One of the overlooked skills of PR practitioners and other communicators is listening – both literally (as any good manager or colleague should), and more broadly, as in hearing and interpreting the opinions and feedback of high-priority audiences.
These days, even with terrific social tools, listening can be a challenge. There’s the speed of digital communication, the sheer amount of information we’re expected to manage, and the nearly universal tendency to multitask.
In fact, a study based on the responses of 1000 corporate executives at top companies found that workers send and receive 1800 messages each day. That’s daunting enough for a typical manager, but it’s even worse for a professional communicator, where active listening is both a critical managerial skill and an important part of the PR professional’s role.
The bottom line is this: better communications technology doesn’t necessarily result in better communication. Here are some things to bear in mind that may.
Cultivate diverse sources. We’re so tied up in information monitoring for clients and industries that it’s easy to overlook simple give-and-take conversations with stakeholders who live in the “real world” – people like customers, employees, or distributors. Nobody knows more about a given brand or business than those on the front lines in functions like sales, customer service, and retail. An hour over lunch or a phone call listening to a partner’s perspective on a product or business is worth a thousand white papers.
Pay attention to the silence. From an employee, silence may not mean everything’s hunky dory. When it comes to a key constituency like the press, it can be deafening… and dangerous. Rather than make assumptions, ask questions.
Be attuned to non-verbal cues. When meeting someone in person, pay attention to body language, facial expressions, cadence, hesitation, and word choice. Become a master of the easy, open-ended question. Don’t fear the silence; often that old reporter’s trick of pausing for a moment or two after someone speaks will encourage them to keep talking.
Don’t interrupt. This one’s tough for most of us, particularly within business cultures that reward proactive communication and fast answers. But it pays to yield the floor.
Focus on your goals. We in public relations spend so much time and energy on message development and delivery that naturally we think what we have to say is the paramount goal. But that’s not always true. As a wise boss once said to me, “What you want to accomplish is more important than what you want to say.”