Business Communication Skills: How to Sound Confident Over the Phone

Most of our work with professionals has to do with their high-pressure, face-to-face communications. We’re all about helping them find the right words to tell the right story, and tell it with body language that communicates confidence, passion, and empathy.

But more and more communication these days is done at a distance, over the phone, without the benefit of body language or visuals of any sort. And so, more of our clients are asking about how to communicate confidently over the phone. This is in reference to phone calls of all kinds, but I think most commonly, they have sales conversations in mind, and teleconferences that they need to lead.

We all want to sound more confident over the phone.

We all want to sound confident over the phone.

The single most important thing you can do to project confidence in any situation is, of course, to be as prepared as possible and know what to say. But, beyond that, let me focus in on the delivery of what you say, offering 4 Do’s and Don’ts for sounding confident over the phone:

1) Don’t sound too eager or too formal. Do sound professional. This, like many things that we do with clients, can take a respect for nuance and several practice run-throughs, recordings and play-backs to really get a good sense of the distinctions here. Eager and too-friendly can sound “juvenile,” “junior,” and “unprofessional.”  Formal can sound stiff and off-putting. Professional is that sweet spot in the middle that communicates an understanding of the whole conversation and your place in it. It has elements of friendly and enjoyable in it, and it also contains respect for the audience as well as a sense of that respect being reciprocated by the audience.

2) Don’t trail off. Form complete sentences, and end them crisply. Trailing off in volume is the non-verbal  equivalent of ending a sentence with “or whatever.” It communicates that your sentence wasn’t really going anywhere, that finishing your sentence doesn’t really matter to you, and that you weren’t really paying attention to what you were saying anyway, so why should anybody else on the line pay attention? Focus on what you’re saying and make sure that your sentences are complete. Do the same for the words themselves.

3) Embrace silence. Okay, here I’m straying from the “Do” and “Don’t” format because I’m not a big fan of telling people not to say “um” — mostly because, as soon as I do that, people get hyper-aware of the “um’s” and tend to say them more frequently. Instead, I vastly prefer having people choose silence. It’s easy to feel like silence is a problem in a phone conversation, in the way that it seems to be for radio professionals. But conversations and meetings and presentations need silence. People need time to process and anticipate. When you speak, allow pauses and gaps. Give other people time to hesitate and consider. This alone is a huge way to communicate to your audience that you are confident in how the call is going.

4) Don’t “pitch up.” Be definitive. “Pitching up” is raising your voice up a note or two at the end of a sentence. It’s what you naturally do when you ask a question. As a result, when you do it when you’re not asking a question, you sound like you’re uncertain. It’s the vocal inflection version of asking, “Do you know what I mean?” or “Am I making sense?” It’s another way to sound “junior” or “less experienced.” Notice the difference between how you sound and feel when you’re asking a question compared to when you’re making a definitive statement, and practice that distinction, so that your questions end with a question mark and your statements end with a period.

In reviewing these tips, I’m a bit concerned that the net effect here is to make you hyper-aware of how you sound over the phone. If that happens, I’ve only made you more self-conscious in these moments where you want to come across as confident. To avoid that, my recommendation is to notice how you sound over the phone when it doesn’t really matter, and to practice these distinctions consciously before an important conversation. But once the conversation starts, focus on what you’re saying, on what they’re saying, and on making progress with the whole conversation.

Good luck, and let us know how it goes.

What do you think of this? Any comments or questions about these tips? What else would you like to see us write about? Share your thoughts below, or send us a private message using the box on the right!

14 Comments

  1. John Murphy on April 23, 2015 at 10:19 am

    Great article. Good advise on “embrace silence.” It also helps the other person realize that this is a conversation.
    I would add another one: Stand. I often stand when talking on the phone. It gives me a sense of energy. I also tend to be more aware of the other person on line.
    Thanks again. Also appreciate the last paragraph on “practice!” That is how we can improve

    • Pete Machalek on April 23, 2015 at 11:29 am

      Great point, John! I was just standing to talk my way through a cold call a little while ago. It does indeed give you greater energy, and a sense of increased ability to lead the conversation.

  2. Judy Magy on April 23, 2015 at 11:09 am

    Do you teach a course?

    • Pete Machalek on April 23, 2015 at 11:32 am

      We deliver in-house workshops and individual coaching for clients, and offer public workshops through the College of Continuing Education, Judy. Just click on “Solutions” at the top of the page. Thanks for asking!

  3. Josine on April 23, 2015 at 12:00 pm

    As a partial French speaker, yet nonNative, I have been trying to teach myself to “pitch up” for years. I always thought the French sounded more congenial and inviting because of that. I do believe as a chair of an organization that to initiate discussion and inspire participation is important. We have several people on the line and they don’t engage. I use my voice to entice. Maybe it is because I have Barbara McAfee voice training in me for over 5 years now that I get good feedback in my role as Chair for how I conduct meetings. Because of Marnita’s Table work and peer Counselling training, I always lead with a “go-around” question so everyone starts out participating and is engaged from the get go. I’d love to work with you team in training as a consultant as I think of you as brilliant and perfect for formulating new techniques I’d want to explore!!

    • Pete Machalek on April 23, 2015 at 5:14 pm

      Ah yes, Barbara McAfee. She and I both participated at the Gustavus Adolphus TEDx this past Saturday. What an absolute gem of a woman! I love her approach.

      You make an interesting point about French, Josine. As a person who only knows English and a tiny bit of German, I’m going to have to plead ignorant on the topic of how “pitching up” relates to that language.

      It sounds like we should be talking about possibilities!

  4. Jack Pierce on April 23, 2015 at 12:25 pm

    I understand what you’re saying, Josine, and I could agree–as long as it does’t make you sound like you’re questioning your self or your answer. That’s usually the case with “up speak” though culturally there may be more tolerance for this with the French (not sure of that).

    To John’s point, I always talk hands-free–usually on my headset. That lets me get up, move around, and most importantly to me, use hand gestures. When I do that, I’m always more natural and more convincing on the phone.

    Thanks for the post, Pete. Fee free to visit my blog at http://www.hrd.solutions.

    • Pete Machalek on April 24, 2015 at 8:29 pm

      I love it, Jack! It sounds like you’re taking kind of a “virtual reality” approach to conversing, where you’re using your whole body to communicate, even though your audience is only going to experience your voice. And you’re doing it exactly because your voice gets affected by what your body is doing. The more fully your body is engaged in communication, the more that’s going to come across in your voice. (Not to mention, the more engaged your own brain is going to be in the conversation.)

  5. Mayer Segal on April 24, 2015 at 8:14 pm

    Excellent points made. More than ever, presentations and deals are being made over the phone because time is money and transit can be too expensive or time-consuming. I make a practice of knowing the purpose of my call and its goal before I make it or take it. I prepare line item notes to guide my presentation, leading the receiver to the result I want. It takes practice, yet what executive today does not prepare before entering a meeting? The old ways of winging it are over. Thanks for reading.

    • Pete Machalek on April 24, 2015 at 8:35 pm

      Excellent, Mayer! It sounds like you make the most of every interaction!

  6. Sue Filbin on April 26, 2015 at 10:42 am

    THX, Pete, for helpful info & to all who contributed comments. I suggest smiling—not grinning—during the conversation. It relaxes me & people seem to be able to “hear” the smile. • I also begin making calls with a short phone call to a friend or trusted colleague to warm up my conversational muscles.

    • Pete on November 11, 2015 at 12:20 am

      Great ideas, Sue! Yes, people can definitely hear the difference between a warm and smiling speaker and an anxious or indifferent one. Well done!

  7. Prishy on November 11, 2015 at 12:10 am

    Hi, i dont know if you can help me, but am a soft skills trainer (new in the job), and one thing i have noticed in my company is that all telephone operators tend to mumble, speak very fast and despite pointing this out in briefings and trainings they never seem to realise it themselves. The other day, our ‘Mystery Shopper’ also highlighted the same fact and i have to conduct yet another session on communication skills. The team comprises of different nationalities, ie Indians, Pakistanis, Filipinos etc. Can someone suggest some tips on how to go about this? Many thanks

    • Pete on November 11, 2015 at 12:25 am

      Prishy, in my experience, the best (and maybe the only) way to get people to change any behavior is to get them to acknowledge a problem that they themselves care about. A good way to do that here is to talk to the operators and ask them about their experience of the conversations they’re having. Find out if they’re getting frustrated because the people they’re talking to are not understanding them. Are people hanging up on them after the conversations have proceeded for a while? Are people saying, “What?” “Pardon me?” “Can you repeated that?” a number of times. If the operators themselves are experiencing problems, then and only then will they be open to changing and improving their behavior.

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