How can something so easy be so
hard? This world is filled with people longing to be heard, but there are very
few willing or able to truly listen. Shut mouth, open ears. Is that really so
difficult? Obviously yes.
We've all heard of the manifold
benefits of listening. It is the key that unlocks the deeper dimensions of
human interaction. When we really listen, it indicates we care. That is
fundamental to creating trust. Listening enables understanding, empathy,
intimacy. It completes the communication process that connects people to
people. It builds and strengthens relationships.
In the business world, listening
positions us to better serve our customers. It illuminates their needs,
concerns, priorities, and aspirations. It shapes our value proposition. It
informs our strategy, validates our performance, guides our work processes.
Great listening skills define effective leaders. Great workplaces arise in
companies that listen to their employees.
We know this. So why is it so hard
to do? Why are all the benefits of better listening just beyond our reach? Most
of us have all the necessary equipment (ears); we just can't seem to turn it
on. Or turn up the volume. There's something blocking us. It's us.
Ego and expertise combine to erect a
formidable barrier to listening. The first step to becoming a better listener
is to simply care what the other person has to say. Sounds easy, but
self-interest gets in the way. It's been noted that most folks engage in two
primary activities when in conversation: (1) talking and (2) thinking about
what they're going to say next—with just enough listening to formulate the next
point they want to verbalize. Ouch! Guilty as charged.
Having something to say is also a
problem. Most of us "experts" are just bursting to share what we
know. Years ago I sold environmental services. Having come from the civil
engineering field, I had limited knowledge of what I was selling. So I learned
to ask good questions and listen carefully. Given the success I had, I surmised
that I had developed into an effective listener.
Not so. If my interactions at home
weren't evidence enough, I started my own consulting practice. Now I was
selling my expertise, not someone else's. I had a wealth of experience and
collected insights to share. Obviously, I wanted to be perceived as being
smart. So I opened my mouth—too much, in my opinion. And my previously strong
listening skills were suddenly missing in action.
Ego and expertise; do you have these
by chance? So how's your listening?
Something I've noticed over the
years: Most of the wisest people I've ever met were good listeners. Their
wisdom was evident in the questions they asked, and their measured responses.
They didn't need to say much to show how much they knew. Because they listened
so well, their comments tended to be right on the mark. Delivered with
pinpoint, rifle-shot accuracy, not the usual shotgun dispersion of facts and
opinions. They connected with their target audience because they knew them so
well, and seemed to genuinely care about them. They listened.
Doesn't that sound like the profile
of a great consultant, engineer, architect, manager, or business developer?
Shut mouth, open ears. Ask good questions, then really listen. Shouldn't be
that hard, but it is for most of us.
Maybe we need some practice. Let me
suggest an exercise, one that I too seldom draw upon. In your next
conversation, try to center your focus on the other party. I mean, really focus
on that person. Make listening, not talking, the priority. Don't let your mind
wander to what you'd like to say, or what you think about what is being said.
Just listen. Take your time, don't rush to fill any dead air. Formulate your
questions with some forethought.
The goal is to develop your capacity
for extrospection. That's defined as a "habitual
interest in or examination of matters outside oneself." Sure, there is
intrinsic value in putting others before self. This world would be a better
place if we had more of it. There are also substantial personal and professional
rewards for becoming a great listener, for being extrospective. Considering the
payoffs for all parties, it's just plain smart.
Turns out that dating is a rather
inefficient way to find your lifelong soulmate. More than nine of ten dating
relationships end in failure, often with painful heartbreak.
Enter online matchmaking services
like PerfectMatch and eHarmony. Twice as many online dating relationships
reputedly result in marriage as the old fashioned way. How can this be? These
sites claim their success is rooted in a process of screening for
compatibility, to a depth that is rarely pursued in traditional dating.
I confess I'm still a bit
uncomfortable with the notion of seeking a spouse online. But I'm always
looking for lessons. Is there something to be learned from matchmaking services
for those of us in the A/E industry? Maybe.
Our businesses depend on
relationships, and most of them don't last. Indeed, most of them don't even get
started. There's the awkward courtship phase where we throw ourselves at
practically every prospect who will talk to us. There's the expensive proposal
phase that ends in disappointment 60-70% of the time. Then for those clients
who will "go out" with us (i.e., sign a contract), most of those
relationships don't last either.
Isn't there a better way? I think
so. And, no, I haven't found an online client matchmaking site. But we can
still apply some of the same concepts on our own:
Commit to prioritizing
long-term relationships. There's a reason most people
eventually end up getting married. Sure, some aspects of the dating scene have
their appeal—meeting people, starting new relationships, walking away from
those that don't work. But most people ultimately want the stability,
commitment, and mutuality of matrimony. That's why many turn to online
In our business, the equivalent of
the dating scene is project pursuit. Many firms focus their business
development efforts more on gaining contracts than relationships. The recession
probably accelerated this trend. Many firms were desperate for work, and
writing proposals (albeit mostly losing ones) provided more immediate
gratification than the process of cultivating client relationships. That trend
still persists despite a better economy.
But there's a cost in taking that
approach. Project-focused business development is akin to feeding the furnace.
You need to keep throwing logs into the firebox to prevent it from going out.
Every day you're burning backlog. So you have to keep bringing in new projects
to keep from going under.
By contrast, your best client
relationships continue to generate new revenue for years. These are the
foundation of a sustainable, successful business. Long-term clients also
typically yield your highest profits, not to mention your most satisfying work.
So why do so few firms have a
relationship development strategy? Most of us would agree that bar hopping
isn't the best way to look for a long-term relationship. But isn't that
essentially what many A/E firms resort to in their efforts to secure new work?
A better way is to focus at least a substantial portion of your limited BD
resources on creating and nurturing great client relationships.
Define what constitutes a great
client relationship. I have a friend who recently married
a young lady he met through an online matchmaking site. They were initially
matched through information they had provided the site on specifically what
they were looking for in a spouse. Even from their first date, they openly
explored the potential and criteria for a long-term relationship.
Have you ever outlined what your
firm is looking for in the ideal client? If not, how then do you go about
looking for such relationships? Are you guided by your gut, or does it happen
mostly by chance?
I've conducted a few workshops where
an A/E firm and one of its best clients were seeking ways to further strengthen
their relationship. One of the exercises involved sending each party to
opposite corners and having them define the most important attributes of a
great client or a great consultant.
That has consistently resulted in a
fascinating revelation. They had never thought of the question before. Yet in
considering it, they were better able to identify specific ways to improve the
relationship. It's not unlike attending a marriage seminar where you and your
spouse clarify what you've long wanted but weren't quite getting from the
relationship. You leave wondering why you hadn't had that conversation before.
Let me encourage you to do the
exercise, if you haven't already: Schedule a brainstorming session to identity
what your firm values most in a great client relationship. Be as specific and
objective as possible so you can use these criteria to assess existing and
Screen prospects for long-term
relationship potential. eHarmony touts its 29
Dimensions of Compatibility as a tool for enhancing your chances of finding a
lasting and fulfilling relationship. The effectiveness of that system has been
debated, but clearly some kind of screening process is helpful.
Most firms have a go/no go decision
process at the RFP stage. But that's too late to determine whether you should
invest valuable time cultivating a relationship with that client. On the
contrary, the client's "compatibility" should be considered at the
qualifying stage—in other words, before you begin the process of relationship
Now I'm not suggesting that you
pursue only clients with long-term relationship potential. But this
kind of client should warrant your best BD efforts. In my experience, when you
invest in relationship development before the RFP, your win rate dramatically
improves. But not every client is interested in building a relationship, and
you probably don't want to work for every client who is either. So choose your
best opportunities based on the potential of the relationship and the mutual
Develop a plan for
strengthening existing client relationships. Matchmaking
sites may help you get started in a great relationship, but the true test comes
afterward. You have to work at relationships to make them lasting and
satisfying. And while most of us are relational by nature (i.e., we desire
relationships), many of us aren't natural in maintaining relationships. It
requires focused, disciplined effort.
How hard does your firm work at
maintaining your strategic relationships? Do you have a plan, have you committed resources, or do you play it
by ear? That can be a dangerous way to go. Check out my previous post on displacing incumbents and remember that's precisely what
your competitors are trying to do to you. Don't take your most important
relationships for granted.
Finding the right match is one
thing, but building those relationships is where your real strength as a firm
will be tested.
I've sat in on hundreds of
technically-themed presentations over the years and the vast majority of them
taxed my attention span. I suspect I'm not alone. That's a shame since, with
few exceptions, these presentations were intended to achieve something
important: to persuade, to inform, to impress—or not.
There are myriad reasons why
presentations fail. A common one is what might be called a "flat"
structure and delivery. In flat presentations, all content is essentially
treated as equivalent in importance and interest. It's a bit like watching a
movie about two men conversing around the dinner table. There may be a few who
find it intellectually stimulating (witness the positive reviews for the 1981
movie My Dinner with Andre), but most of us need some
dramatic peaks to hold our attention.
Thus my advice to add
"contours" to your presentations. This involves saying or doing
something to draw people's attention back to what you have to say. Perhaps
you've never considered the natural tendency of an audience to lose
attentiveness over the course of your presentation (as illustrated in the chart
below). But it's a real problem, especially with flat presentations. Adding
contours helps ensure that people are actually listening when you deliver your
A few suggestions for holding your
Give your presentation an
definable structure. Consider this outline: (1) Call to
Attention—opening comments designed to grab audience attention at its peak and
answer the question everyone is subconsciously asking: What's in this for me?; (2) Key Messages—3-5 important
points you want to make, with each serving as a transition (contour) point in
your presentation; (3) Call to Action—a summary of the high points of your
talk, with a requested response (approval, decision, selection, next steps,
etc.). A presentation without a definable structure is akin to a book without
Ask questions. Engaging
your audience in some conversation is one of the best ways to keep them
attentive. I usually mix questions where I actually expect a response with
rhetorical questions designed primarily to get the audience thinking. The
latter often provoke spontaneous comments and questions from audience members.
Refer to audience members by
name. This takes asking questions to the next level:
"Bill, what is the greatest challenge your firm faces in preparing for
shortlist presentations?" No one wants to be embarrassed by being asked a
question when they weren't paying attention. But if you're reluctant to put
people on the spot this way, you can still use audience member names to
increase attentiveness: "Now imagine I'm making my initial sales call to
Demonstrate something. Doing
something is always more compelling than talking about doing something. It also
can make things much easier to understand. It's even better if you engage the
audience in doing something. So for example, you could ask for a couple
audience members to help you act out a role play (which you prepared in
advance) to demonstrate the techniques you're trying to teach on how to deal
with difficult employees. On occasion I'll walk into the audience to engage a
few people in a brief hands-on demonstration or playful dialogue to make a
Tell a story. Stories
can bring otherwise dry topics to life. That's why case histories are popular.
But don't miss this critical point: Stories work because they connect with our
experiences, interests, and aspirations—in other words, our humanness. Technical professionals often misuse case
histories by focusing on technical features rather than the human dimensions of
the story. The best stories engage people at the emotional level.
Insert a few compelling
pictures or graphics. Visual images generally have
more impact than words. Some images stay with us long after the presentation is
over. Always consider how you might capture your most important messages
visually. A good image or graphic immediately gets people's attention, even
before it is explained.
Use a prop. A
prop can be a very effective way to capture audience attention, especially if
you can use it to drive home a point. I once brought my string trimmer to the
podium with me at the start of my talk. I didn't use it to illustrate a point
until towards the end, but people told me later that I had their attention
throughout because they were wondering how I would use it in my talk.
Share something that's
surprising or provocative. Technical professionals are
prone to be conservative in their presentations, avoiding anything that might
invite skepticism or disagreement. But that's also the recipe for boring. I
always try to challenge conventional wisdom at strategic points (contours) in
my presentations, such as presenting facts that some will find surprising, or
at least suggesting something that most in the audience have probably never
thought about before. Having something to say that's different is an effective way to keep people
There are a few other techniques I
could mention, but you get the point. Don't assume that you'll have your
audience's attention throughout. Instead determine at what points in your
presentation it will be most important for them to be fully tuned in. Then add
contours to increase attentiveness at those points. Doing this can help
you avoid falling flat in your next important presentation.
In business, you can hardly afford
to waste opportunities. Yet technical professionals are often ill-prepared to
give it their best when asked to make an important presentation. These
presentations can be critical to your firm's success. For example:
- Winning new work through shortlist interviews and sales
- Gaining community approval in public meetings
- Convincing regulators to accept your proposed solution
- Securing management support for a promising strategic
- Enhancing your reputation as a leading expert in your
Having coached numerous presentation
teams over the years, I must say that most struggle to put together and deliver
a powerful, compelling message. Perhaps it's productive to consider some of the
common reasons that presentations fall flat:
Failure to understand the
audience's needs and interests. It's important to establish
common ground with your audience. That's your platform for building trust,
without which you'll never be persuasive. The quickest way to establish trust
is to demonstrate that you care. And failing to know your audience makes it
awfully hard to show your concern. So do your homework up front. Learn all you
can about your audience, in particular, what their needs and interests are
relevant to your topic.
Nothing really compelling to
say. Technical professionals, especially engineers,
are generally conservative by nature and loathe to say anything that
might be questioned or considered provocative. Yet that's often just what needs
to be said. If you have to distinguish your firm, you need to bring a
perspective or a solution that's different than your competitors. If you're
seeking support for an innovative approach, you've got to shake up the status
quo. Don't be afraid to share your ideas, even if you don't yet have all the
evidence to back them up. Research indicates that speakers who challenge
their audience's thinking make the biggest impact and are most remembered.
Poorly structured presentation. Many
of the presentations I've heard in our industry are structurally flat, or what
I call lacking "contours." This means that the content is
presented as if it were all of equal importance. The presentation lacks the
high points that help provide context and renew audience attention. Having a
3-5 point presentation helps, but usually this problem is due as much to
delivery as organization. The presentation may have a few key points, but if
the speaker fails to appropriately emphasize them with voice inflection,
pauses, gestures, visual aids, etc., they may not register with the audience.
In writing, we insert section tabs or bold headings. Consider how you
can create the same effect verbally.
Lack of enthusiasm and
confidence. Many technical professionals are a bit uncomfortable
with public speaking, which is reflected in how they deliver their
presentation, giving them even more reason to be uncomfortable. It's a vicious
cycle. The first step to breaking out of this cycle is to convince yourself to
"just do it." Be enthusiastic; that will help overcome any lack of
polish. Your confidence should be grounded not in your speaking ability, but in
who you are and what you know. Obviously, the better prepared you are, the more
confident you should be. But a critical step towards greater comfort as a
speaker is not doing the following...
Failure to connect
interpersonally with the audience. Many speakers focus more on
acting out their scripts than interacting with their audience. This is where I
depart from the norm as a presentation coach. I encourage dialogue in your
presentation, even if it wasn't requested (such as in a shortlist interview). I
want the presenter(s) to engage the audience instead of just talking at them. Then
a wonderful thing happens: The speaker grows more comfortable, so does the
audience, and there's more productive communication. Even if you're speaking to
a large crowd, you can engage them. Ask questions, ask for a show of hands, get
them to do something, etc.
Ineffective (or even
distracting) visual aids. Many technical professionals
use slides more as speaker notes than visual aids. In fact, most slides I've
seen over the years aren't visual aids at all; they're visual distractions.
Keep this in mind: No one can read and listen at the same time. When you
display a wordy bullet slide (with all bullet points appearing at once), you
force the audience to choose. My guess is that most do a little reading and a
little listening, so that the net effect is they missed much of what you
presented. Keep bullet points short and bring them up one at a time. Better
still, use pictures and simple graphics. Make sure your visual aids are working for you instead of against you.