Last Updated Jan 13, 2011 12:17 AM EST
Get to the Verb. When you get your contact's voice mail, be brief and direct -- something a buddy of mine calls "getting to the verb." Voice mail is not an appropriate forum for long messages with a lot of context, and if you try to convey too much information, you'll get deleted or forgotten. If you absolutely have to tell a story, send it in e-mail.
Don't be Mysterious. Some people seem to think that they stand a better chance of getting a call back is by keeping the ultimate goal of the call a mystery. Hence, a message like: "Steve, this is Dave Johnson. Please call me back." This is not the same thing as "getting to the verb." Without articulating the purpose of the call, it's likely to be disregarded.
Emphasize What You Can Do for Them. Here's the depressing truth: People are more likely to return your call if they're going to get something out of the deal. Frame the message so it's clear what they'll get out of returning your call. If you need something from them, figure out a creative way to give something up in exchange, and emphasize that. Need a partner's cooperation for a project? The message should be an offer to take him or her to lunch, or to share some client lists. Save your "ask" for the return call.
Respond in Kind. There's a hierarchy to communication that ranges from the least intrusive -- like e-mail -- to increasingly invasive (texting, IM, phone, and the in-person cold call). Once started, most people expect message exchanges to maintain parity. If I e-mail you, for example, you should reply to my e-mail, not pick up the phone and call me. Replying to my e-mail with a phone call might be appropriate on occasion, but in general it can be perceived as pushy and invasive, which makes it more likely to be ignored. Keep your replies at the same level for best results.
Don't Embarrass Yourself. You're trying to get a business contact to call you back -- not get a date to the prom. Voicemail etiquette demands that you stay neutral and professional, even if this is the third message you've left. Don't claim it's urgent, an emergency, or a time-limited offer. Don't plead. And now that I think about it, none of those things will help you get a prom date, either.