobes, this means I occasionally have to talk on the phone rather than through email. I'm really bad at talking on the phone. This experience especially has made it clear to me that I'm not just bad, but flat out awful at talking on the phone with people I want to impress.

I usually do make notes beforehand, and I've tried walking around and dressing like a grownup as suggested in every piece of phone interview advice ever. My voice still raises about an octave and I uptalk and giggle like crazy, which I never do in person. I end up sounding like a deranged idiot 13 year old, which is pretty much the opposite image I want to project. Obviously this is stress-induced, but I can't figure out a way to get past it.

Many of these professors are out of state, and, like I said, I work full time, so swinging by office hours is out of the question. Is there anything else I can try? Either surefire stress reducers or impeccable phone manners tricks would be welcome.
posted by oinopaponton to Human Relations (19 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
I have the same problem (well, minus the octave leap). My trick is to make myself promise in advance to stay silent for two seconds before responding to anything. I inevitably push it a little when I'm on the spot and nervous, but I still have a little time to steady my voice. That way there's less of a chance of my blurting out something stupid. Also, I like to tell myself that the pause cultivates an aura of maturity, as though I'm carefully considering what to say. :-)
posted by danb at 7:26 PM on August 4, 2009

The phone is my constant enemy, and using it to call anyone who isn't my friend is a massive pain. I've found a few ways to cope.

First, I always have a plan. Before I call, I sit down and think about who I might end up talking to (a secretary, an operator, whoever), and plan out what I might say. Having a few basic sentences in my head tends to help me start a seed of a conversation and help me get what I need.

Second, I write things down. If I need something sent somewhere, I'll write it down in my notebook and keep it in front of myself. Even if it's my own address it helps, because that's one thing my brain doesn't have to remember and I don't have to stress out about. Any information I have to give that I can think of, I write down. And if the person needs a piece of information that I don't have, I've found there's nothing wrong with asking them to please hold on a moment.

Last, if I'm on the phone with someone I'm trying to impress, I do research. Find old things they've written, things they may be interested in, whatever. This tends to help me relax when I'm on the phone with them.

Good luck!
posted by clockbound at 7:32 PM on August 4, 2009

When I was in high school, a hundred years ago, I read in a women's magazine (cosmo or the like) that taking a deep breath before you speak on the phone is sexier. This advice is total bollocks - there's nothing sexy about taking a deep breath before you speak, but I internalized the stupid tip and it is very helpful for stressful calls. The one or two seconds you buy are imperceptible to the other person, but it's enough time to collect your thoughts, figure out what to say, avoid stepping on the other person's words, and avoid sounding breathy and girlish. It's also helpful to work out your pitch, whatever your request might be. If you're calling to ask for something (information, a recommendation) you know that there's going to come a time where you have the floor to ask what you've called to ask, so have that part scripted and breezy.
posted by moxiedoll at 7:35 PM on August 4, 2009

Consciously slow your voice down. Sometimes people talk super fast because they're afraid of not being allowed to say everything they want to say and then their thoughts jumble together and their tongue gets tied and the entire conversation becomes this massive wreck that's impossible to untangle and -

You get the point. If you notice yourself giggling, or engaging in "uptalk", clear your throat or take a deep breath, say "excuse me", and try again. But this time, try to speak much, much slower. You'll sound more thoughtful and dignified and it'll give you more time to react and think before you speak.
posted by Phire at 7:36 PM on August 4, 2009 [2 favorites]

Tape your calls* and listen to them. (Have you been? Is this how you know you sound silly, if you do?) You might find, as I did once with a phone interview, that you're not doing as badly as you think.

*Check on your local statutes; I'm in DC, where you can tape with one party's consent. I was one party, and I taped.
posted by jgirl at 7:39 PM on August 4, 2009

Best answer: Hmmmm....have you considered pretending it's not you? I think in situations like this, where you're not getting visual feedback from the person and you don't know them well but want to get to know/impress them, it's easy to let nerves throttle up the friendliness factor to absurd levels, until you sound like the fourth Chipmunk.

But you're a lot better off not trying to be you. Instead, do your best Grace Kelly. Cool, polite, professional, the epitome of class. Don't try and make them like you. Treat the situation as impersonally as if you were conducting a survey for Gallup. Sure, you wouldn't actually talk like that to anyone you know. It's just an act. But you don't want to be BFF with them forever after this conversation. You just want to have gotten the information you need and left them with a nice impression of you. You want the conversation to be quick and easy, not heartfelt. So even if you're a Carol down to you boots, do your best Julie impression. Distant, icy politesse is your friend.
posted by Diablevert at 7:59 PM on August 4, 2009 [5 favorites]

God I hate using the phone. I'm more composed in person and even better in writing. The Phone is all the worst aspects of face to face meeting with none of the upsides. I hate it. I just hate it.

And then I had to do live radio interviews. So, yes you're not alone in thinking you sound like a spaz.

I make sure I'm very calm, waiting a full beat after the person has spoken, making sure I'm really thinking about what I'm saying and breathing slowly from the abdomen so I don't have octave leaps. It sometimes helps if I have what I think or want to say written down in front of me, actually hand written, not typed, so I get a feel of exactly the words I want to use and how they should be ordered. I don't end up using them a lot, but the security of having them there taking the extra few moments to think it out and write it down helps fix it in my mind.

So, slow down a bit, give a thought to the sounds the words make as you say them, not swallowing the sounds or rushing them. Record yourself, do practice runs with friends repeating pror conversations, and practice keeping an even tone.

And it may sound like wishy washy acting class visualization bullshit, but "Just pretend you're a person who is good on the phone" worked really well for the first few panicy times.

Good luck!
posted by The Whelk at 8:07 PM on August 4, 2009

And diablevert has the right idea. Cultivate a bit of polite reserve for the phone and it should help calm nerves.
posted by The Whelk at 8:08 PM on August 4, 2009

Practice with a friend. Make them critique your speaking skills after the practice call. You have to train yourself to speak properly on the phone, and the only way to do that is to practice a lot!

Breathe from the bottom of your lungs, not the upper part of your chest. Slow down, even to the point of silence. If you find yourself jumpy and panicking, tell the other party "I need just a moment to think about that" and BREATHE.

Put a rubber band around your wrist. If you start giggling or babbling, snap it against your wrist (start doing this during your practice sessions)
posted by lootie777 at 9:11 PM on August 4, 2009 [1 favorite]

No person is the best judge of how he or she sounds on the telephone. The fact that you're already making an effort is probably more than enough. It sounds to me like you're just psyching yourself out at this point.
posted by hermitosis at 9:36 PM on August 4, 2009

I used to do the same thing and what helped was lots and lots and lots of practice (via school journalism and tech support). I guess all I can say is: 1) You pretty much always sound stupider to yourself than you do to anyone else, 2) That you're asking questions is great and really will make a difference to your graduate program (at least where I do admissions), and 3) It does get easier.

Nthing suggestions on taking a deep breath before speaking. You're on the right track with the notes and I've found taking notes during a conversation slows me down.
posted by eleanna at 10:04 PM on August 4, 2009

I used to have a real phone phobia, which I accidentally divulged to a professor in grad school. I'm not sure why he took it upon himself to rectify this, but he did, and I thank him for it. He made me call him multiple times over the semester and he was a real asshole on the phone to me when I did. I still don't like the phone, but after dealing with him, I don't get nearly as intimidated. Do you have someone who will not only practice with you, but can make the practice calls pretty tough? Worth a shot.
posted by thebrokedown at 10:19 PM on August 4, 2009

nthing deliberately slowing down, and pausing a lot. a) it sounds like you're being more thoughtful b) gives a few precious split seconds to modulate your voice, decide on wording, formulate questions, etc.
posted by wayward vagabond at 12:28 AM on August 5, 2009

I hate phone work. However, practice does make it easier. Also, I do a flowchart for how a conversation might go.
Step pre-1 - answering machine only: oinopaponton called and my number is 555 4321
Step 1 Hello, this is oinopaponton, is X there?[] No go to step 2 [] yes go to step 3
Step 2 - could you please leave a message - oinopaponton called and my number is 555 4321
Step 3 - Hello X, this is oinopaponton, may I speak to you about z?

And so on.

As you make more and more calls, you can develop your flowchart to cover more situations. Have any necessary information to hand (A's contact details, an email open with necessary links - i can send you that right now, may I have your email address?)

Pause, speak slowly, deliberately lower your voice, smile - they can hear it. (write that on your flowchart).

Practice. Don't beat yourself up afterwards. Remember that a. yr caller probably is thinking about their pimple or whatever other tragedy in their lives, or b. remembering when they had to do the same crappy calls and how hard it was for them.

You will get better at this, or it will get so it doesn't matter, which is almost the same.
posted by b33j at 12:50 AM on August 5, 2009

Heh, I was going to make the opposite recommendation from B33j--when I need to sound Serious, I try not to smile on the phone, until a Thank You at the end.

Oh, AskMe. So fickle.
posted by A Terrible Llama at 2:34 AM on August 5, 2009

Secondfing Diablevert. Pick a character that you can internalize -- from your favorite TV show, movie, whatever. Someone whose voice you can recall instantly. Borrow their voice, their smile, their confidence, their scintillating past, their ability to get things to work out despite ludicrous roadblocks.
posted by desuetude at 6:44 AM on August 5, 2009

Use a mirror and watch yourself as your speaking.
posted by pianomover at 10:07 AM on August 5, 2009

Standing up while I'm talking to someone I need to impress/get something from has always helped me feel a bit more assertive.

It also helps me realize that the conversation will have an end point, which reduces a bit of stress and enables me to get off the phone without babbling.
posted by vickyverky at 12:31 PM on August 5, 2009

Response by poster: Thanks guys-- all great answers, and I'm glad to know the phone is apparently terrifying for everyone. I'll put all your suggestions into action next chance I get, and if I get in to an awesome program, you can take all the credit.
posted by oinopaponton at 11:49 AM on August 7, 2009

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