How to make a successful phone call

This is a guest post from Dan Ednie, 22, who is a young Melbourne entrepreneur studying linguistics at the University of Melbourne. In 2008 he founded Global Heart Tours, a bilingual tour service that connects Australian Language learners with international students and generally travellers. He writes and consults primarily about second language acquisition and cross-cultural communication, but is able to consult for any linguistic problems. Email him at

Dial number >> phone rings>> receiver answers

A: Yes

B: (1 second pause) Hi Steve, I mean, Good afternoon Mr. Jobs. My name is Dan and I’m calling with a stellar proposit….

A: *Beep, beep, beep, beep*

  Hello! Can I help you?

Photo by Fernando Mineiro  

We all know that the opening few sentences of any phone conversation are crucial. A stammer, a false start (“My name, My name is Dan Ednie umm”), a stunned silence, are all things which do happen, and can be hard to recover from. Phone manner is an art, and for anyone at any level of business it’s an enormous asset. In the above example, Dan is thrown off by Steve Jobs opening, he was expecting something like ‘Hello’, or ‘Steve here’ or ‘Steve Jobs’.

The question for entrepreneurs and linguists is, why has this been such a big factor, and how can we fix it?

Linguists have been writing in the last ten years, frequently: on phone exchanges; address terms (what we call each other by); and the causes of dis-fluency markers (ums, errs, mispronunciations). Honourable a study as it is, very little of the research has been made available and I hope to give some kind of an insight into what academic linguists make of this aspect of business communication.In 1979, American conversation analyst, Schegloff, concluded that the majority of American telephone openings have a direct identification and recognition. The four variations of these were:

1. a summons-answer sequence (e.g. the phone rings and the callee answers ‘Dave speaking’);

2. an identification and/or recognition sequence (e.g. ‘Dave!’/‘Hey Sarah’);

3. a greeting sequence (e.g. ‘Hi’/‘Hi’);

4. a ‘how are you’ sequence (e.g. ‘How are you?’/‘Alright, yourself?’)

These are all quite acceptable responses, and if we are trying to create a new relationship, set up an interview, or respond to their advertisement, we will deal with these openings with ease.Are these openings universal, can they cross national boundaries? With something as variable as how to answer the phone, we might expect to vary a lot. Especially if we keep in mind that in some cultures its normal for people to  actually wait for the caller to start, has this ever happened to anyone else? Hopper, Hymes and Chaika have found that these vary significantly across cultures, especially between different languages. Fortunately between English speakers the difference is not too great, there are some similarities between Americans and Australians, as both tend to answer the phone with ‘Hello’ in private calls, while business callees tend to provide explicit self-identification, often the name of the business. O’Loughlin’s (1989) reported a higher frequency of self-identification (67%) in business calls than private calls (34%). What is incredible is that 33% of business calls don’t self identify, and thus we see the abnormal ‘yes’, ‘hello’ or something else unexpected as quite a significant player.

But what about the traditional G’day, is that still happening, or in this age of iSnack Web 2.0’s have we lost our Paul Hogan heritage. O’Loughlin’s study found that the informal ‘G’day’ was used but twice by male callers and not once by a callee.

So, what went wrong for Dan in the Steve Jobs phone call? As an Australian Dan was used to either a ‘Hello’, Hello, this is Steve Jobs’ or a direct confirmation ‘Steve Jobs’. Receiving nothing but a terse ‘Yes’, the dialogue sequence is totally thrown off and the rest is history, Dan doesn’t even get to the pitch because he’s already proven himself as unprofessional, and unorganised. What we need to be aware of is that individuals will vary a lot in their opening sequences, and that when we are speaking to a non-Australia, then we need to plan for the unexpected, and have to composure to say what we have scripted or intended to say. When we contact individuals in a business context, they may be answering the call as though it were a private one, and their circles of friends may have effected a completely unexpected summons-response sequence.

How to Prototype: The Awesome Guide

This is a guest post from Lindsay Gordon, prototyping genious from South East Water. Lindsay attended Olin College in Massachusetts, got a degree in engineering and most importantly, got taught by IDEO. She now works here at South East Water’s Recycled Water program and helps me be inspired through her ideas about how to Prototype. If you want to get in touch with Lindsay, she will be answering comments on this post or email:

At its simplest, a prototype is a representative model used to test a design concept. Prototypes can be built out of paper and tape or machined using advanced materials and techniques. Regardless of the level of detail, prototyping is a very valuable exercise during the design phase of any project. This quick overview provides an explanation of why prototyping is important, how to do it and why engaging users is vital.

Why is prototyping useful?

1. ‘Proof of Principle’/Exploration
o Making a physical model can be a source of creativity to get the juices flowing before you have all the answers
o Gives you an opportunity to test the ‘proof of principle’ of your most basic idea and find unexpected problems
o Allows you to explore design alternatives, improve the design and allow your team to appreciate the experience of the end user

2. Communication of your idea
o Internal: Words leave room for misinterpretation, simple 3-D models can communicate ideas to team members and convince them of your design concepts
o External: A slightly more sophisticated model can be very useful in pitching/selling your idea to stakeholders. Shows a good understanding of the product/service and facilitates visualisation of your idea

3. User Involvement
o Giving your user something tactile requires user involvement in the design process (easier to understand users and their experiences, behaviours, perceptions and needs with a physical object)
o User feedback is delivered in real time while they’re experimenting with the prototype


Quick-and-Dirty Prototyping

Rough prototyping involves using any materials available to make a quick, simple and cheap 3-D model of your product or service.

The scale will depend on what product/service you’re modelling: actual size may make sense for some items (telephone) but others may require larger (medical devices) or smaller (buildings) scale. Use any materials you can find: straws, cardboard, fabric, wood, foam core, hot glue, rubber bands, post it notes, polystyrene, toothpicks etc. It also may be useful to take apart existing products to find materials.

1. When involving users don’t worry about creating a professional looking model but make it refined enough that it won’t distract them. You want them to take you seriously but if the prototype has too much detail users may focus on the wrong things (e.g. a button is too big)
2. Early models should invite improvement! Inspire your audience to assess the service through the eyes of a customer and imagine the concept evolving into something they would enjoy using

How to model a service

Vending Machine opperators and service patterns

Modelling a service is a bit trickier than modelling a product. A service model needs to focus on the interaction between the user and the service and highlight all the key players involved in the duration of the service.

o Visual: Storyboards, vignettes, cartoons and amateur videos are all good tools to model your service. Focus on service scenarios: physical elements, interactions and action sequences with various key players
o Where applicable, create 3-D models of any interfaces between customers and service components
o Find an initial group of a few key customers that are willing to help with the prototyping, will brainstorm possible service scenarios, look over storyboards, interfaces, etc.
Above info taken from this interesting article about service prototypes

Why human focused design?

Designing WITH the user and not FOR the user takes the guesswork out of whether your final product will be useful. Products and services should be designed to fit in with a user’s current behaviours and values rather than force them to change to accommodate your new design.

“User Oriented Design = Subway (now I’m doing the cheese, which kind would you like) instead of “I made you a sandwich, hope you like what I put in it”

Working closely with users provides opportunities for feedback at each step of the design process. Spend time with people in your intended user group and try to witness them in their natural habitat; you can learn a lot from observing specific activities and putting yourself in your user’s shoes.

Another way to test your model is to engage individuals who are completely unfamiliar with the product or service and ask them to evaluate their experience with your prototype. This can provide valuable feedback about whether your design is intuitive and easy to use. Jan Chipchase runs an amazing blog where he researches people’s habits with mobile phones accross cutlures for this purpose.

Next Steps

If you’ve had success with rough prototyping and are looking for a more sophisticated prototyping method you may want to check out 3-D modelling software (such as Google’s SketchUp which is free, has great video tutorials and is quite intuitive). There may also be opportunities to create a working prototype or more advanced models using rapid prototyping companies.

Leave me a comment or flick me an email if you have any other questions about prototyping!