Help, People Can’t Understand Me on the Phone!

“I hate talking on the phone!” My new client complained, “I get so stressed out every time.”

She is far from alone for help. For many of my accent clients, phone conversations are a real challenge. They often report feeling embarrassed, frustrated, anxious, even demoralized.

To make matters worse, in today’s work world, conference calls and video conferencing have increasingly replaced in-person meetings, a trend that the pandemic has accelerated. These calls can affect customer satisfaction, work relations, professional growth, and even the future direction of your company.

Much of our face-to-face communication is non-verbal, through body language, facial expressions, eye gaze, and pointing help … Phone calls not only eliminate all of these gestural cues but also deprive us of the visual cue of lip movements. To make matters worse, the sound quality on the phone is never as good as in person.

Is your accent a barrier to clear communication on the phone? Do not fret. Here are my top tips that will make a difference immediately:

1. Rehearse keywords and phrases

Write down the important words and phrases you need for the phone conversation. This can even include people’s names, places, and company names. Get a native speaker to record these keywords and phrases. Practice saying them. This will improve the clarity of your speech and give you a boost of confidence right away.

2. Set up your environment for optimal communication

Talk into the phone receiver or help to use a high-quality headset; avoid using speakerphones. Do not cradle the phone on your shoulder.

Avoid background noise. Avoid multitasking when taking a phone call. Practice proper body posture. If you can, stand up. An upright body posture helps voice projection, which helps the clarity of your speech.

3. Slow down

Slowing your speech rate will give you more time to enunciate the speech sounds properly and give your listener more time to process what you’ve said.

Here are three tips on how to slow down the rate of speech:

a) Exaggerate your mouth movements

b) Speak louder – Phone audio is not as clear as in-person audio. Speaking louder will make you sound clearer AND has the added advantage of automatically making your mouth movements bigger and slowing down your rate of articulation.

c) Pause at natural phrasal boundaries – Insert short pauses after phrases like you would use commas and semi-colons in your writing. Use slightly longer pauses to convert key points and indicate a change in topic.

4. Use the correct intonation for your message

Intonation is the rising and falling pitch level used to convey our intentions or emotions. Intonation patterns are language-specific and even dialect-specific. Different intonation patterns can express statements, questions, unfinished thoughts, emotions such as anger, confusion, sarcasm…

Using the correct intonation pattern has a significant impact on the clarity of your message. To compensate for the lack of visual cues on the phone, intonation patterns become even more crucial. The same sentence said with different intonations gives completely different messages.

5. Pay attention to your listener

Listeners often will make noises or say small phrases that indicate they have understood or not. Check to be sure the listener has understood important points, as often people pretend to understand out of politeness. If the listener did not understand, repeat, rephrase or spell the word out.


Talking on the phone doesn’t have to be a stressful and detrimental event with the proper preparation and compensatory strategies. However, no compensatory strategy can replace working on your speech per se.

If your accent is getting in the way of clear communication, whether in person or on the phone, consider accent modification training with a qualified professional.

I have helped countless non-native speakers become confident communicators. Reach out to me today and find out how I can make a difference in your life.

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