Ill Communication

I like to talk. A lot. So does Simon, but when he talks it’s usually about something that’s half-way interesting, like a new iPhone app that tells you where the nearest kittens are. I just fill the air with words. So the two of us in a business together is like an air canon of conversation: WORDS. In person this can be charming, as we’re both small and talk with our hands. But on a conference call it’s like trying to choreograph hummingbirds.

We haven’t had a whole lot of business calls until recently, we usually have been a strictly email business. We’d average maybe only one or two calls a month, while now it’s three or four a week. We both agree that it’s on the phone that we’re at our worst, which makes this a scary situation. I have to add that I’m terrified of the telephone. I hate it. I’d much prefer if we used the smoke signals that Homer talked about in The Iliad, or carrier pigeons, hell, even Morse code. People may have once seen it as a magical, transformational instrument of the future, but I just see it as a tool for anxiety and other assorted discomfort. If I’d been on the receiving end of Alexander Graham Bell’s utterance of "Come here. I want to see you." I would have run the other way.


Business phone calls are only bearable for a handful of reasons, one of which is that I’m not the only one on this side of the line. Also, after three years, I can venture a pretty good guess about what Simon is thinking most of the time. While on calls we can use hand signals and notes like two kids cheating on a chemistry test in order to make sure we don’t step on each other’s toes and still articulate ourselves clearly. (We do have a bad habit of finishing each other’s sentences that is both embarrassing and as professional as Lindsay Lohan.) But because most of the time we hang up feeling like we just woke up from a regrettable one night stand, I thought I’d post a list of tips for how to have a business phone call that’s more effective than ours and doesn’t leave you feeling like you’ve been wearing steel-wool underpants.

Know the number you’re calling. Seems simple, doesn’t it? I can’t tell you how many times we’ve been involved in a multi-player game of phone tag that featured people who were paying our rent.

Close the windows and tranq the dog. Background noise is a big issue in the Big Apple. Making sure that sirens, drunk people, and that dude who likes to scream Bon Jovi are kept outside and under 31 decibels is a key component to a successful business phone call. We don’t actually drug Snack. She’s too aloof to bark.

Make sure your phone is charged. Important. And self-explanatory.

Know the names of the people on the call. Chances are I will be called Ashley, but that doesn’t mean that everyone else on the call should have to go through the mortification of correcting the other parties involved. Although it’s often hard to tell whose speaking if there’s more than one person on the line, it’s useful to know their names and positions in relation to the project.

Be prepared for AT&T to drop the call if you’re on your cell. This only really applies to callers in New York. Of course, ideally you’re not calling from your cell. Predictably, we only use our cell phones.

Outline first. A business call is more like interpretive dance than a night at the disco. While it’s important for things to remain fluid on the party line, it’s vital that you know what questions, comments, and concerns you have before you get on the call. This also saves you the added humiliation that comes from having to send a post-call email asking that question that you forgot, or worse, having to call back.

Do not make out with your co-worker.

Take notes. I’ve done the technique of recording, I’ve even transcribed calls, but, for me, the most effective method of documenting a call is putting a pen to paper. I also recommend that more than one person does this. If Simon and I both notate, we lower our percentage of shit missed by approximately one-third to half. It also provides the opportunity for dueling doodles at the top of our pages.

Have an exit on hand. We’re long-winded people-pleasers. If the person or people on the other end of the line are of the same ilk, a phone call can devour the better half of an afternoon. Of course we don’t mind charging by the hour, but it just doesn’t seem right to smack someone with a bill for several hundred dollars for discussing their Malaysian cooking class or their wife’s due date. (Hey, we’re not therapists.) Practice the art of politely getting out of a conversation a few times, possibly with your relatives, telemarketers, or your ex-girlfriend. Remember that you’re busy, and time spent at the keyboard is money better earned than time spent discussing last night’s episode of House with the guy whose site you’re wording.

Know when to shut up. As with marital disputes, keeping your mouth shut is possibly the single most important thing you can do on a phone call. Don’t interrupt like we do. Wait to make your points. Write them down as they come up if you need to. Just hush. And breathe. After all, it’s only a phone call.