Listen Up! Great Communication Does NOT Begin With The Message

We are preoccupied with messaging.

From 140 characters to sixty seconds; Pinterest to YouTube. From the candidate to the evening news anchor, we place a premium on what we say and how we say it.

The preoccupation is understandable. Personal experience underscores the value of being able to get our point across. Consider how quickly an infant learns that loud and frantic crying is a sure way to relieve the pangs of hunger.

But as innocent as its genesis might be, the obsession precipitates an approach to communication that, when mature, actually limits effectiveness.

We begin to believe that message delivery equates to the art of communication.

Oh, some of us enjoy discussing and hypothesizing over the science of it all. We query focus groups, pour over research and flirt with Big Data. But all too often this is simply prelude; what we really want to get to… what we are infatuated with and will invest in mightily is the art of it all.

From the moment we realize we have a point of view, let alone a measure of conviction or a product or service to sell, we want to do whatever it takes to get the word out. Narrative, elements of design and channels for distribution are the subject of attention and investment.

Possessing a message is exciting. Invigorating. And we rush to cast it about. Hear our message, World!

Yet, often when all is said and done – in spite of award-winning creative, jaw-dropping production and distribution genius – marketers are left to wonder what went wrong when efforts fall short. Or completely miss the mark.

If even part of this resonates, stick with me for a few more paragraphs. This is not about the problem; but about a solution.

Remembering Where Communication Begins

So enamored are we of the artistic tangibleswhat we say, how it is packaged, the tools of delivery – that we have almost completely lost sight of a critical and potent intangible – the creative dynamism of listening. Listening infers yielding the floor. We think of it as empty space – as silence. Golden, perhaps. But certainly not the first thing that comes to mind when one considers communication of import.

In a media-rich marketplace that shines a spotlight on delivery, it is easy to forget the fact that nothing is communicated until someone listens.

The most effective motivators and marketers have always known that the delivery of a message, no matter how creative or eloquent, is no guarantee of connection. Our experience as an infant notwithstanding, even possessing the ability and means to demand attention does not insure communication. Attention is fleeting.

Consider our case of the hungry infant. The effectiveness of messaging – without respect to how attention grabbing or “articulate” – is completely contingent on mother or father being on high alert. Proactive. Attentive even, to the multiple sounds of silence.

This is intentional listening. It has one goal — to tune in.

Here’s the proposition: though it may seem counter-intuitive to all that we’ve come to believe, communication begins with the intentional act of listening.  And, this proactive intent provides not just context, but the content of messaging that inspires and motivates.

Though perhaps counter intuitive, this is nothing new. Everyone familiar with Communication Theory 101 remembers the premise that connection occurs when interactions take place in the context of shared experiences. The further away from this common ground that we venture, the more meaningful connection becomes a challenge.

This is not to suggest that listening comes easy. The difficulty comes as audiences and messages become more complex and diverse. Given a large enough budget and plenty of time, it is easier to play the numbers game, broadcasting a message built around the lowest common denominator, and channeled to the masses.

After all, we have to market. And sell. How does one sell, absent a pitch? How can a brand expect to move its target, apart from persuasion?

Applying The Creative Art Of Intentional Listening

The identification of critical shared experiences – that rich environment that fosters connection, communication and action – resides in the all-too-rare art of intentional listening.

Intentional listening has only one agenda – to identify that place where connection and communication can occur. It is proactive, by design, with purpose, with ears wide open.

It does not begin with a focus on messaging.

And though the irony of talking about it as much as we are in this space is not lost, here is fodder for an on-going discussion.

Four Keys To Intentional Listening

1.  Begin By Asking To Whom Should We Be Listening?

…as opposed to “what should we be saying?” Somewhere along the way we managed to get these reversed and the proverbial cart jumped in front of the horse. But the most successful marketing and communication always begins with the target in mind.

2.  Take Note (Scrupulously) Of What Your Target Cares About

Use all the tools at your disposal. (By the way – some of the tools we tend to think of as delivery channels will speak volumes about what is most important to your target, IF we’ll listen) Find commonalities. Build on shared experiences. Listen close enough, and you will learn exactly what it takes to connect.  Build your connection strategy around shared experiences, interests, values and common needs. (If you are unable to identify this point of connection, return to number 1.)

3.  Remember The Arithmetic

We’re not talking budget here. Listen more than you talk…at minimum, twice as much.  Practically speaking, retweet more than you tweet your own message; seek opportunities for Q&A… and ask questions that promote conversations around what your target market values. If the only time you seek interaction or feedback is when you want to precipitate action on your behalf, your arithmetic is wrong. Intentional Listening is about what it takes to build relationship. It is not about exploiting a podium or pulpit. In short, give more than you expect to receive.

4.  Help Build

Build community around your idea, product or service by instigating conversation and collaboration. Be willing to facilitate organic growth. Facilitate connections. Invest more time in a cause important to your target, than you do asking them to join your cause.  This provides opportunities to listen; and is one of the roads to relationships based on shared experiences. There is dynamism in there.

The marketplace can, at the same time, be a firestorm of clichés and sound bites, and the rich conversations that inspire, motivate and change. Creating the latter is about hitting pause… and remember that great communication does not begin with a focus on messaging; but with the creative spark that comes with intentional listening.