We have all done it: left a voicemail we should not have. You may be thinking, “How can I delete this voicemail I just sent?” Most of the time, this won’t be possible. It is possible to put out the fire, though.

Still on the Phone?

If you have not hung up, you may be able to remotely delete the voicemail and avoid disaster. You can rerecord your message, depending on the service provider of the recipient’s cell phone. Listen for the option from the recipient’s voicemail menu, or try these:

  • For AT&T, try *P
  • For Sprint, try * or #, then 3P
  • For T-Mobile, try #, then 3P
  • For Verizon, try *P

This isn’t guaranteed but usually works. You have to know the provider of the person you are calling, not your provider.

Just Hung Up?

As soon as you hang up, triage your situation. You may have committed one of four errors:

  • Omitted details
  • Badly worded the message
  • Used offensive words or an accusatory tone
  • Gone completely blank and left incoherent nonsense

If it’s an error of omission, take a breath, scribble down the important information you forgot on the first voicemail, and call back. Clearly identify yourself without referring to your first feeble attempt. State your name, provide a contact number, say you are following up a previous voicemail, and then read what you wrote. You will avoid odd pauses and restatements if you read from a note. End by providing your contact number again.

If you chose your words poorly for the first voicemail, you have all the more reason to jot down reminders to yourself about what you really wanted to say. Begin with a contact number before writing your message. Take a few moments to collect your thoughts, then quietly read aloud what you intend to say (rehearsing helps you think more clearly). Breathe evenly and a little deeper than normal before calling (it calms your nerves), and call back. Expect to get voicemail and be ready with the important facts: state your name clearly and slowly, explain that you want to clarify the meaning of your previous message, and read from your notes. End with your contact number again and then hang up. Do not ramble on with apologies or explanations.

If you left a truly wretched message full of inappropriate words, or your tone sounded accusatory or openly angry, you must apologize. You still need to convey important information, but in an emotionally mature way. Again, jot down what you actually intend the other person to know (without the invective), then call, state your name clearly, and provide a contact number. Simply say, “I apologize for my previous message. It was inappropriate. I wanted you to know…” Then provide your contact number again. Do not use the words, “I’m sorry,” because you can still sound hostile, as in, “I’m sorry I wasted my breath on you,” even if that is not what you are actually saying. The word “apologize” cannot convey any other tone but contrition.

If you left some sort of rambling vocalization that will make the recipient think a baby or your butt dialed their voicemail, own it and move on. Call back, state your name and a contact number. Here, too, succinctly apologize, state your real intent, and move on: “This is Sally Peprally at 123-555-4567 and I apologize for my previous voicemail. I became momentarily distracted. I am calling regarding the…and my number is 123-555-4567. I look forward to hearing from you.”

Since everyone understands feelings of overwork, mental exhaustion and too much technology, most professionals and business colleagues will not revisit your voicemail misfire. You need to remember to let it go, too.