“Ms. Walker, can I tell you one thing? I’m glad I got to speak with you today, because after talking with your son on the phone earlier, I had just about convinced myself that he’s not the right candidate for our scholarship.”
My heart dropped into the pit of my stomach when I heard this. The scholarship committee chair said my son seemed disinterested and displayed poor phone etiquette when she called him to schedule a time for his interview.
Further discussion revealed that, while he hadn’t exactly been rude to her, he had been a bit abrupt, had not communicated well, and had failed to express his appreciation for the opportunity to interview. Basically, he spoke to her like he speaks to his friends, and that won’t cut it in an adult environment, especially when you’re asking someone to invest thousands of dollars in your education.
Like many parents, I took it for granted that my son, at eighteen, understood how to converse with an adult business contact over the phone. In hindsight I realize how silly that was.
I knew that he did care about the scholarship, and wanted to make a good impression, so I sat him down and explained why he’d made such a poor impression on the chairwoman, and how he could do better next time.
When the chairwoman called my son, he was standing in the midst of the after school throng with students talking loudly and racing by him to catch buses. The interview was going to be in another city, so he couldn’t give her a firm time without some thought and planning.
This was how he explained his vague response. But I pointed out to him that he didn’t need to leave her hanging.
Even in situations where you can’t answer a person’s question right away, you can still be informative. Let her know that you need to call her back, and why. Commit to a specific time frame for returning her call – for instance by 5 pm the next day. Confirm that you have correct contact information for her. All these things show her that you’re organized and interested.
Effective adult communication is not just about exchanging facts. It’s also about sharing your interest and intent with the other party. The words you choose and the tone of your voice both convey information.
My son and I talked about ways he could let the scholarship committee know that he appreciated the opportunity to interview and was excited to be considered. Obviously, he needed to thank them. Even in a brief phone call, you can say “Thank you for calling” or “I appreciate your time.” And it’s o.k. to let a little pride and enthusiasm show in your voice when you’re talking. Just remember to keep it natural.
Displaying Good Manners
Kids don’t have to be stiffly formal when speaking to adults, but they should display a rudimentary understanding of the social norms. This includes things like: answering the phone with a friendly tone and a conventional “Hello”; not interrupting when the other person is speaking; not answering other incoming calls; and giving the caller his full attention.
Also, it’s important that kids know how to wrap up a call properly before disconnecting. A brief summary of your next steps (i.e. “I’ll give you a call tomorrow”) and a simple “good bye” should do the trick. This is also a great time to thank the caller for her time and assistance.
Neutralizing Your Answering Machine Message
During my chat with the scholarship chair, she told me the story of a girl who lost her shot at the scholarship because she had such an offensive message on her answering machine. The message included a lot of profanity and insults to potential callers. Her friends may have thought it was hilarious, but the chair refused to leave a message.
Once a student starts sending out applications for college admissions and scholarships, he needs to make sure his answering machine message reflects the way he wants to be perceived by those groups when they come calling. A good rule of thumb is to keep it upbeat and inviting.
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