Friday, April 11, 2008

The Perfect Voicemail

I once worked full-time at a San Francisco ad agency for 9 months. For anyone living outside the bubble of the advertising world, you can view time in the advertising world like dog years: 9 months is a long ass time.

Why does it feel so long? Because, at peak time, I might have fielded as many as 200 phone calls every day. Sure, most of these calls were simple did-you-do-this-yet questions, but it wasn't uncommon to leave my desk for a loo break to find 8 voicemails waiting for me. That's 8 voicemails I had to slog through in their entirety before pressing "delete". At 1.5–3 minutes per voicemail, that's 12-24 minutes out of my day... which means I would likely get more voicemails while I'm collecting my voicemails.

Most of us don't think about the economy of words when leaving voicemails, but in a hectic (and stressful) business arena, every word on a voicemail must be chosen with extreme care. An unneeded sentence or two results in wasted time... and wasted time accumulates.

As with all things, we often learn how best to do something by watching how others do it so spectacularly unwell.

The unperfect voicemail:

"Hey Ross, how you doing? Haven't spoken to you in a long time. How's the fam? Hey, look, I've got this thing on my desk... I'm not really sure what it is. Someone handed to me and it looks pretty important. Does this have anything to do with the BMW job? Well, nevermind, I guess I could look at it right now. Hold on... [pause] yeeeeeeah... it looks like it is... okay... okay... let me see. Okay, let's do this: let's move the art into a bubble on the top right, and let the bullets flow beneath it in a 3" box—no, wait, that would look weird, huh? Hmmmm. Shit, I don't know... okay, why don't just call me when you get back to your desk and we'll chat about it then. My number is [speaks his phone number blazingly fast, near incomprehensibly]. Okay, I guess I'll talk to you later. Gimme a call. Bye."

Total time: 1 minute 21 seconds

I used to imagine throwing daggers through the phone at people who'd leave me a message like that. Not only do I have to repeatedly listen to the entire message simply to get to their phone number, which I can barely understand anyway, but the message is effectively useless and takes me hostage by forcing me to listen to pointless rambling lest I miss that one crucial piece of information.

Now, here's the perfect voicemail:
"Ross, Bob here. My number's 4-1-5-5-1-5-1-6-5-4. Call me about BMW. Just looked at the docs and I have some urgent comments. Again, my number is 4-1-5-5-1-5-1-6-5-4. It's 4:47 on Thursday. Bye."

Total Time: 20 seconds

Why this is a perfect voicemail:
  1. I know who's calling, and that they're calling me.
  2. I know what the phone number is at the beginning of the message—thankfully, I know while listening to the entire email that if I want to write down the number, all I have to do is replay the voicemail from the beginning. I cannot emphasize how helpful this one tip is to a listener!
  3. The phone number is clearly spoken, twice, so I don't have to stress about not being able to transcribe it. Twice is important because sometimes cell phones garble at exactly the wrong moment and you have to have a cow while waiting for the person to call you back.
  4. I know what the message is about, generally.
  5. I know what the message is about, specifically.
  6. I know that Bob has comments for me.
  7. I know Bob's comments are urgent.
  8. I know when Bob called, since some phone systems don't always say when people call.

Furthermore, I know Bob always leaves this kind of message so when I hear his voice come on, I'm not stressed out, but relieved. And when I finally delete his message, I think to myself, "I love getting voicemails from Bob. They're perfect."

P.S. It is also extremely useful when leaving large amounts of information to someone on a voicemail to say up at the beginning, "I'm going to leave you a long message now, but if you want, just delete this message and call me to talk about it."

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