Telephony: Are you listening to the caller?


Sometimes telephony specialists seem the most unsung heroes in acting. As many well-known actors have famously observed, the art of acting includes the art of listening. Acting requires reacting to lines as realistically as you deliver them. An actor can greatly help his or her partner by truly listening to them, in character, and responding authentically through facial expression, body language, etc. A generous movie actor might even stand next to the camera during the other actor’s close-up, in order to do them this favor.

We once observed a young hopeful in his first acting class. The assignment was to deliver a monolog. Delivering it to a point on the far wall, he was doing just terribly – repeatedly pausing to remember the next line (even though otherwise he could rattle it off in machine gun fashion) and totally not in the moment. After a few starts, the teacher had another student sit in front of him.


“Now try it,” the teacher said.

Suddenly, the lines just flowed out, as naturally as if the thoughts came straight from his soul.


Different things work for different folks.

What does this have to do with Telephony? Telephony is acting?

First, let us grant that most voice-over acting situations resemble that student’s monolog performance. You’re alone in a booth, and if it’s in your home studio, you probably don’t even have a director to give you feedback. Surmounting this limitation is part of what goes into being a voice over professional.

But telephony pros have it especially tough. In telephony, you’re actually in a conversation with the caller, yet it’s a caller you will never, ever hear.

In contrast, someone recording a commercial or narration must similarly speak as if one-to-one. But in those genres, the other party – the listener – isn’t expected to relate back. Same with an educational video, or promo, museum tour and many other genres – you need to sound conversational in those, but it’s not actually a conversation. Your listener is not expecting you to relate to their own situation there in their living room, office or kitchen. In these other genres, there’s not a lot of wiggle room between having an appropriate level of empathy vs. monotonous dispassion, but there is some.

With telephony, it is a conversation – quite literally. Except for promotional messages and such, you must relate to the caller, not only in your tone, but also in your mood.

This reminds us of a personal call mentioned by a friend of ours, a call made many years ago to a major consumer marketer’s Customer Service department. Our friend describes the situation:

“It was regarding a product complaint. I was not happy. In fact, it’s likely that a high percentage of the callers to this particular department were not pleased with some aspect or other of the company’s product or service. That call didn’t get off to a good start, because the first recorded voice I heard was an incredibly cheerful person saying in a highly Pollyanna-ish voice, ‘Thank you for calling [name of company]!!’”

“It wasn’t really wrong; in all other respects the prompts sounded totally professional. But considering my foul mood, it really rubbed me the wrong way. Even had it been a different situation, in real life rarely does anybody sound that happy. Some time later, I called another company [let us add: it was not to complain. – Ed.], and guess what – same person, same super-cheerful voice. This time it seemed possibly an appropriate tone, but ... wasn’t it the voice of that other company? What about these companies’ corporate identities?”

(A reminder – this was a LONG time ago. Our friend has heard that person many times since, and we are pleased to note that the talent now has a more varied and realistic delivery.)

The point of this anecdote is this:

When you’re voicing prompts or messages for Interactive Voice Response and other telephone messaging, it’s important to sound like you’re really talking to the caller. It’s also important to have a positive attitude in your voice.

And it is also important to sound empathetic. Your tone should vary depending on what department you’re representing. If it’s a top-level menu, be pleasant but neutrally businesslike. Happy, but not ridiculously so. If it’s Sales, be encouraging and optimistic. If it’s Technical Support, be confident and hopeful. If it’s Customer Service, be sympathetic – don’t assume the caller has a complaint, but be concerned in case they do. If it’s very late in a holding period, be apologetic, without signaling weakness. (A well written script might enable you to even add a positive spin, or respectful irony.)

The differences are subtle. And without feedback from the caller, the process of voicing such nuances can be a bit mystifying. But it’s especially important, because the caller “thinks” you’re actually talking to them.

You may need to draw from your experience in an analogous situation. (For example, were you ever a retail clerk? That’s analogous.) It might even help to have a friend sit silently across from you till you get the feeling. Whatever it takes, Telephony’s personal caller relationship is why you must sound totally real in this very unreal situation.

That’s why they call it acting.

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