Feature Article: “How to Leave Effective Voicemail Messages”
Handling voicemail is a constant productivity challenge. Rambling, three-minute voicemail messages with no organization make me crazy! Don’t you wish there were some voicemail “rules” out there, that people had to follow? So I’d like to offer some ideas on how to leave effective messages and avoid wasting the time of the recipient. Perhaps you can share this with the folks you interact with frequently, so you can at least create an informal agreement about the effective use of voicemail.

1. Plan your message. Consider the points you want to make and jot down a few notes. If a planned phone call takes you seven minutes, and an unplanned call takes 12 minutes, the five-minute difference, multiplied by 12 calls a day, could represent an hour of wasted time each day.

2. Be brief. Voicemail messages should be one minute long or less. Anything else might be better voice-to-voice or in an email. Take more than 60 seconds and you risk having your message deleted. Remember, the purpose is to leave a message, not give a speech. If your message will be over two minutes, you may want to think about detailing the information in an email instead. Stream-of-consciousness communication doesn’t work. Think about your message and begin with your purpose. “The reason I’m calling is…” 

3. Leave a message, not just your name and number. It makes me crazy when I receive a voicemail message that only says, “Hi, this is Jill…call me back.” How do I know whether it’s a telemarketer or a prospective client? Never leave a generic message. You’re much more likely to get a return call if the recipient knows what’s up. Specifically ask for the information you require. The recipient will be able to look up the answer prior to calling you back. Without the proper information, you may have to respond, “I’ll have to get back to you on that,” thus creating another volley of phone tag. When you’re leaving a return message, quickly provide context and remind the person what they called about.

4. Learn the short-cut keys and features of your voicemail. Track down a manual for your phone system and learn how to speed up and slow down messages. You can skip right to the end, automatically delete, forward with a comment, or reply automatically without ringing the caller’s phone. For the great amount of time you will spend processing voicemail, the time you invest in learning these shortcuts will pay you back many times over.

5. Watch your tone. Without any other non-verbal cues such as face and body language, your tone is all you have to communicate with. A monotone lacks enthusiasm, so put vitality in your voice. Stand up and smile as you leave your message. Standing increases your energy, and people can hear a smile over the phone. Avoid sarcasm and irritation if you want your call returned. I have a client who says that if she detects even the slightest amount of irritation in a prospective vendor’s voice, she won’t do business with that person. She also waits until she receives three messages before calling back, to see if the vendor is kind and persistent.

6. Watch your volume and enunciation. The telephone distorts high frequency sounds such as “f” and “s.” Pronounce word endings and do not swallow syllables. This is especially important when giving your name: “My name is Laura Stack, S as in Sam, T as in Thomas, A as in Adam, C as in Charlie, K as in Katie.” A voice that is too loud is irritating. A soft voice will not always be heard, and the listener may miss important information, like your phone number. Also, don’t EAT while you’re leaving a message and wait for loud background noise to subside before leaving a message.

7. Begin and end with your phone number. Speak slowly and say it twice. The listener needs time to process the information and write it down. Pause as you say it: “Hi, Mary, this is Laura Stack at 303 (pause), 471 (pause), 7401.” Your name and number should also be the last thing people hear, so they don’t have to rewind if they missed it at the beginning. 

8. Give your message a headline. To help the recipient distinguish urgent from non-urgent calls, flag your message as “urgent” if your phone system allows. Your message will move to the top of the call list and be the first one heard. If your system doesn’t support this feature, start out by saying, “Hi Joe, please call me back as soon as you get this…” or “No need to return my call until you return Monday.”

9. Give options to skip the greeting. If your greeting is rather long, tell callers how to by-pass it at the beginning of the message. “Hi, you’ve reached Laura Stack. To by-pass this greeting and leave a message right now, please hit pound.” If you must have a long greeting, tell the caller how to skip it in the future.

10. Avoid telephone tag. Tell listeners when you can best be reached to prevent the frustration of telephone tag. If you continually get someone’s voice mail, give options for a phone appointment. Tell the person what time you’ll be calling and the purpose of the call, so important information can be gathered ahead of time.

Lastly, just follow common courtesy and etiquette. Don’t leave someone a voice mail saying, “I’m going to page you,” because it creates double work. Just do it! If you choose not to leave a message after all, hang up before the greeting ends, so that the message won’t actually be recorded. It’s annoying to waste time listening to dead air, only to discover there’s no message. Also, it seems obvious, but don’t carry on a conversation with another person while leaving a voice mail message. You might think it makes you sound important and busy, but it’s rude and annoying for the recipient. Don’t leave voicemail messages while on the speakerphone, because it’s very hard to understand. Don’t leave messages when your cell phone reception is going in and out. Of course, watch your language. And if you run into someone in the hallway, PLEASE don’t ask, “Did you get my message”? 
Make it a productive day! ™
(C) Copyright 2004 Laura Stack, MBA, CSP. All rights reserved. Portions of this newsletter may be reprinted in your organization or association newsletter, provided the following credit line is present: 
"Laura M. Stack, MBA, CSP, is "The Productivity Pro," (R) helping people leave the office earlier, with less stress, and more to show for it. She presents keynotes and seminars on time management, information overload, and personal productivity. Contact her at 303-471-7401 or [email protected]."