10 Rules of Great Voicemails: The art of leaving good voicemails

You never know how stupid you are until you have to leave lots of voicemail messages.


I’ve had to call a large number of principals (school principals) over the past week or so, and like most busy leaders, at least three quarters of them were unavailable. Which means that a voicemail is usually the best option to get a message through.

There’s a reason that leaving moronic voicemails is a comedic sitcom staple – leaving a good voicemail is harder than it seems. Especially for those of us who prefer to email, skype, IM, or talk in person, and usually shy away ancient telephonic technology.

Fortunately, most voicemail systems these days are smart enough to let you erase and re-record you message. And double fortunately, once you’ve done it a couple of times, you get your facts straight and get used to speaking to a machine.

The really odd thing is that you need to pace yourself. Your message has to be short, or it won’t get listened to. But it has to be long enough to get the reason for your call across. The critical thing is not spitting it out like a machine gun, but pausing for breath – as if you were talking to a human being – even though you’re actually talking to a machine.

Now that I’m an instant voicemail expert, here’s John’s 10 Rules of Great Voicemails™:

  1. Keep it short: less than 90 seconds long
  2. Get the good stuff out first: 15 seconds in, if you haven’t gotten her attention, her finger’s on the delete key
  3. Pace yourself: speak in short phrases, with pauses for breath and thought
  4. Edit to the essentials: you don’t have to say as much as you think you do
  5. Repeat your number: nothing is worse than having to replay a voicemail three times because the person – who knows his own number like the back of his hand – spit it out in three seconds flat
  6. Reference a relationship: if you can, explain how you and the person you’re leaving a message for are connected … e.g., when we met at the conference. If you can’t do this, at least …
  7. Reference a commonality: mention a common friend, or the contact who directed you to this person, or the package you just sent
  8. Answer the WIIFM: as they listen to your voicemail, busy people will be asking themselves: what’s in it for me? why should I bother returning this call?
  9. Be loud: better to be a little loud than too soft (within reason!)
  10. And finally, SMILE: yes, you do talk differently when you’re smiling

1 CommentLeave a comment

  • Great stuff.

    I’m always taken aback when I think about how business folks leave millions of voicemails and yet there is little, if any, training on how to leave a good one.

    Thanks for being a voice of reason.