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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Work Relationships

The Secret to Keeping Phone Calls Short and Sweet

woman on phone
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Whether you’re talking to a long-winded colleague, a not-so-interesting prospective partner, or a hyper-curious friend-of-a-friend who wants to learn about your career, there are times when it just seems impossible to get off the phone. But take it from me: Your time is precious, and it’s definitely worth mastering this art.

Now, you (almost) never want to be rude, but sometimes you do have to be a little aggressive if you’re going to reclaim your time. No matter what the situation, here are some tried-and-true tactics for keeping a phone call short.

1. Get to the Point Quickly

It’s easy to chat about the nice or terrible weather, your busy week, the latest industry gossip (“Did you see that article in TechCrunch?”), and a whole bunch of other semi-interesting things when you first pick up the phone. After all, nothing says “newbie” like launching into a barrage of questions before you’ve even said hello.

But unless the point of the call is relationship-building, don’t let this drag on more than a minute or so. Transition smoothly from your small talk into the meat of your conversation, using a line like, “Anyway, I'm excited to hear more about what you’re up to. How can I help?”

Also, remember that you can use this “chit-chat” to sneakily share a little of your latest news upfront—for example, “It’s been an exciting week here, we just closed two awesome new clients!” can go a long way if you’re on the phone with a prospective partner you want to impress. But after that, move on.

2. Keep the Call on Track

Even once you’ve managed to get to the point of the call, you may very well find your partner going on too long or getting off on a tangent. Maybe you don’t need to hear about all the new features they just launched to make a decision on your partnership; maybe you really don’t want to swap entire career path stories with the person you agreed to help talk to about growth strategy.

To get things back on track, say something that demonstrates you were definitely listening (“That’s so interesting you used to think about going into marketing—funny how life surprises us!”) and instantly segue into the point of the call. (“In any case, what I was hoping to ask you about is… ” or “It sounds like it's been crazy over there! Your email said you had a few questions for me—how can I help?”)

3. Follow the 19-Minute Rule

I credit this one to a colleague of mine, who was once appalled that I spent 45 minutes on the phone chatting to a potential partner about a fairly low-value and straightforward deal. And to be fair, much of the conversation had drifted into good-for-relationship-building territory—during a time that, quite frankly, I was sleeping five hours a night and barely taking dinner breaks.

So, she gave me this rule: Try to get off the phone in 19 minutes. I told her that was impossible without being rude. But once I started challenging myself with that goal, I was a whole lot more likely to cut the small talk—still chit-chatting at minute 10 was definitely no longer acceptable—and keep conversation on point. Obviously, there were times when keeping it that short just wasn’t going to be appropriate, but I was surprised by how often 19 minutes was actually more than enough.

4. Have a Hard Stop—or a Dying Phone

Finally, nothing can help wrap up a conversation like communicating that you have to get off the phone. Whether its an important call you have to go to (with one of your clients, with an investor, with your boss’ boss) or your phone is dying “because you’ve been on back-to-back calls all day,” a surefire way to guide a conversation to its close is to give a nice excuse of why you have to hang up.

I’ve found it most effective—and least rude—to mention your next meeting (or low battery) toward the beginning of your conversation, or 10-15 minutes before you intend to wrap up. Saying, “Just want to give you a heads up—I only have about 10 more minutes, so we’ll have to do our best” is a great way to let the person on the other end of the phone know that your hard stop is coming, and it lets you present it in a way that is considerate and trying to make the most of the situation. It’s also less awkward than saying, “Hey, I have to get off the phone now—sorry!”

Keeping phone calls short is bit of an art, but it’s one that will serve you well when you need those precious minutes back in your day. The trick, of course, is to do it without being rude.

On that note, a final word of advice: While you should be polite, don’t let your politeness land you another phone call. I made the mistake only once of saying, “I’m so sorry we have to cut this short, but I’d be happy to continue this conversation another time.” Lesson learned: Only offer more time if you mean it. Otherwise, just end with “Hope that was helpful—it was great talking to you!” or “This has been really interesting—I look forward to sharing with my team and will follow up by email.”