One of the most famous management maxims of the 1950s, penned by the business guru C Northcote Parkinson, stated: 'Work expands so as to fill the time available'. I would like to try my hand at inventing a successor, more relevant perhaps to the next millennium: 'Communications expand so as to fill the number of communications media available'.
Commentators are constantly predicting new communications media will destroy old ones. They prophesied the cinema would kill off theatre, television would kill off the cinema, and so on. But often as not the new media simply increase our total media usage. Gurus have foretold the death of radio for years, but it is alive and well and thriving all over the world.
It will be the same with the telephone. Today people predict e-mail and faxes will kill off phone calls. They won't. Mobiles and voicemail have given the telephone a new and vigorous lease of life. Telephones are here to stay and you ought to use them efficiently. Sadly, most of us don't.
We make calls inefficiently, we take calls inefficiently, and we handle calls inefficiently. Let's look at each in turn.
We make calls inefficiently when we ring other people without sufficient forethought. Always think of the questions your call will prompt, and be ready with the answers - instead of saying, as we all regularly do 'Good point, I'll have to ring you back on that one'. If you intend to cover several matters during the call, list them in writing beforehand.
If you don't, you can be sure that just as your mobile battery will one day be flat when you desperately need it, you'll forget several of the matters you meant to mention. And while mentioning mobiles, remember to keep yours switched off when it should be switched off - which is nearly all the time. Taking calls on mobiles in order to show off stopped being the smart thing to do sometime in the 1980s.
Whether on a mobile or a landline, before making any call, think whether the timing is ideal. Phoning just before lunch, or before the respondent shuts up shop is unlikely to be ideal - unless you deliberately want the conversation to end quickly (as you sometimes will). And before making international calls, check the time change carefully. If all the wasted international calls made daily were added together, the cost would probably exceed New Zealand's gross national product.
Lastly on the subject of making calls, it's a good idea to group blocks of outgoing calls together. Reserve an hour or so in your diary, and don't allow yourself to be distracted. Otherwise making calls can be as disruptive as taking calls, which is the next source of inefficiency.
The ring or warble of a telephone is almost irresistible. Most of us will interrupt anything we are doing, however important, to take the call.
If you work in sales or customer service that will usually be the right thing to do. And if you have a secretary who can intercept your calls, that's ideal. But everyone else should use the 'divert' button if they have one. You should obviously use it when you need to concentrate on a job, or when you are with a visitor. But you should also get in the habit of switching it on a few minutes before you quit your desk to go elsewhere. Calls taken just as you are leaving are hard to concentrate on, hard to follow up immediately, and easily irritate the caller you will try to rush. Give yourself breathing space by switching off in advance.
Finally, when you're on the phone and talking, here are half- a-dozen tips which will help you use it more effectively:
Keep a record: jot down the date, time and content of all remotely important calls; it will very often come in handy later.
Avoid instant judgments: a surprisingly large number of people dislike using the phone, and so their telephone manner may be stilted and inept - don't read too much into it.
Speak dynamically: to ensure you are not one of those people, avoid long pauses which will make you sound diffident and unenthusiastic; some people enliven their telephone style by standing up and making gestures, as if the other person were in the room with them.
Smile when talking: your smile will be reflected in your voice; this is my favourite telephone tip - I do it all the time.
Watch out for drinkers: remember that, particularly after lunch, the other person may have been drinking and you can't see it - but you may need to be extra cautious.
Use all the bells and whistles: as well as divert buttons, most modern equipment has lots of devices that we forget to use or allow to go out-of-date (like speed dial numbers); keep using them properly.
On average, 90% of executives spend over an hour a day on the phone, and 40% of executives spend over two hours a day. So perhaps the most essential piece of advice is: learn to ring off. Most calls go on for far longer than they need. Devise a few phrases with which you can bring calls to a conclusion rapidly and politely.
Become a good terminator and you'll hugely improve you telephone productivity.