Maybe you have found yourself in a similar situation: your office phone rings. It’s an international call! Nervous, cold sweat starts to form and you look for excuses not to pick up. The call itself starts ok but soon there is something you don’t understand and everything becomes confused. Or maybe you are the one making the call. You plan it in your head in advance but soon there is an unexpected problem and the conversation takes five times longer than expected.
Why can talking on the phone be so difficult? There are a few reasons. Firstly, like we mentioned with listening more generally, a lot of our comprehension doesn’t come from the words we hear. Body language, facial expressions and gesture of the speaker play a very important role, as does their response when they see from our facial expressions that we, the listeners, have not understood. While Skype can help a little with this, it is often not enough. Intonation, rhythm and stress also play an important role but unfortunately telephones often distort or change the voice a little, especially with long distance calls. Finally, we are often not prepared enough or not expecting the call that arrives.
Obviously the phrases which you can learn from a book in class are useful in making calls but often what you really need are time and strategies. Here are seven of them:
- If you are making the call, plan in advance. Write down the key information you need to tell the other person, decide on the order that you will tell this information and even write down the key English phrases you need to be as clear as possible.
- Remember who you are talking to! Think about their level of English and how nervous they might be. Be friendly and twice as simple and clear as you would be face to face.
- Always check that you have understood what the other person has said. You can ask people to repeat but a better way is for you to repeat it back in your words. You can start with ‘Just to check. Do you mean...’
- You can also buy yourself time to think by using short phrases like ‘let me see’, ‘hmm, interesting question’ or ‘yes, I see’. Don’t be afraid of a few seconds silence while you think!
- You can also ask for a lot more time so that you can plan and formulate a clear response. Give a good reason, for example that you need to ask a colleague, check with your boss or think about a solution to the problem. Then use phrases like ‘could I call you back in ten minutes?’, ‘would it be ok if we talked again this afternoon’ and ‘would you mind if I rang you again later on’.
- Have a list of useful English expressions and phrases on the wall or next to your phone so that you can focus on the information and ideas not the language.
- Always ask for confirmation by email if it is something important and send an email repeating your key points for the record.
Good luck and above all relax!