Do you want a return call – or not?

Two out of every three voice mails I receive could be – and should be – a lot better than they are. One of the three is not clear enough for me to understand the message the first time I listen to it and another one begins in an unprofessional, uncool, or improper way. 

That’s an awful lot of people who are lowering their chances of getting a call back, and in an age when it’s possible to communicate with anyone anywhere anytime, there’s no excuse for this. It’s bad business. 

Unclear voice mails come in many forms: too fast, too muffled, too soft, too garbled, and so on. Not to mention poor reception from cell phones. Anyone who’s answered a call from someone on a cell knows how bad the transmission quality can be – and usually is. So when you’re on your cell and are leaving a voice mail, keep that in mind. Now, couple that with the unfortunate fact that many people do not enunciate well to begin with – or talk too fast – or speak so softly that they’re hardly audible – and the likelihood of leaving a message that someone can easily understand goes way down. If you’ve left such voice mails, consider them failures, as communication is not complete just because it’s sent. It has to be received – and that’s not the receiver’s responsibility; it’s yours. Can you hear me now?!? 

In my graduate communication class, when we talk about giving great presentations, there are (among other specific tips and techniques) three that we can apply directly to leaving voice mails. I refer to them as “The Three ...ates” – articulate, enunciate, and modulate. 

Articulating refers to speaking in simple, clear, and direct sentences, using appropriate terms and terminology, and expressing coherently what you have to say. Immediately, some people consider this difficult, thinking this means having to speak in eloquent phrases and elegant style. Exactly the opposite: the great speeches in history are always the simplest. Think Lincoln, King, Kennedy, Churchill. So say what’s on your mind, say it simply, and – if you’re serious about getting a call back – think it through before you call. That’s what will keep you from rambling on and sounding “pointless, endless, and hopeless,” as I’ve said many times before. In other words, get to the point, stay on point, and then get off the point. Here’s a rule of thumb: voice mails longer than about 30 seconds are probably too long. On the other hand, a voice mail too short – “Hi, it’s Justin. Call me” – especially if you don’t know the person –is insufficient and inappropriate. 

Enunciating refers to the actual physical delivery of your words, making sure that the letter T and the letter D are audibly distinguishable – or F and V – and so on. It refers to not slurring or mumbling, to spacing your words so they don’t run into each other, to speaking at a reasonable pace so I can understand you and can write down your phone number without having to replay your message three times. Slow down! 

And modulating, or changing, means that monotone (usually too soft) is not an attention getter, just like it isn’t from a singer, instrumentalist, or orator. It is, in a word, boring – not exactly how you want others perceiving you. 

In essence, if you want to up your chances of getting a return call, make me want to do it. 

Now, as for unprofessional, uncool, or improper voice mails, this could be the subject of a large book; for now let’s keep a few things is mind. 

When I was in junior high school, we were taught how to speak properly on the phone. When someone answers your call, for instance, we were taught to say, “Good morning, this is Eli Amdur. May I please speak with John Doe?” This is proper and – get this – they were formal lessons in English class. We had to do this out loud. And we were graded for it. Judging by today’s voice mails and real time conversations, that’s been lost, like many other standards.

Next, I can’t tell you how many voice mails go on and on, only coming to a long-awaited end before the caller even states his or her name. Occasionally that’s omitted too. 

And how about callers who think they’re being cute, funny, or witty – and come out with rather uninhibited things? Do they realize that most of us, when getting back to our desks to retrieve voice mail (or getting them remotely) usually press the speaker phone key and that there are others within earshot? Not cool. 

This is all simple business etiquette. Apparently either that’s not being taught anymore or a lot of people cut class that day. One way or another, it’s a growing phenomenon – and there is a growing dissatisfaction with it on the part of people whom you’d like to return your phone calls. Believe me, there are many people who, when they have to prioritize which calls they will return, put the good ones at the top of their lists and the bad ones at the bottom – if on the list at all. 

So if you want a return call, make your voice mail worth returning.

 Career Coach Eli Amdur conducts workshops and one-on-one coaching in Job Search, Career Planning, Resumes, and Interviewing. Reach him at or 201-357-5844. Please visit and "like" him at