The telephone has been in existence for 136 years, but the way some people use it, you'd think it was invented yesterday.

With business travel at an all-time low, there is simply no skill more important to business success (especially in sales) than the ability to build rapport during a telephone conversation. When you can't shake hands or look somebody in the eye, your voice (and your voice alone) must be able to communicate "I am capable and trustworthy."

Unfortunately, many people in business have no idea that they sound like idiots, hustlers or robots when they're talking on the phone. They talk too fast, they mumble, they blather, they make remarks that would only make sense with an accompanying hand gesture.

It's crazy. You wouldn't believe the stuff I've heard. And that's just the negative, sales-killing stuff. Very few people use their voice and word choice actively to create a better connection with the person at the other end of the line.

Here's a quick primer how to do this:

1. Expunge your verbal weaknesses.

Record some conversations (with the other person's agreement, natch) and see if you're doing something annoying–saying "uh ..." in the middle of every sentence, for instance, or slapping a "you know ..." at the end.

Important: Never, ever turn a statement into a question by putting a little uptick at the end; it's a huge credibility killer. Same goes for regional accents that carry a stigma in other regions. If necessary, hire a vocal coach.

2. Always have an agenda.

Never have a business conversation, especially on the phone, without knowing exactly what you're trying to accomplish. This is also a good idea when meeting face to face or emailing, but it's even more important during a phone call. Two key reasons:

  • You may not have the other person's full attention.
  • Unlike email, it's real time–which means you can't craft a message and then edit it before hitting "send."

3. Listen (really) to the other person.

When in a conversation, most people barely hear what the other person is saying; instead, they're thinking about what they're going to say next. That's really stupid during a phone conversation because nuances are much harder to catch than if you're face to face.

It takes a bit of practice, but what you need to do is suspend your "what do I say next?" until after the other person is done speaking.

4. Take a second before each response.

When you pause before responding, the other person knows that you've listened. If, by contrast, you jump right in immediately with your response (or worse, cut the other person off), you've just communicated that you think your own thoughts are far more important than anything the other person could have said.

5. Listen (really) to your own voice.

This is the flip side of listening to the other person. When in a conversation, most people, as they talk, are thinking about what the other person is going to say next. That almost guarantees you'll communicate poorly.

Instead, listen to your own voice as if you were listening to another person. (By the way, this is much easier if you're following rules 1 and 3.)

6. Adapt your tonality to match.

As you speak, gradually take on the least obvious elements of other person's voice. The key here is to make it subtle, not obvious–lest the changes fall flat or, worse, seem mocking.

For example, if you're talking with somebody with a Mississippi accent, draw out your vowels ever so slightly–but don't cram "y'all" into your normal speaking pattern. Believe it or not, this trick really does build rapport quickly.

One final note: I probably don't need to say that the rules above also apply to face-to-face conversations. However, the rules are not quite as important in person, when your body language and appearance create enough interference that things like voice tonality can get lost in the mix. This is especially true for people who are very attractive. Back when I was single, I was often amazed at how a woman who was fascinating in person could be annoying over the phone.

In fact, if I can make a non-scientific observation, it often seems that there's an inverse relationship between physical attractiveness and good phone skills. It's almost as if the "beautiful people" have become dependent upon their looks to smooth over their character flaws–flaws that emerge, big time, when they're on the phone.

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