Listen Through the Noise

Much is written these days about the unprecedented tools communications professionals have to aid them in listening to the audiences they seek to reach. Many of you may find yourself regularly analyzing the results of Google alerts, RSS feeds, and results from social media and news search services like Meltwater and Netvibes, from social curation platforms like Percolate, or from real-time Twitter management platforms like HootSuite.

But the data returned from these tools may be doing little to actually help you listen. What’s worse, the bombardment of all this information may be drowning out your ability to focus on the true meaning of what your audience is saying.

Over the past several years, those of us in the communications field have put increasing emphasis on the mechanics of hearing our audiences—on finding tools that can measure results of our initiatives, give us clues as to the online sentiment being expressed that may affect our company’s reputation, identify service issues to respond to, and so on. But little is discussed or written about how companies get better at the actual act of listening, which – by the way – takes approximately two-thirds more energy than it does to talk.

So why is it so hard to listen to our audiences and decipher what we’re listening to in our professional lives? Perhaps it’s in part because we lost sight somewhere along the way of that COMM 101 tenet: that communication is more about deep listening than it is about talking. That mentality leads us to talk at abstract audiences who we really don’t know or understand. But it might also lead to us doing the same thing to our colleagues on a daily basis.

Research compiled by the International Listening Association notes that most people are in some way distracted about three quarters of the time we are supposed to be listening. Yet business studies regularly indicate that listening is one of the most vital parts of our daily work life.

We found that true at Peppercomm as well. As an agency, we often pride ourselves in our ability to listen to our clients, to our clients’ audiences, and to apply what we hear to the strategies and approaches we propose. It’s even in our tagline – Listen. Engage. Repeat.

Yet, as proud, strong listeners, we recognize this is a skill best practiced and not something you either have or not. Enter a tailored listening workshop intended to help our staff fine tune traditional listening skills. This involved employing an external consultant to come in, assess our listening skills through staff and management discussions, and then develop a tailored program to address of the areas we wanted to focus on. The sessions include a variety of methods: lecture, video, roleplaying and brainstorming to help us get to the bottom of what impedes great listening at work.

What we learned? We are decent listeners, but we sometimes hinder our own ability to listen effectively. In essence, our behaviors can get in the way of optimal listening.

As we learned at Peppercomm, before we can learn to listen better to external audiences, perhaps we first have to focus on strengthen our day-to-day ability to listen to our colleagues, clients, business partners, and media contacts in one-on-one settings. Here are a few tips that might assist you, and that we’re also placing greater emphasis on at our own firm:

  • Come prepared. When you meet with someone, call them, or even email them, come to that conversation having done your homework. Build in enough time between meetings or responses to make sure you go in prepared. Otherwise, you may spend most of the interaction trying to get up to speed and lose out on the chance to actually pay attention to what the other person is saying.
  • Uni-task. If you deem a conversation worth having or an email worth writing, put your full focus on that communication while you are in it. Often, we miss what others are saying because we aren’t really paying close attention. For those of us who live a work life that is often rushed, we sometimes get into a mode of constantly distracted engagement.
  • Don’t just think about what you want to say next. When you’re listening to the other side of a conversation or reading an email response, wholly think about what that person is saying, not just what you intend to say in response and when you can find the opening to say it. Often, we prescribe what people are saying based on a script we’ve already written in our head and pay little attention to what they actually have to say.
  • Repeat key messages to ensure what you inferred was what the person intended. Often, the prejudices and assumptions we bring to communication means we hear things the speaker never intended to say. Repeating back what we understood a colleague to say can help ensure that we don’t walk away from a conversation with very different meanings of what just took place.
  • Apply basic communications principles to electronic communications. Often, those of us who pride ourselves on being good in-person communicators quickly lose sight of these basic tenets when we’re IMing or emailing a colleague. But concentrating on listening is especially vital in such media, where we are already communicating without the advantage of reading people’s nonverbal cues and hearing the tone and inflections of their voice.
  • Practice. Even the best listeners can lose the skill if not honed often. We’re about half-way through training our staff on traditional listening skills and will be providing ongoing refresher courses with an external trainer to keep our listening ears in good working order.

The more effective we are as listeners to our colleagues in our day-to-day work, the better we might be able to push ourselves to listen to the audiences outside our walls…those we don’t know personally, but with whom we are tasked to communicate with and deeply understand. If we can begin to think about members of the audiences we’re trying to reach as complex human beings rather than analytics, traffic, targets, or results, we’ll more likely engage with them and provide insights about what those audiences care about back to the company.

Sara Whitman is Senior Director and Sam Ford is Director of Audience Engagement at Peppercomm, an award-winning strategic communications and marketing firm. Find Sara on Twitter @sjwhitty and Sam on Twitter @Sam_Ford.



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