The Art of Not Talking


Competing for attention in the age of information overload

The barrage of information coming at us these days is constant and unrelenting. From our news and social media feeds to our overflowing inboxes to the screens of our computers, phones and televisions, we’re surrounded at every turn by someone or something vying for our attention and trying to force their voice or message to be heard above the raging din of noise. As communicators, our instinctual response usually goes something like this: be more creative, more outrageous, more entertaining, more shocking – the list goes on and on. We want to make sure that, no matter what, we’re talking louder than all the other guys so all eyes and ears are on us. But what if there’s more to it than just dialing up the volume? What if there’s a better way to stand out from the crowd?

Turn down the volume, turn up the engagement

Normal communication between humans is a two-way street, a give and take. So why should the interactions that occur between companies and their customers be any different? Better customer engagement starts with mastering the discipline of being willing to shut up and listen. Truly effective communication is not just a matter of making sure that our point of view or our sales pitch is being heard. Better customer engagement starts with mastering the discipline of – for lack of a better term – the willingness to shut up and listen. The concept of listening is certainly not new, but in the age of social media when everyone has their own soap box, it is practiced all too infrequently. I was struck anew by this fact a few months ago during a casual conversation with a friend. His family had experienced a couple of rough weeks, thanks to a stomach bug that was working its way through their household, so I asked for an update on how everyone was doing. To be clear: I genuinely cared for and wanted to hear about the well-being of his family. But no sooner had I asked the question than my mind immediately turned to thoughts of my own family and the health issues we’d been dealing with of late. The moment he stopped talking, I launched right into a litany of my own troubles. Whether he was aware of it or not, I had done a terrible job, not only of listening, but of being a good friend. There’s a similar danger when it comes to your company’s relationships with its customers. It’s easy to become so wrapped up in strategizing and crafting the communication that you want to send out into the world that you forget to consider your audience. However, today’s customers won’t stand for being force-fed one-way marketing messages. When they realize that you’ve tuned them out, they’ll do the same to you in return. The likelihood of falling into the trap of narcissistic communication is especially great for well-established companies. When you have a history of success, it’s easy to assume that everyone loves you and you can get by on the status quo. However, past victories are no guarantee of future performance. As soon as you start buying into your own myth and believing your own legend, you’re on the fast track to obsolescence. It’s time to stop talking and start listening.

Tune out the noise and respond to their needs

Obviously, listening is not the answer in and of itself. If the solution were that simple, then this piece would have been called the “art of listening.” Because we are so inundated with information, we’ve all gotten really good at multi-tasking. We maintain a constant juggling act of phone calls, emails, status updates, web surfing and work tasks without giving our full, undivided attention to any one of them. As a result, mastering the art of not talking requires you to do more than listen to your customers. It demands the self-discipline to shut out all the other noise so that you can actually hear what your customers are saying, recognize what they truly need or want and respond to meet those needs. Once you relinquish your tunnel vision about “this is the way we’ve always done things, this is the way we’ve always communicated, etc.” and learn to bow to the wisdom of your tribe, the path to business growth will be mapped out for you. You’ll know how to innovate because your customers have told you. You’ll be in a position to own your market because you’re not just out there making noise, you’re giving your tribe what they really want.

Achieve a better balance

The point is this: obviously there’s a time and place to express who you are, what your company stands for and what you have to offer. But don’t let that supersede the need to listen and listen well. Focus on the quality of your interactions, not the volume. Whatever you do, don’t equate the ability to make noise with the ability to get and keep customers. All too many people want to boast about how many times a day they tweet or how many different social profiles they maintain, but sheer volume means nothing if the information you’re broadcasting is mostly worthless and the quality of your interactions is shallow and superficial. Instead, concentrate on being a balanced communicator. Speak when necessary, listen voraciously and respond generously. Your customers will thank you with actions that amount to much more than just words.