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Voices Carry

What havoc hath Alexander Graham Bell wrought?

Charlie had it all. He was suave, sophisticated, and he had three beautiful private eyes to do his bidding. Oh, sure, the real draw of Charlie's Angels wasn't Charlie. But while every other 11-year-old in America was ogling Cheryl Ladd, myself included, what I really coveted was The Voice coming from the box.

Fast forward to the 1990s. Nobody's heard Muzak like I've heard Muzak, and I get my messages returned not within hours, but within what seems like years. A few years ago, I delivered a voice mail so pathetic, I later parachuted out of an airplane, hoping to scare myself so badly that answering machines would no longer wrack my nerves. (It didn't work.)

Every year, $55 billion is spent by U.S. companies to train employees, with more than 60 percent of em learning how to use that phone better. Telephone skills are important. As entrepreneur Anna Bernstein of New York City says, "Your phone voice is your identity, and it has a lot to do with whether people trust you and want to do business with you."

I believe it. As a writer, I interview subjects on the phone, and have long-standing business relationships with publicists and editors, and yet I often only know these people through their voices. In fact, I've spoken dozens of time with the editors at Entrepreneur and, for all I know, the staff resembles The Addams Family. (However, I've heard many rumors they all strongly favor the cast of Melrose Place. And, after conversing for months with an unseen colleague, my mind naturally drifts: "I wonder how old this woman is. I wonder if she has blue eyes. I wonder what she would look like in leather and spike heels."

I guess it's just as well we sometimes don't see the people we hear. I once met an attractive editor for lunch, after a yearlong telephone business relationship. Her first words to me were, "You look different than I thought you would." She didn't elaborate; I was afraid to ask her to. Perhaps she wanted Tom Cruise and felt she got Tom Arnold.

Now e-mail is threatening to wipe out even voice contact, which could be a blessing. Should Charlie's Angels ever return, maybe ol' Chuck will deliver his assignments via a modem. If so, I'd like to start alerting casting agents now. I can type :-) with the best of them.

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Geoff Williams has written for numerous publications, including Entrepreneur, Consumer Reports, LIFE and Entertainment Weekly. He also is the author of Living Well with Bad Credit.

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This article was originally published in the May 1999 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Voices Carry.

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