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Telephonish

by Gary Grammar

Can anyone imagine a country more dependent upon the telephone than our dear United States? Compared to, say, Spain, we live by the telephone. A friend who lived in Spain for a few years has testified to me of the horrors of the Spanish telephone service; of course, no one in Spain really relies upon phones to communicate, then. The people find and use other methods of communication -- slower, but more reliable. Not here in Estados Unidos! We Americans telephone. Our cell phone and "charge-back" use is causing fits of math with phone service providers -- the necessity of too many number combinations to provide so many "800" numbers has caused the addition of the "888" prefix.

Twenty years ago, those of us growing up in the 50s and 60s could still identify major American cities by area code -- usually after minimal exposure to one of them -- 212 was New York; 312, Chicago; 213, Los Angeles. Calling Directory Assistance across the continent was easy. In a subconscious way, we included the area code in our definition of our major cities. You could feel the energy of a city that never sleeps in the numbers 212; the big shoulders of a city with a 312! The futuristic gaze of 213! There was a once a popular country music group with the name "Area Code 615" referring to the Nashville, TN, phone code. Now that moniker would probably refer to the West Side of Nashville -- the three other quadrants possessing their own area codes! Today, the same group would have to call itself "Area Codes 615-427-389-277." Not as catchy, eh? Doesn't exactly roll off the tongue. Certainly doesn't form a subconscious image, either.

Living in the land of the phone, it helps to have an awareness of how to use it properly. Many people speak so quickly and enunciate so murkily that you can only understand them in person, where you can use their body language to fill in what they are attempting to say. On the phone, this murkiness becomes complete mud. No matter how the listener strains to comprehend the mumblings of such a speaker, one just can't get the message. Often, after a few Herculean attempts at understanding, I have reverted to mumbling something safe such as "Sure, I'll take care of it." simply to end my misery and hang up as quickly as possible.

Anyone using the telephone to earn a living must pay greater attention to his/her speech and communication skills as a matter of survival. I wish to share a few tips I have been taught working in a variety of telephone-intensive occupations.

The great Roman orator, Cicero, had a speech impediment and to overcome it he practiced speaking aloud to himself with marbles in his mouth. This caused him to over-pronounce words which he had difficulties with. I equate this with the training technique of running with weights strapped on your ankles or the posture training of walking with a book balanced upon your head. Of course, if you practice speaking into the phone with a mouthful of marbles, you may cause more problems than you cure. I suggest that one practice "placing" the air which carries your words in various parts of your mouth to see which position is best for speech clarity. There is a speech problem called a lateral S (Sylvester the Cat has this) where the air escapes from between the side teeth rather from the front teeth. When I am speaking on the phone, I consciously place the air at my front upper teeth and allow my breath to carry my words. Opera songs are written so that extended notes are sung on vowels rather than consonants because the throat and mouth an be kept open more effectively. The singer allows the words to ride on a cushion of air, which aids projection of the sound. The same cushion of air will carry your words when speaking. The front teeth provide a hard surface for the voice to bounce off of, thereby making one's speech crisp and clear. Practice saying the word "pronouncing" a few times and over-emphasize both "n" sounds and the "ssss" sound of the letter "c" by causing a split-second stop at each one. This gives you a "feel" for speaking clearly.

The next point to work on is pitch. On the phone, you have the advantage of a microphone so you don't have to speak loudly to be heard. This affords an opportunity to lower the pitch of your voice many notes and if you possess a nasal quality, you can alter that somewhat to a chest quality. A deeper voice is more pleasing to a listener, conveying a sense of relaxation. People want to hear relaxation. When you are making a phone call, breathe deeply a few times before dialing the number. This also makes speaking by phone more pleasurable for you, as you will relax with the extra oxygen.

Finally, a technique I have found 100% effective -- smile when you speak into the phone. This comes through to the listener as a friendly feel, believe it or not. When I first began practicing smiling speech, I was very skeptical, but I have had many people in varied instances comment on how friendly my phone voice is . . . I can only thank the person who first told me this "trick" Fortunately, my listeners cannot see me speaking into the phone, grinning like an idiot or they would hurriedly mumble something and hang up!

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