Some of the best moments in life are the unscripted ones. We don’t plan or prepare for them, we often don’t even know they are coming, they just happen. Usually though, it’s best to have a plan. Especially when you’re trying to sell yourself, or a job opening, or your company, or all three, via a phone call or voicemail message. This is the story of what happens when you wing it. 

In my case, the failure occurred when I was speaking to a hiring manager, but the lessons can apply equally if you are the one initiating the call. 

The backstory

A couple of years ago I came across a new career opportunity at a company that was one of the best known in the world in this particular space.

I figured it might help that I had met the owner/founder of the company at a NASCAR race shortly before that, and since I was with a big client of his at the time, and we had several interactions since then, I was going on the assumption he would remember me. 

So I anxiously and excitedly overnighted my cover letter and materials directly to him, and then waited for the response. A response that never came. At least not for three months.

And by that time I had kind of forgotten about it to be honest.

When an email arrived in my inbox from the HR Director of this company, it took me by surprise. I was doing some deadline writing for a client at the time, and I ignored it for a few hours. 

The email was very specific in nature and asked me four questions: 1) Was I still interested? 2) Would I relocate? 3) Could I state a salary range? 4) Would I be available to Skype about the job some time soon?

Admittedly, I am usually the one asking the questions, but I think I am pretty good at answering them.

The fail

And if that is what I had done, simply answered the questions that were asked, maybe I wouldn’t be writing this post in Staffing Talk.

However, instead of succinctly replying to her email, after finishing my writing assignment I immediately picked up the phone and dialed her number, with no forethought, no script and no plan. 

I got her voicemail. And what she got was a stupid, rambling, incoherent mess of a message from someone who was trying to be glib but wasn't. Someone who was trying to be funny but wasn't. And someone who wasn't trying to push themselves over into the reject pile, but did. 

What did I do wrong? Just about everything. So here are a few tips perhaps you can use to learn my mistakes.

  1. Know your audience. Think about who is on the other end of the email, voicemail, or even conference table and use that to inform and tailor the first words out of your mouth. Don't waste your biggest moments with small talk. Lead with your best stuff, and let them know right away that what you have to offer, or share, is of value to them. If you are communicating with someone for the first time, you probably need to keep it short and succinct, regardless. That is particularly true when leaving a voicemail, where you have no verbal cues and feedback about “how the conversation is going.” Above all, keep it professional. And don’t leave a VM with a reference to Austin Powers and mojo in the first 30 seconds as I did. Yes, I did.
  2. Know your intent. What are you trying to accomplish? What do you want to happen following this interaction? What's the action item? Determine the end game before the interaction begins.
  3. Have a plan. Now that you know what you want to accomplish, have at least a rough idea of how you are going to do that. If it's a phone call as it was in my case, maybe have one version of what you are going to say if a live person answers, and another if you are leaving a voicemail..
  4. Be deliberate. Own the moment. As Malcolm Gladwell chronicled so well in the book Blink, we all make very sophisticated decisions with very “thin slices” of information. The vast majority of what someone thinks of us, our company, our ideas, our whatever, is determined in just the first few seconds of an interaction. Make this work for you, and not against you, as I did. A strong first impression puts you well on the way to becoming someone people know, like and trust. On the other hand, a poor first impression is hard to recover from.
  5. Stick to the script. It’s sometimes easy to get lost in the moment and start freelancing and ad libbing. Don’t. It might work, but it might also backfire big time, as it did with me.

The summary

I did 3,000 news stories as a television news reporter and can think on my feet with the best of them. But I simply did not think this phone call through. I didn't hit the pause button after finishing my previous task. I didn’t give ample thought to what this hiring manager wanted from me. I didn’t work through my intent and I certainly didn’t have a plan or a script.

I winged it, simply picking up the phone, anxious to win her over with my energy and enthusiasm and whatever else I could throw into a three-minute voicemail.

Like any accident, there are a lot of variables in this scenario and if any of them had been different, maybe the outcome would have been different as well.

As it happened, there was a toxic stew of goofs and miscues and too much information combined with a lack of the right information that all conspired to make this hiring manager's job – move me on or move me out – all too easy.

In an attempt to repair the damage I had done to my hiring chances, I did send this HR Director a funny mea culpa video email where I tried to make light of my VM goof. She replied good naturally, and thanked me, and then basically said "no thanks." 

Lesson learned. So whether you are discussing an open position with a recruiter or HR person, or you are the one talking to candidates and doing the hiring, a little forethought and pausing to make a plan can dramatically improve the outcome.