Creative designer David Kustin was sitting comfortably behind a steaming cup of coffee at our conference table. He was starting to tell me about his background and how he got into the branding business.
“I’m a South Florida native,” he said. (I’m a South Florida native too, I thought. Wonder where he was born.)
“…went to FIU,” he continued. (FIU? My son is about to graduate from FIU. My wife got her master’s degree at FIU. I’m on their President’s Circle board. That reminds me, I need to call them.)
“…and then I moved out to LA…” (Hey, my sister lived in LA. My friend Brian lives there too. I’ve got to go to LA soon to try and sell our new TV show project. Oh yeah, I’ve got to call Michael and Chris about that project. Should I write that down so I don’t forget?)
That’s when it hit me. During Dave’s passionate and interesting pitch, I was thinking about myself and about things that concerned me. Am I really that selfish and self-centered? And if I am, are others as well? How often have I been making a sales presentation or just having a simple conversation where the person I was talking to wasn’t hearing what I was saying because they were too busy hearing what they were thinking?
How often have you suffered from the same problem?
For the next week I did an experiment. In every conversation and interaction, I would try to focus my entire attention on the words and responses of the person I was talking with. If they’d interrupt me when I was talking, I’d stop speaking immediately — even if I was in the middle of a sentence or a word. I’d just stop dead in my tracks, mid-word, and listen.
Rather than tell my own story or try to further my own agenda, I would only ask questions designed to get the other person to talk. And when I needed to write an email or a note to someone, I would give careful consideration to what the other person cared about and crafted my words only to embrace their interests.
Want to know what I discovered?
In every single instance, the person I was talking to happily filled in the gaps in my spiel and told me more about their activities and interests. Even when I stopped talking mid-word, not one person noticed, stopped, and said, “Oh, I’m sorry, I interrupted you. Please continue.” Instead they went on their way, chattering happily about whatever subject they found interesting. I learned more than I ever thought possible about Bruce Springsteen, how local government works, using Pinterest, the future of health care, and the difference between ophthalmologists and optometrists.
The comedian Gary Shandling built an entire career on the simple question, “How’s my hair look?” But my casual research would suggest that a better way to build your career would be to compliment somebody else’s hair and ask them how they keep it so shiny, manageable, full, dark, thick, wavy, straight, curly, beautiful, glossy, or whatever, and then shut up and listen.
If my theory is correct, it’s little wonder that the typical lines overheard at networking events all sound like this:
“You look great.”
“Love your hair.”
“Love your tie.”
“You lose weight?”
“How’re your folks?”
“How’re your kids?”
“How’s your dog?”
“Let’s do breakfast / lunch / dinner.”
“Have your service call my service.”
“Gimme your card.”
Each line is just a little bon mot tossed off with the sole intention of reassuring the listener that the speaker cares passionately about them. After all, they say that the two keys to a compelling presentation are honesty and sincerity…and when you can fake that, the rest is easy.
Pardon me if I sound cynical — that’s not my intention. What I want to make crystal clear is that whether we’re having a conversation with one person at a party, Facebooking to hundreds, Tweeting to thousands or sending advertising messages to millions, the way to connect is to make sure we’re talking to our audiences and focusing on what they care most about.
Come to think about it, that’s why the first chapter and branding rule in my latest book Building Brand Value is titled, “All About Them.” And if you keep this in mind when crafting your communications, you’re on the right path to getting the response you’re hoping for, too.