Have you ever…

  • received a voicemail and not been able to understand the message
  • received a voicemail without a name or phone number so you don’t know who to call back
  • had to listen to a lengthy message and then had to repeat the entire message since the phone number was the last thing said and it was done so quickly that you couldn’t write it down
  • not been sure what the person calling wants from you
  • tried to return the call and played “telephone tag” since the caller was out of the office

You may have other problems to add to this list. Whatever the problem, the usual result from any of these occurrences is that you end up wasting time during your day trying to respond to the message, and you typically feel frustrated.

How can we all improve these situations? Here are some simple tips when leaving messages and when returning calls. Try them and you likely will see a difference.

When leaving a message, consider what the receiver needs to fulfill your needs:

1)    introduce yourself at the start of the message, say your name slowly and clearly

2)    leave your return telephone number, again said slowly and clearly

3)    if you’re calling someone who doesn’t know your number, repeat the number twice so they can write it down accurately – once in the beginning and once at the end of the message

4)    leave a good time to return your call     

5)    leave the specific question you have, or tell them what information you need from them

6)    offer the best way to contact you if more information is needed (telephone, or e-mail)

7)    make your message as brief as possible

8)    think before you call knowing that you might receive voicemail – plan what you need to say in a sentence or two should the person be unavailable

If you take some time to think about what you want to say and then speak slowly and clearly, the receiver will have a better understanding of what you want.

When speaking on the phone, some tips to improve your ability to communicate:

1)    slow down – a fast message is often hard to hear and understand

2)    hold your head up when speaking, it can improve the clarity of your voice

3)    speak in a “normal” conversation voice, not too loud or too soft

4)    avoid calling when you’re in a hurry, feeling stressed or are angry – it can cause you to leave a muddled message that lacks details and clarity

5)    remember to leave your name since someone may not recognize your voice (call back, it’s me can be frustrating)

6)    avoid calling or leaving a message when you are eating

When returning a voicemail, think what information will be helpful to the person you’re calling:

1)    leave your name and number

2)    state the time that you called

3)    leave the information they requested, or ask for more details as needed

4)    suggest the best way for them to contact you (what time, by phone or email)

5)    always return a call, even just to say you are working on the question

If you want to improve your effectiveness on the phone, practice leaving messages with a co-worker and then sit and evaluate them together until you develop a pattern for making your messages brief and coherent. 

When sending emails:

1)    include a title that describes the main point of the message

2)    take a minute to compose and plan your message to keep it brief and focused

3)    if you need a response, ask the person to reply by a specific time

4)    recheck the name in the “send bar” (since it may auto fill with someone else who has the same first name)

5)    spell check the message, and reread it to avoid typos or poor grammar – mistakes can detract from your message and can appear unprofessional

6)    avoid using all capitals to emphasize something – it is often interpreted as anger or rudeness

7)    be cautious about sending messages when you are angry or upset since you may say something that you will regret later

8)    use “cc” to include other people who might benefit from reading the message, but do not overuse this function since most people complain of receiving too many emails 

When responding to emails:

1)    if the sender asked for a response, send a reply even if you need more time to complete the task or to answer the question

2)    think before replying with “reply all” to avoid sending too many messages to people – ask who really needs to read your response

3)    if communicating by email may take several messages to resolve the issue, it may be quicker and more efficient to pick up the phone and call

4)    be careful about interpreting the tone of an email or the emotional content of a message; if you are unclear what the send is saying, it may be better to respond in person or on the phone

If these tips make you curious to learn more or to start a discussion in your office about improving phone and email effectiveness, here are some internet sites with more information:


And if you have other suggestions or tips that can improve our effectiveness at work, send them to Stephen Butler at sdbutler@amherst.edu and he will write a follow up article for a future issue.