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Westside Toastmasters is located in Los Angeles and Santa Monica, California

28. On the Phone

Well, if I called the wrong number, why did you answer the phone?

—James Thurber

It is thought by some that the explosion in portable phone popularity simply proves that most of us are unwilling to live without someone else's agreement every 10 minutes or so.

And while manufacturers once discovered value in practically giving you the razor so you would buy the blades, now we are pretty much given the phone, we just have to pay for the privilege to use it, month after month. Yet the latest and greatest in wireless technology, with more minutes than some of us can use in a lifetime, doesn't come with directions on what to say and how to say it.

Outgoing Phone Messages

An increasing number of my friends and business associates record detailed directions to their callers on how to leave a voice-mail message. "Please say your name and phone number slowly and clearly at the beginning of your message..." begins one. Another suggests, "Please say your phone number clearly, even if you think I have it, so I can call you back more quickly."

Recording a new outgoing message each morning with the day's date to give callers a roadmap to your day and the likelihood, or lack thereof, that they will hear back from you is also becoming popular.

Incoming Phone Messages

How often have you gotten a phone message that was recorded so quickly that no amount of replay could make it decipherable? Or one that rambled for the full two minutes before your machine cut the person off, without the phone number? Speaking slowly, carefully, and concisely is vitally important to the impression you leave with your message. You don't want to be the caller who clearly doesn't have enough to do but stay on the phone!

Phone technology gives a decided advantage to voices in the lower ranges and therefore, most often, to men. As a businesswoman, particularly when leaving messages on answering machines from a cell that may be also be retrieved from location, I've had to learn to speak as low and slow as I can.

Surprisingly, in many cases, a $13 landline will leave a clearer message than the most expensive cell phone. If you have a choice in leaving a message, choose the wired wonder. And know ahead of time what items to include in your message and the order in which you want to deliver them. You will distinguish yourself and be appreciated for not wasting others' time if you keep your messages within 15 to 30 seconds. Deliver it with a smile on your face, which can be heard in your voice.

Cell Phones

In 1997, Olli Kallasvuo, an executive at Nokia came to Los Angeles from Finland for media coaching and cultural tips for his upcoming Asian tour.

"One day," he said, "you won't have to 'find a phone.' The phone will come everywhere with you and everyone will have his or her own." Who knew it would come to this? Mr. Kallasvuo did.

Now many of us around the world have become like kids with a new toy. But as movie and TV ads often recommend, "discretion advised."

Because the technology is so new, mobile manners are still evolving. But the conventional wisdom is that it is just plain rude to interrupt one in-person conversation to begin another, on the phone. At best, be selective in who has your cell phone number and confident in your phone's message-taking capability to allow you to return the call at your earliest convenience. At the very least, ask permission of the person who is with you if you may just answer and return the call later. If the call is very important and/or extremely time sensitive, ask to be excused and take the call as quickly as possible away from others. Without the benefit of phone booths or soundproofed cubicles, phone calls are often very loud and interruptive.

Meetings, restaurants, golf courses, tennis courts, libraries, health clubs, spas, and many other places have banned the mobile monsters because of their distracting nature. On airplanes and in hospitals, they must be turned off to avoid disrupting sensitive equipment. And in some cities, handheld phones are outlawed while driving. All for good reason.

Conference Calls

A very cost-effective feature on multi-line phones is conference calling, where you can include several callers in one conversation with the push of a button. It's often the answer to scheduling conflicts, a "he said," "she said," situation or one in which you need consensus. When there are several people in the room and a speakerphone is used, participants should identify themselves before speaking, taking care not to talk over each other.

Quarterly Reports

SEC Regulation FD has changed the rules about communicating with investors, analysts, and the media. It has also magnified the importance of the quarterly conference call (which was routinely referred to as the quarterly earnings report until the technology bubble burst). It used to be that a CEO could correct a mistake or mis-impression with an analyst or reporter privately. Now, corporate governance makes that impossible. Selective disclosure is illegal.

According to one corporate director of investor relations, "Web casting has exploded the significance of the quarterly financial results by a factor of 10 times." Not only do industry analysts and both financial and business media interview your CEO and CFO online, John and Jane Q. Stockholder and their brokers are listening in as well.

The stock price rises and falls because of a one-on-one conversation between the key executives and dozens to hundreds of listeners, hearing it live or on tape. "Did you make your numbers?" "What is your guidance going forward?" Public companies won't get another chance to make a good impression until next quarter — or maybe never.

Circulating a constant stream of press releases to an ever-widening circle and creating online conference calls with analysts and reporters is a nemesis for publicly traded companies these days. Once again, Marshall McLuhan proves to be prophetic. The medium is a powerful message in providing a window into the world of the corporate suite.

What should the chief officers say? And how should they say it? Does the CEO provide some color to the CFO's play by play. Does the CFO agree with the CEO's vision of the company, and how well will they work together to get there?

This sometimes hour-long shot is posted on the company's Website until it's replaced by the next one to be heard 24/7 by anyone with access to the Internet.

Every three months, some companies put a great deal of time and money into scripting and practicing for these events, with mock questions for the participants. Others don't. All too often, the powers-that-be delude themselves into thinking that this is "just another phone call." And a low stock price reflects it.

Just as public relations and human resources use outside consultants to test their programs and their people, investor relations should do the same when it comes to a litmus test for the stock's spokespeople. This is not the time you want to begin preaching to the choir, and it's a rare choirboy who risks his position by daring to properly confront God's chosen ones.

Like any media coverage, a quarterly conference call is a key opportunity for a company to tell its story. The people who are charged as spokespeople for the company are also challenged to make sure their stories are well represented. Being prepared before the conference call is the only solution in feeling comfortable speaking to all those stakeholders. Every practice session should include:

In short, you should design and deliver a quarterly report that works for, not against, you.

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