As humans, we suck at listening.
And that’s bad for marketing and copywriting.
One study found that 50% of adults couldn’t describe the content of a 10-minute oral presentation just moments after hearing it. Results from 48 hours after hearing the talk were even worse: 75% of the listeners couldn’t even recall the subject matter.
But it’s not our fault.
We can safely blame science. The science of listening actually prevents you from being a better listener. Turns out our brains have the capacity to digest up to 400 words per minute of information. Even a rapid-fire speaker from New York City can only say around 125 words per minute.
If we do the math, that means your brain is idle for roughly 75% of the time someone is speaking to you.
Brains don’t like to be idle.
Brains like motion, activity, movement – DOING.
Our oddly wired brains aren’t the only problem; we can also blame social media for our half-assed listening behaviors. Consider the rules of social media marketing, which focus on making and rewarding noise:
- You should share several times a day (source)
- You should engage frequently by publishing content people want and participating in forums (source)
- The more shares you’ve got, the more shares you’ll get
- The more followers you’ve got, the more followers you’ll get
Success metrics for YouTube are all about counting views, subscribers, likes and comments. Google / YouTube naturally rewards views with cold hard cash. When you make enough noise frequently enough that people hear said noise, you get rewarded. Even trolls get rewarded (with tons of attention) for adding to the noise.
As marketers, we’re so used to pushing noise that it’s hard to stop and listen.
Listening is an act you won’t be rewarded for. Not like you will for making noise.
Think about it: does anyone receive rewards from others, like upvotes or ad revenue, for listening?
I’m not talking about rewards for being quiet – not at all. I’m talking about social, financial and other rewards for showing that you’ve listened. Commenters don’t get rewarded. There is no mechanism in place to easily reward people who actually took in and processed what you said in your YouTube video, blog post or Facebook Live. The reward goes to the noisemaker. There is no social reward – and no subsequent dopamine release – for the listener.
We’re trained to talk not listen.
When we think of great leaders, we recognize the great talkers, such as Bill Clinton or Barack Obama, rather than the quiet ones who listen. I challenge you to name three leaders who preferred an open ear to filling the void with words. How many of your past employers have quietly taken in what you’ve said, processed it and – only after truly listening to you – responded to you? How many boardroom conversations go like that?
In his book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Steven Covey explains our desire to speak – not to listen – as our desire to be understood:
“If you’re like most people, you probably seek first to be understood. You want to get your point across. And in doing so, you may ignore the other person completely, pretend that you’re listening, selectively hear only certain parts of the conversation, or attentively focus on only the words being said, but miss the meaning entirely.”
Now as I’m writing this, I’m conscious of the fact that a few of y’all may be thinking this:
“Oh, but I AM a great listener. I hear and could repeat back to you every word you said to me.”
Hearing is using your ears to listen to noises; listening is making meaning from sound. So, to be a great listener, we must make meaning from – aka understand – what other people say.
To do that, we use different ways of listening like these:
- Pattern recognition: You can pick out your name when it’s spoken in a crowded room.
- Selective muting: You’ll ignore a sound that’s repeated excessively.
- Unconscious filters: You’ll mute or amplify what you’re hearing based on a range of unconscious filters – culture, language, values, beliefs, expectations, intentions – that create your reality.
We’re gonna get into how to be a great listener soon. But here’s a simple starting point: To be a good listener, your job is to be an engaged, active participant in the conversation. Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman of Zenger/Folkman, a leadership development consultancy, put it in clear terms:
“[Good listeners are people] you can bounce ideas off of – and rather than absorbing your ideas and energy, they amplify, energize and clarify your thinking. They make you feel better – not merely passively absorbing – but by actively supporting.”
Being active and engaged is a huge part of listening.
And here’s why listening is so important to marketers:
When we listen to our customers, non-customers and readers, we can fix business problems using what they tell us. And then cool things happen. Like suddenly you see a 52% uplift in conversions (like Moz did after hosting live customer interviews). Or you establish a stronger value prop, like Jen Havice did. Or you know what product to build – Jobs to Be Done consultants at The Rewired Group famously use voice-of-customer data to recommend new products to some of the world’s most innovative companies.
As marketers, our whole job is to listen. All of your best copy comes from what customers say – not what’s inside your head – as Jo has talked about:
- Twice at Business of Software
- On podcasts like this one and this one
- At Wistiafest and Learn Inbound and Content Jam
- And in a million other places
But you have to be able to listen well in order to get great marketing and copy wins. Your customers don’t need to hear you. You need to hear them. And then you need to process what they told you. And mirror back what you heard. With the empathy that comes only after you’ve really listened.
So here’s a masterclass in the art and science of listening, starting with the basics:
- Put your smartphone on airplane mode when you’re talking with someone. Yes, actually do this.
- Shut the door to the room when you’re talking with someone in it. Yes, actually do this.
- Focus on the conversation that’s happening right where you are. Yes, actually do this.
Now here are 8 better ways to listen better to your customers, your teammates, your boss – everyone.
#1 – Ask better, more intentional questions
When you try to understand your customers by listening to them, you create a safe environment. Sometimes this is as simple as engaging with the right questions.
One of the easiest questions to ask for best results: “Why?”
In Steven Telio’s article on conducting customer interviews, he explains why “Why?” is so powerful for marketers:
“If you need more detail, keep asking why. The process is a variant of cause-and-effect thinking, and through a series of ‘whys’ the questioner can drill down to a specific level.”
The question “Why?” gets you into the nitty-gritty. To be clear, you don’t have to ask it as a monosyllabic “Why?” each time. You can rephrase it into a partial summary that really shows you’re listening, like “I heard you say you love Basecamp software. Why is that?”
That said, your entire conversation should be more than just asking why (although you can get super-far with that question alone). Also try asking questions that both force you to listen and show your speaker you a) heard what she said, b) understood it and c) desire more insight from her.
To do this requires you ask better questions.
So, when the convo stalls – or you sense the speaker is holding back on you – ask one of these questions:
- How did you feel when _______ happened?
- Tell me a little more.
- Why do you think that is?
- What you said about _______ is really interesting. Can you elaborate?
By now, you may be starting to notice that asking good questions and listening better will not only improve your skills as a marketer… but will also make you a better contributor to work discussions, a more trustworthy freelancer, a more available partner and/or member of your family… even a better world citizen. Yeah, even that. Listening is kinduvabigdeal.
#2 – Be empathetic and curious
You build empathy like you build super-fast typing skills: with time and practice. And you should build empathy. Because it plays a huge part in business. That’s because business is about meeting human needs, explains Thai Nguyen. If you don’t understand another human’s needs, you will find it impossible to meet them as a business. And that’s gonna make doing business painful and not profitable (AKA not what you want).
So be empathetic and try to understand your customer’s life, struggles and desires. Not through your eyes. But through theirs.
While you’re digging into empathy, you may find yourself increasingly curious about what your customers are going through. Curiosity in conversation is part of a skill that Krista Tippett, author of Becoming Wise, calls “generous listening.”
“It involves a kind of vulnerability – a willingness to be surprised, to let go of assumptions and take in ambiguity. The listener wants to understand the humanity behind the words of the other…”
Both empathy and curiosity are at the heart of great copywriting, great UX – all the most important stuff in product marketing today.
#3 – Take GOOD notes
Maybe you’re already taking notes during a convo. I know I do. Because I’ve gotta see the words written down in order to retain them.
But unless your notes help you understand others – and plan your response – they’re practically useless.
So try this…
Sabina Nawaz, global CEO coach, has the ultimate effective listening hack for you: the Margin Notes technique:
“Margin Notes allows you to think, process information, make connections between points of discussion and ask effective questions instead of blurting out the first thing that comes to mind.”
During your next interview with a user or a customer, divide your page into two sections: body and margin. Now here’s what you put in each:
- Body: capture only what the other person is saying. Aim for key points vs verbatim.
- Margin: write down your ideas, judgments, rebuttals and questions for each point.
Your page will ultimately look like this:
When you speak in the interview, only talk about notes from your side of the Margin Notes that haven’t been addressed. Cross them off as you go down the list.
You’ll listen better by using your Margin Notes to:
- Write down themes from your main notes
- Capture your questions and flag them to ask at the appropriate time
- Test your assumptions
- Pay attention to what’s not said but communicated via body language
When it’s your turn to talk, remember: you don’t have to share everything in your Margin Notes. Just the relevant stuff.
#4 – Throughout the conversation, recap what you hear
To quiet your restless mind, Genevieve Conti suggests that you review and summarize the main points of the user or customer you’re listening to.
When they’re finished talking, you restate the points.
Double-check that you’ve understood their message by saying things like, “What I hear you saying is…” or “When you say that, do you mean ____?”
When you practice this technique, you:
- Process information better,
- Pay more attention to your speaker’s message and meaning, and
- Make people feel heard (AKA the biggest benefit as when someone feels heard, they feel understood).
Also – big important side note – the word “So” is your best friend when summarizing, according to Julian Treasure.
#5 – Listen to the non-verbal conversation, too
In a world of texting and Slack chatting, it’s more than a little possible that our ability to read body language needs improvement. The screens we stare at impact our basic ability to read another’s emotional state – like an eyebrow’s twitch, small smile, scratch behind an ear and the other the small hints of body language shown in this TEDx talk:
With our advance towards smartphones, we’ve crippled our ability to connect. This isn’t a surprise to you, but it needs to be said. Because it’s a ginormous problem. Sherry Turkle, MIT sociologist and author of Reclaiming Conversation, has studied how our devices are killing the art of conversation:
“Because conversation is the most human and humanizing thing that we do. It’s where empathy is born, where intimacy is born—because of eye contact, because we can hear the tones of another person’s voice, sense their body movements, sense their presence. It’s where we learn about other people.”
Reclaim the lost art of conversation by learning about micro-expressions (i.e. small quick facial expressions) and eye reading.
Good actors – think Meryl Streep, Gary Oldman – intuitively use these gestures. Practically speaking, start watching TV or movies with the volume down so you can read what each character is feeling and saying. (BTW, this is best done with subtle dramas, not action movies where plot lines are formulaic.)
Try it yourself. Watch this clip from Doubt on MUTE and guess what the characters in the scene are thinking.
#6 – “Listen around the edges”
Brendan Salter, owner of Salter Mediation, thought he had good listening skills from when he was senior management in a national company. When he became a mediator – a skilled negotiator between two suing parties – he found out that he had the wrong idea of listening:
“I realise listening is not only paying attention to the words being spoken but how they are being spoken, the use of language and of voice and how the speaker uses their body… and perceiving and understanding these messages.”
Humans are wired for a need to belong, as psychologists Roy F. Baumeister of Case Western Reserve University and Mark R. Leary of Wake Forest University found. Your speaker – or interviewee, customer, non-customer, email reader – wants to connect with you. They want you to understand them.
Good listening is that connection’s bridge.
Kathleen Milligan, business coach, has been called one of the world’s best listeners by NLP Canada. I emailed her to find out how understanding manifests in a conversation. She wrote:
“Once given the space to share, relief and connection quickly develop. The information will come as time passes. Know your experience in the moment. And, when listening to the speaker, let it be their experience.”
Milligan suggests that, in your next conversation, give your speaker the space to share. Your role is to practice the generous listening that Tippett notes, where you:
- Listen to your speaker’s voice
- Hear how it rises and falls
- Note the pauses in between words
- Listen for the spots where your speaker needs a prompting question to keep the momentum going
- Keep the focus – or experience – on your speaker
“I listen around the edges,” says Milligan, who conducts her out-of-town client sessions via phone. “I follow patterns and – especially without having a visual – I am extra-tuned into the places where changes occur: like voice tone, breathing patterns and tension eases or tightens. There are many unconscious similarities in everyone’s story.”
Now it’s your turn. Hit play on this video, close your eyes and practice your listening skills.
#7 – Quiet your mind (so it doesn’t try to interrupt your listening)
Now I know that practicing silence in a world buzzing with noise is hard. But it’s oh-so necessary. And I’m not talking about “escaping from the chaos by plugging in headphones.” Instead, to be a better listener, you need to key into the everyday silence in your world.
One of the easiest ways is to practice meditation.
Now here’s a heads-up: When you meditate – and follow in the footsteps of greats like Jeff Weiner, Jerry Seinfield, Oprah Winfrey – you often start with a quick taste of failure. Am I doing this right? Why isn’t it working? Just like you can’t expect to make a hole-in-one the first time you step onto the golf green, you can’t expect to reach new spiritual levels on your first try with meditation. Instead, you practice. Every day, you show up with the goal of improving yesterday’s success.
Soon your mind settles down into the silence.
I promise you: quieting your mind will happen. For the past two years, I’ve been practicing meditation. On stressful days when deadlines loom, the blank page sneers, my toddler won’t nap and I’m up shit creek without a paddle… mediation keeps me sane.
“The picture we have is that mindfulness practice increases one’s ability to recruit higher order, pre-frontal cortex regions in order to down-regulate lower-order brain activity,” says Adrienne Taren, a University of Pittsburgh researcher studying mindfulness. That higher order cortex region is associated with awareness, concentration and decision-making… AKA your must-needed ingredients to listen well
And then: bring that practice into your next conversation when you need focused concentration.
#8 – Don’t just listen to the words – listen to “the layers” of noise
The cluttered noise at a coffee shop is only noise if you think of it that way.
Instead, try thinking of the sounds around you as layered sounds… and treat those as mini-opportunities to fine-hone your listening skills. How? By picking out each sound layer.
Julian Treasure suggests you listen in a sort of “mixer” mode. How many channels of sound do you hear? Sit where you are right now and identify the layers of sound around you. It might be a jet cutting through the sky 20,000 feet above you, a garbage truck breaking, your cat stretching over your keyboard, your chair squealing as you adjust, the blinds of your open window lightly tapping the window frame, a breeze rustling the tree leaves in your backyard. These are all layers. The more you practice identifying and listening to them, the better you get at turning some up, turning some down and focusing only on the layers you want to listen to.
Seth Horowitz, auditory neuroscientist at Brown University and author of The Universal Sense: How Hearing Shapes the Mind, recommends you train yourself to be a better listener by:
- Listening to new music rather than familiar tunes.
- Listening to your dog’s whines and barks: he is not bugging with you – he is trying to communicate with you.
- Listening to your significant other’s voice – not only to the words, but to the sounds under them, the emotions carried in the harmonics.
When you pay attention to the details in your world, your listening skills strengthen.
So the next time you’re going into a customer interview or taking a user support call or interviewing a prospect about their needs, do the above… and also take a few moments to breathe. Seriously. Just breathe deep. This readies your body to listen. Think of the difference between taking ten minutes to stretch before a soccer match… or running onto the field, muscles cold.
This “warm-up” is vital, according to Milligan:
“I prepare to listen by listening to first myself (i.e. what is going on in my body). So I can listen to the information shared through the stories that live in the other person’s body and know the difference.”
Carve out 5 minutes before your next convo to close your eyes and listen to your breath… feeling your chest rise and fall. It’ll tune you into listening for those subtle changes in your speaker’s voice. So you know when – and how – to ask delicate questions or “Why?” once more.
PS: For all the word nerds and bookworms in the house, you may already be a good listener. Research from York University has shown that fiction-reading activates neuronal pathways in the brain. Those pathways help the reader better understand real human emotion, thereby improving their overall social skillfulness.
Another study showed that individuals who read literary fiction (vs popular fiction, nonfiction or not reading at all) had significantly higher Theory of Mind scores, which measures a set of skills crucial for navigating complex interpersonal relationships. In other words, when you read more fiction, you strengthen your empathy, thereby improving your generous listening… thereby increasing your ability to understand the world from another’s perspective.