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It’s How You Say it — Not What You Say — That’ll Influence Gatekeepers and Candidates

by Dec 28, 2012, 5:54 am ET

There is no index of character so sure as the voice. – Benjamin Disraeli, British prime minister and novelist 1804-1881

When we open our mouths, we reveal all sorts of things about ourselves that can have nothing to do with the words we’re using.

We all know that our tone is important when talking with a Gatekeeper, but how many of us realize that pressing on just one word in a sentence can change the impression and sometimes even the meaning that the emphasis gives?

In all of our jobs there are times when we must think about how we’re going to say something (in order to get the best result) before we say it. So my advice below applies not just to phone sourcing but to any recruiting or business-related call, such as a call with a job candidate, not just a gatekeeper.

Nuances that include inflection, stress, and context are all meaningful signals that convey information but inflection is the one that can change entirely the meaning of a sentence and the idea(s) behind it.

The emphasis on a particular word implies additional information than what the words say.

Say the following sentences with emphasis on each bolded word.

I’m trying to reach …

I’m trying to reach …

I’m trying to reach

The emphasis on “I’m” inI’m trying to reach …” implies a sort of cold haughtiness that a Gatekeeper might react negatively to.

The emphasis on “trying” in I’m trying to reach…” implies a kind of frustration that might elicit a Gatekeeper’s helpfulness. It can also give an impression of anger — of terseness, which is not nearly so likely to evoke a helpful response.

The emphasis on “reach” in “I’m trying to reach …” implies a subtle pleasantness; a direct statement that in a way alerts a Gatekeeper you’re in earnest and also, at the same time, can elicit a willingness to assist you. It can also, again, imply frustration.

The above could lead to a negative Gatekeeper response, a positive Gatekeeper response, and an example where the response could go either way.

Which is which?

Let’s do it again. Notice how the emphasis placed on each different word draws the listener’s attention, indicating that the word is important somehow.

Can you please transfer me?

Can you please transfer me?

Can you please transfer me?

Can you please transfer me?” with the emphasis on “can” is a question within a question. Is she able (or is she not able) to transfer you?  Many Gatekeepers will attest to the fact that she can transfer you and thereby many times will transfer you.

“Can you please transfer me?” sends an impatient message; one in which a Gatekeeper could take umbrage. She hears it as a hotheaded command and in these instances is not nearly as likely to answer positively what you’re asking for. It can also sound as a polite request, can’t it?

“Can you please transfer me?” can sound either imperative, short-tempered, or a simple request. The first two are likely to meet difficult responses and the last is more likely to be put through without too much ado.

It is possible to say a sentence with no emphasis on any words. Can you please transfer me?” said with all words said alike will usually be met with politeness; in the same vein it was received.

One more time:

I might have my information wrong …

I might have my information wrong …

I might have my information wrong …

I might have my information wrong …

I might have my information wrong

“I might have my information wrong …” sounds as if you’re maybe checking with the Gatekeeper inviting her correction to your faulty facts. Once she corrects you, there’s a natural tendency to then comply with your later request.

“I might have my information wrong …” is almost asking the Gatekeeper to comply with you regardless the veracity of your information.

“I might have my information wrong …” tells the Gatekeeper (subtly challenging) that maybe your information is wrong but surely there’s someone there (maybe her) who has things right!

“I might have my information wrong …” sounds testy — rather irritated.

“I might have my information wrong …” says that regardless if I do or not, I expect her to comply with my request.

Of the five instances above which is most likely to elicit cooperation from the Gatekeeper?

I invite you to share your responses to the way in which you would say the above sentences and share them with us!

This article is provided for informational purposes only and is not intended to offer specific legal advice. You should consult your legal counsel regarding any threatened or pending litigation.

  • Brian Kevin Johnston

    Yep, Attitude (tonality/disposition) Is Everything Maureen… Thanks For Sharing…

  • Josh Tolan

    Really interesting post! Many people don’t really consider that how they say things can have a big unintended impact on how they come across to others. It truly isn’t always what you say, but how you say it. This is true in a phone conversation or even in a video interview. Just because someone can see you face-to-face doesn’t mean the tone of your voice or the words you emphasize no longer hold sway. Before connecting with a great candidate take a second to think about how you want to present yourself.

  • Ken Schmitt

    An important discussion to have. Sometimes I think the use of email and text has really clouded the tone of many conversations. often, we can not read the “speaker’s” intent so we draw our own conclusions. As the speaker, we assume everyone understands our tone when we send a quick message. That assumption has spilled over into verbal conversations as well. It is important for us to stop and think about our words before they ever leave our mouths. That moment of pause often allows us to hear what could be heard, even if it wasn’t what we intended.
    Ken Schmitt

  • Bruce B

    Hi Maureen. Thanks for the post!

    When I read he examples in your post, I can’t help but think that a lot is left to “cultural interpretation” as well. For the most part, I can identify with all the emphasis you placed in the above examples, but in some cases, I could see other interpretative versions as well based on country-cultural influences…? Yours or anyone else’s thoughts please? Thanks again. Bruce.

  • Howard Adamsky

    As per usual, we see why Maureen is simply the best at what she does.

    She has answers to questions that people did not even know were questions in the first place.

    Wonderful article.

  • Maureen Sharib


    I do believe there’s many nuances in communication across cultures.
    Can you share with us your experiences?


  • Jean Jones

    Wonderful article! Sometimes smiling (while on the phone) adds to the intonation as well.