Persuasive communication

How to Talk So People Listen

Do you sometimes feel like you’re talking to yourself? Do people start to look at their phones a few seconds after you start speaking to them? Do you have trouble getting people to return your calls and emails?

If the answers to any of these questions make you uncomfortable, you might want to take stock of what you’re saying and how you’re saying it. The first step is to figure out why people won’t listen. Maybe it’s because:

  • You waste their time
  • They don’t trust you
  • You’re boring

The solution is simple: anything you say must be relevant, true to the best of your knowledge or ability to verify, and stated in a way that is clear, concise and compelling.

Relevant. This is the most important principle for being heard. Attention is a scarce commodity these days, so if you want it, you have to give something of value in return. Is it something they care about? Will it improve their life in some way? Do you filter what you say through the “so what” test? Do you know enough about the other party and their situation to add value? In conversation, do you listen with the intent to understand, and then reply with something meaningful? Do you adapt to their style instead of making them adapt to yours?

True. Content is still king, and yours had better be solid if you want to gain and maintain personal credibility. Just as a restaurant with great atmosphere and fine china in the world won’t stay open long if it uses rotten ingredients, being articulate and forceful won’t help you if others perceive you’re full of BS. Do you have sufficient, accurate and relevant evidence to back up your statements? If you’re hoping to influence someone decision, have you prepared to the point where you can anticipate and answer their main questions?

Clear. Make it easy for them to understand you. Simplification is not “dumbing it down”—it’s getting to the essence and stating it in direct, unambiguous language. If people can’t understand what you’re saying, they’re unlikely to make the effort to listen. Are you addicted to meaningless, multi-syllabic buzz words? Do you use big words in an effort to make yourself sound more intelligent? Do you speak in vague generalities? Do you speak with excessive “ums” and other filler words?

Concise. Part of not wasting someone’s time is being efficient in the time it takes to express your thoughts. This goes hand in hand with being clear, because the effort to be concise exposes the fuzziness of your thinking. Do you get right to the point, or do you backtrack, go down blind alleys and meander like a spy who thinks he’s being followed? Do you give the bottom line up front so that they don’t have to endure all the context?

If people trust you and you don’t waste their time, you may not have to worry about the third problem—being boring. But just in case, the fifth principle may help:

Compelling. Techniques that can make your speech compelling and memorable include using vivid language, unique and interesting stories, apt analogies, and painting word pictures. But the best way to be interesting to someone else, paradoxically, is to be interested in them. Perhaps the greatest value you can bring to someone in a conversation is to make them feel good about themselves. Think about it: people love to talk about their kids, but look for the exits when others talk about their own.  Being interested in others will also make you more empathetic, which enables you to tap into the emotions that resonate with others.

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