Do you listen to your listeners listening?

As a long-time watcher of advertising and marketing and then as a journalist, I find that communications are a very good muse to mull over. As a teenager and then in my younger days and perhaps even now, I am an admirer of humour, visualisation, a capacity to dazzle people with creativity and in general, be less boring. However, decades in journalism as a close observer of styles of people, the ability or tendency of people to absorb messages or visuals, and the idiosyncrasies of the human mind tell me that the business of communication is challenging and dynamic. It goes well beyond and beneath what creativity is ordinarily understood to be.

I find that there are different kinds of people with different predilections and absorptive capacities that makes any simplistic assumption not quite valid. As some advertising pundits say, it is more important to sell a product with your ads than win Golden Lion awards at Cannes. It might just be that if your target audience is a Bihari villager, the way to impress her may be quite different — and totally outside the mind zones of the jury members at Cannes.

Now imagine yourself as a manager trying to communicate with staff members who report to you. What would you do? Will you talk to them across the coffee table or just shout across the workspace? Or, will you summon them to the conference room and make an elaborate presentation with slides? Or will you mail them a spreadsheet that contains all sorts of data in tables and attach a covering note?

Everything depends on the context and purpose but very often it is important to be sensitive about whom you are talking to, in what circumstances, and how. If you can, try to figure out what kind of personality that the viewer/listener/reader has. I call this as listening to the listener listening. Do you listen to your listeners listening?

Here, I mean not literally listening with one’s ears but studying the person carefully in the act of absorbing a message — or not! This can be painful because not all communicatees (What a horrible word to use to club viewers and listeners and readers together!) are the same and especially in a crowd. And not all of them reveal what is going on in their minds. The one sitting with a deadpan expression may be understanding your point better than the one nodding away more to empathise with you or to pretend that he is getting the point.

As for use of words like “communicatee”  — I used the word intuitively and then used Google to discover that the word actually exists! I won’t use such a word except in the ironic context in which I am trying to tell you something about communication itself.

That brings me to jargon, numbers and visuals. Some people love jargon. They are like your bathroom slippers that may look awful to others but make you feel comfortable. So stuff like “moving up the value chain” and “net-net” and “going forward” are fine with market analysts but in a newsroom, decent editors would laugh at you if you used words like that. They would prefer that you use expressions such as “be more profitable” and “in sum” and “looking ahead” to express pretty much the same stuff in that order. Clichés and jargon are not encouraged in newsrooms but simple expressions and words that precisely convey a situation are just what the doctor ordered for the communicator.

But you have to listen to your listeners listening so that you can tailor your communication better. I often feel like a Bollywood producer who puts money on a project while not being sure if it would be a hit or a flop, because you can never tell with the audience. When I write an article, I find some pieces getting responses way below my expectations while others elicit surprisingly strong responses. Hindsight (as always) proves to be a great guru.

Most significantly, the success of your communication need not be about what you did or did not. It often is about where the viewer/listener/reader comes from and is trying to go. Getting the communication right is important and sometimes this can mean using a spectacular dazzle where a simple message won’t do while in others, a visual dazzle is useless where just throwing a simple data point (er, number) will do.

There is much more to communication than creativity or humour or information. Reputation managers need to spend more time structuring their communications than being Smart Alecs or bureaucrats. When getting a point across is the business, who wants a Golden Lion, really? (Though I must admit the fun and prestige are good!)

Madhavan Narayanan
N Madhavan is a senior journalist and editor who has worked for Reuters, Business Standard and Hindustan Times. He is currently an independent media entrepreneur, consultant and columnist.

He is listed among the top 200 Indian influencers on Twitter. He tweets as @madversity.

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