Most people don’t really listen when someone’s talking to them.
They hear what’s being said, but they never go deeper to understand what that person is
asking for and why they want it. They don’t search for the message behind the words.
That failure to listen can lead to confusion because, often, the thing someone is asking for is not what they actually want. For example, if you were to visit an online forum for a popular video game, you’d notice that people are always asking for improvements. But these requests can be tricky for game developers. Say the players are asking for a specific feature, like faster cars in a racing game. They then get what they asked for, but they’re still unhappy. They asked for faster cars, but what they really wanted may have been more challenging content. Other times, people simply want something that significantly changes their experience as they are unhappy with the current experience. And again, they’re not sure how to say what they really want, and sometimes they don’t even know.
There are ways to avoid this confusion. When your audience, clients or customers ask for something, try to interpret what they’re saying. Put on your thinking cap, and figure out what they really want.
As I’ve learned over a decade in digital marketing, communication is as much listening to your audience as it is talking to them. Here’s how you can make sure you’re listening and communicating effectively:
1. Steer clear of the ‘what worked before’ trap.
No matter who your audience is, remember that interests and maturity are dynamic. The understanding you have of your audience will likely change over time. For instance, in marketing, it’s possible to lead customers on a journey and watch them grow over time. What may have worked last year might not resonate this year — possibly because of the path you’re leading them along.
Just because something worked before doesn’t mean it will work again. In fact, it’s almost guaranteed that it will stop working at some point. Be ready to change your tactics when that time comes.
2. If no one is listening, try something provocative.
Most people become so focused on how they’re communicating that they forget to ask one crucial question up front: Do I have my audience’s attention? It doesn’t matter how you’re communicating if you’re talking to a group that isn’t paying attention. We’ve all been in meetings where it feels like everyone in the room is checking their phones, doodling on their notepads or staring blankly out the window.
Sometimes, the audience you’re targeting is a larger version of those distracted officemates. That’s why every once in a while, I’ll do something a little odd in a meeting. One time. years ago, when I was giving a presentation, I put an apple on the table, cut it into pieces and put a piece in front of each person. l then went on to give a speech about sharing the pie (figuratively and literally), building something great together and all being an equally important part of the puzzle we were about to solve.
It was a little odd, and maybe a bit cheesy. But people can’t often ignore that kind of thing. It stands out and grabs their attention, even if it’s just to see what this guy with the apple is going to say next. In order to get an audience’s attention, you sometimes have to be a little provocative.
You’ve probably seen brands attempt this with aggressive, extraordinary or bizarre ads. You typically have to intrigue people before you can communicate with them. For example, instead of advertising a new type of pants and saying how great they are, you might have an influencer post an image showing the pocket of the pants but not revealing the whole product. Then maybe the next week, you have the influencer post a photo showing half of the full leg, building up the mystery and intrigue. Then gradually, you reveal the full product. This way, you’re leading your audience down a path and “slow dripping” information.
3. Test your message before sharing it with everyone.
Being provocative can be a solid strategy, as long as you’re sure more people will like it than not. As a prime example, Pepsi once did a commercial with a celebrity. The celebrity walked from a protesting crowd of people to hand a police officer a Pepsi, something the company probably thought would look like unity. Instead, the company immediately took heat for making people think it was trivializing a serious issue. Pepsi quickly pulled the ad.
It can be easy to go around the room and say, “Well, all 15 people in the company like it. We’re 100% assured of success — even our consultants agree.” Of course, the problem is that you have a small sample size and people with a strong bias toward the idea.
Instead, try to figure out whether the people who will be receiving the message will like it. You don’t necessarily need a focus group or a formal process to do this either. If I’m working with a company, for instance, and they’re about to put out a new product, I might write an article or a social media post hinting at what’s coming to see the initial reaction. Without sinking too much time and energy into it, I can find out how people will respond — or whether they’ll even engage at all. You can get plenty of information for the actual product launch that way and potentially avoid making a huge mistake in your communications.
Communicating is as much about being open to others’ input as it is about sharing your message. You’ll likely connect with your audience on a much deeper level if you take the time to listen to what they’re really saying and allow it to reframe the way you communicate.