Read our COVID-19 research and news.

Tooling Up, tie
Credit: G. Grullón/Science

How to Make an Impact in 60 Seconds or Fewer. Part One: Using Voice Mail

Wham, bam, ring, zing ... I used to think it was just my office that operated in a continual frenzy, with phones ringing off the hook, nonstop e-mail, and incoming overnight mail shipments. But recently I've realized that this is just the pace of work today. My friends and acquaintances from many industry sectors tell me that they face the same pressures. Life has speeded up, and as a result, our working days perk along at a highly caffeinated pace that would make our pre-Starbucks ancestors cringe.

Each new gadget or technology that is developed to give us more time only speeds things up another notch. The problem is that although we have faster, more convenient ways to communicate, many of us haven't adapted our style of communication to the way things work today.

Communication in an Era of Accelerating Timelines

The pace of work life is speeding up in academia, too. But on this side of the scientific world, the people receiving communications are generally open for more information--the nature of science itself feeds this. In fact, shorter communications (e-mails, phone messages, letters) are perceived in academia as having less value. But in industry, the opposite is true. Shorter IS better.

Overwhelmingly, people in industry now equate "professional" with "succinct." It is this succinct communication style that you must use for the two most important weapons in the networker's arsenal: the telephone and the e-mail system. To use these tools effectively, you need to learn how to deliver a concise, professional message--something that can be difficult for many people making their first moves toward industry.

In this month's column, I will analyze voice mail as a networking tool and point out some techniques that you can use to develop a professional image for yourself in this domain. To keep things brief here, I'll turn to e-mail communications next time.

Optimizing Your Voice Mail Messages

Anyone in the throes of a job search would generally consider the voice mail systems in use today to be a major impediment. The chance that you'll get a return call seems to many to be remote, and anyway it seems unlikely that you'll be able to make a good impression in 1 minute or less. But it is exactly this point that you need to remember about voice mail: You cannot present yourself in a voice mail message! You are simply leaving enough information so that the person you're calling will know why you have made contact and so choose whether to return the call. The bottom line, folks, is that succinct and professional messages get callbacks; lengthy, over-the-top meanders do not.

Let's look at some examples. In our office, most voice mail messages fall into one of two categories:

"The Long Talker" This person believes that because they are unlikely to get a return call, they might as well relate their life story via voice mail and get their networking call out of the way, "just in case." Messages of this type are distinguished by a total lack of concern for the listener's time. And the caller makes very little effort to get something specific out of the call. They simply download information-- way too much information. Like most people who receive this kind of voice mail, I fast-forward through much of it.

"The Mystery Caller" At the other end of the spectrum from "The Long Talker" is the mysterious voice that leaves no more than a name and number. The voice provides no information that would help the listener choose a time to return the call nor any guidance regarding subject matter. If you are leaving these brief no-information voice mails, think of the company you are in ... this is just the kind of message that slippery salespeople like to leave!

Although I generally don't like anything "canned" or "artificial," a voice mail message is an exception to this rule. In fact, the best voice mail advice I can offer you is that you SHOULD be ready with a script, perhaps something like the one that follows. That way, you'll know just what to say when you hear that little beep as a secretary suddenly--and unexpectedly--puts you into the director's voice mail system. (And on another topic altogether, having a script is helpful if you DO actually get to speak to the director and not to her voice mail. That way, you don't babble or otherwise waste her time.)

"Good afternoon, Dr. Smith, my name is Jane Doe. I'm a Ph.D. microbiologist who works extensively with recombinant CHO cell lines in bioreactors. I'm calling to ask you about ABC Biotech Company's interest in this area. If you would be so kind as to return my call, I promise to be quite brief, because I know how busy you must be. You can reach me at 650-555-1234 any morning this week between 8 a.m. and 11 a.m., or on Thursday afternoon. Thanks."

Note that in my example above, Dr. Doe did not specifically say, "Dr. Smith, I am looking for a job." This is because one of the Golden Rules of the networking process is that if you leave voice mail asking for a job, particularly if you leave little other information, your message will get "the HR shuffle"--an immediate forward to the Human Resources department. And yet, Dr. Doe wasn't sneaky, either; Dr. Smith will know what she's really after.

When Jane Doe receives her return call from Dr. Smith, that conversation has to get around--and quickly--to the fact that it is a networking and employment-related matter. By asking for Dr. Smith to return the call about the firm's "interest in the area" of CHO cells and bioreactors, Dr. Doe can request the names of the individuals in Dr. Smith's organization who would most want to hear from her. You can't always avoid getting referred to HR--this will still happen--but in this case, the possibilities are equally strong that Dr. Doe will enjoy a fruitful networking call with Dr. Smith.

To close, here are the most important elements of voice mail communication:

  • Keep it short. Deliver only your name, your reason for calling, the best times to reach you, and your phone number.

  • Show some understanding of how busy your contact is--it will increase your chances for a return call.

  • Choose a brief description of yourself that will pique your contact's interest.

  • Never leave a message indicating that you are job seeking and expect a callback.