Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Marketers and Communications Pros - Listen and Listen Well

Five Tips for Bringing Back the Lost Art of Listening

As a marketing consultant and writer, I often collaborate on client projects with other marketing and communications consultants retained by the clients.  The purpose is usually to (1) collect information about the client’s business, strategy, products or expertise; (2) obtain the client’s feedback on programs that we have created; or (3) brainstorm with the client.

Collaborating with other professionals is almost always a good thing. It gives me the opportunity to work with other professionals who have complementary skills and who share my interest in making the client successful.

However, in the last few years, I have noticed a disturbing trend.  Many marketing and communications people don’t listen – usually to the detriment of the client and the project.

Here are a few examples of what I mean. 

  • In interviewing a CEO, a PR person loses critical time from a tight 30-minute timeslot with his ham-handed attempt at bonding with the CEO.  The false start not only wastes time, but also gets the “speed” interview off to a false start, from which it never truly recovers.
  • The head of a PR firm talks on and on about social media 101, without taking a breath. She is apparently unaware of the client’s familiarity with the subject – and his growing irritation in being talked down to.
  • In conducting an interview with a customer for a case study, a marketing person deviates on the very first question on the list that was sent to the customer in advance. Instead of asking the short, open-ended question, the marketer twists it into a loaded question that reflects his own biases – and shows how “smart” he is. The customer is so confused that she asks that the question be repeated.  The interview is derailed, and the client’s careful preparation wasted.
In all three cases, the problem was lack of listening.  The PR person, agency head and the marketer were all intent on talking about themselves or talking to themselves instead of listening to the client. They were falling short on their jobs as professional communicators: understanding what the other person wants, needs and values – and what knowledge he can contribute to the project or program. 

I’m certainly not immune to this.  Recently, I caught myself blathering on and on about some obscure detail.  The client was polite but annoyed, and I apologized later for not being a better listener.

One challenge:  Technology can often work against us.  Many meetings and interactions today take place over the telephone or via audio-only Web conferences. Without the benefit of body language, we often lose important cues about whether we are talking too much, or whether the listener is confused, irritated or bored.  In addition, even the best communications systems introduce a time delay – even if it is barely perceptible – creating an asynchronous discussion.  As a result, we should all listen harder and be more creative in our approaches to listening.

Here are five tips for being a better professional listener:

Stick to the agenda: If the purpose of your conversation is mainly to elicit information from the client, put your energy and focus on that. When preparing for conducting a telephone interview, I usually send along a short bio in advance with my list of questions. The list of questions also includes a sentence about the goal of the interview. This cuts down the need for extraneous conversation before you get to work listening.

Stop selling:  Don’t waste time selling yourself – you’ve already got the business, or you wouldn’t be on the call, right?  Conversely, if you’re already on shaky ground, you’ll just make things worse.  In arranging the call or conference, send a brief agenda with names and titles in advance. I am amazed at how many meetings or calls waste time with introductions – an open-ended opportunity for people to sell themselves, based on their agendas – when simple business etiquette could have nipped this in the bud.

Slow down:  Speak clearly and more slowly than you do in person. Take a beat at the end of sentences, so people have an opportunity to break in and ask a question or make a comment. This will help prevent the conversation from getting off track.

Don’t assume:  Before delving into a soliloquy about a subject, ask your audience about his level of familiarity; then adjust your explanation accordingly. You’ll win points for empathy and brevity, as well as save some energy.  Everyone wins.

Watch” for verbal cues:  Train yourself to listen for verbal cues in people’s voices: irritation, satisfaction, confusion and so on.  Some body language does come through the phone line or the web. This is the reason that I always try to smile when I am on telephone calls – and sit up straight so that I don’t compress my diaphragm and “depress” my speech. People can tell.  Hint: practice recognizing body language with your spouse or business partner. Have him or her talk to you with various facial expressions, while you have your eyes closed.

Whenever you’re in doubt about the value of talking, stop and take a breath.  You’ll feel better – and just maybe jog yourself back into creative listening.

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