Do We Talk Too Much?


For those of us active in the social media space, I’m not talking about listening to what your customers say about your brand by monitoring “listening tools” like Twitter Search and Google Alerts. I’m talking about actually listening to people sitting across the table from you.

A fellow PR pro I’ve know for a few years called me to say that she was helping develop a new business presentation for a potential client. They were using a PowerPoint deck that was typically used by the agency for its credibility discussions with potential clients. She was struggling with the fact that it was more than 80 slides and all 80 were about her agency. She felt like it was a bit over the top and wanted my opinion.

For the record, she didn’t divulge the potential client or any information from, on or about the PowerPoint deck other than what I’ve just told you.

Here’s my opinion. Too many times we marketing types talk way too much and don’t listen nearly enough. We spend the entire hour or two in that first meeting with a potential client talking about what makes us great, what makes us different and what previous work sets us apart.

The first problem, in my humble opinion, is that we don’t actually sound that different from each other. I’ve seen credibility documents from other agencies and you’re fooling yourself if you don’t think that a lot of the time agencies sound the same. I’ve even heard some folks on the corporate side say as much after a glass of wine or two.

Of course some of us work hard to truly differentiate ourselves from the pack and actually be different. But even then we can fall into the trap of talking too much. So here’s what I said to my friend.

  • What if you spent as much time in that first meeting talking about them as you do talking about you?
  • What if you spent half the time (or less) sharing your agency’s background, two or three relevant case studies and a couple tidbits that show how smart you’ve gotten about their category in a short amount of time?
  • What if you asked what keeps them up at night?
  • For that matter, what if you asked more questions altogether?

The truth is that people can tell how smart you are as much by the questions you ask as by the things you say. So what if we asked more questions and engaged potential clients in conversations, instead of leaving five minutes at the end for Q&A?

This doesn’t only apply to potential clients, by the way. We should be listening – really listening – to all our clients. As I’ve said before, your clients are someone else’s potential clients. As my friend Leo Bottary says, client service isn’t always about doing what no one else can do; it’s about doing what anyone can do, but just doesn’t.

I challenged my friend to nicely push back a bit with her supervisors if she felt strongly enough that the presentation was too long and too focused on the agency. In the end, though, it won’t surprise me if that presentation doesn’t change much. After all, we’re human. And humans like to talk about themselves.

Do you think we listen enough? What practices do you incorporate to help you talk less and listen more?

*Image by Striatic.

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18 responses to “Do We Talk Too Much?

  1. Great post David. There’s an old saying about humans having two ears and only mouth because we’re supposed to listen twice as much as we talk.

    I am amazed when PR firms end up spending too much time talking about themselves. They should spend the time showing clients what they know about them and their industry and then even more time on Q&A and discussion.

    The potential client probably didn’t call you without doing some basic research first, so there’s no need to repeat all of that.

    Just hit the highlights and get to the point of the meeting: establishing a rapport and showing not what you can do, but what you can do for them.

  2. David,

    Solid post on an important topic. I was at a small biz and non-profit holiday networking event last week, I found myself talking a tad too much; as an extrovert – that can be all too easy in that setting.

    After initial chit chat with a small group, I got on a roll talking about how social media can help them reach potential clients or members. I checked myself, asking “Is this info useful? Sorry, I get passionate about this stuff.”

    The three people said several versions of “Yes, good info…I know I need to do this.” But my pause also left space for a couple of questions; which in turn allowed me to target what I was saying to their needs. I addressed the questions, then asked a few myself and managed to reach a good balance. I’ll admit, I probably came on a bit strong at first, but I finished smoother.

    My thought here is, that it’s not just during the creation of a presentation, but we need to remember to check in with prospects and clients during the the entire process – before, during and after we connect with them.

    One of those people contacted me to see if we can work together. In this follow-up setting, I am definitely asking more questions to define their needs, and see where my skills and experience fit.

  3. yeah… i agree with Ari… we have two ears so we rcan listen twice as much as we talk. Sometimes we forget to listen.
    The important point in communication is to listen, because listening will make us connect with others.

  4. @Ari I have never heard that saying but I love it!

    Listening has always been one of the hardest things. Half the time when we think we are listening we are really focusing on what we are going to say next, so even then, we really aren’t listening.

    I once saw a woman by the name of Nancy Kline speak. She speaks all over the world and has a book titled “Time to Think: Listening to Ignite the Human Mind.” Nancy makes some excellent points in her book (I would strongly encourage you to put it on your list of books to read). What I took away from Nancy’s speech was that we really never give the other person time to think. We are generally so eager to jump in with our own “expertise” and our experiences (especially during awakrd silences and such) that we really never give them any time to think through things themselves. If we just listened, really listened, without thinking about what we were going to say next or what brilliant solutions we could present, their concerns (and often solutions) present themselves. While we may think, as professionals, that we have to offer an immediate solution, or come up with something brilliant in order to impress our client, Nancy argues that listening alone makes the others feel empowered, a buy-in in itself.
    Thanks 🙂

  5. I pity your friend having to go through the ‘dog and pony’ show. Likely one of the least successful means of a) getting attention and therefore b) success.

    I tend to think that in a biz pitch the prelims of ‘who we are’ have been covered off… otherwise why is the prospect even talking to you? That said I agree that some elements of ‘background’ can be useful IF they are put into the context of ‘and this is how we will apply our expertise to solving your problem x’ or something similarly relevant.

    In a biz pitch, do the appropriate industry/competitor research; a SWOT analysis; etc to demonstrate not how great you are, but how willing you are to engage in your client’s business. That also will expose questions that need to be asked… ones that will reveal what want to say about how you plan on building a relationship, goals and challenges and so forth. This also has the effect of keeping discussions at the appropriate level … no need to talk tactics until the Strategy has been agreed upon.

    There’s a time and place for everything, of course. And as any good presentation coach will tell you a PPoint of 80 slides is only going to get your audience to tune out (heck a comprehensive agency overview, if needed, shouldn’t take more than 20 slides max!). We need to inform, engage, inspire and even entertain when we present. In that way we stand a better chance of being heard. Keeping things focused on challenges and solutions indicates forward thinking. Talking about what you’ve done is navel gazing in the past tense.

    More information is gained by asking than by telling – as the saying Ari mentioned suggests! (I’ve heard that one too Ari and I love it!) That’s as true when talking to a prospect as it is a journalist. In essence when we present we are ‘selling’ be that our business, a story, information, whatever.

    But one of the critical pieces to ‘selling’ is the differentiation between ‘what I want to say’ and ‘what my audience wants/needs to hear’. That relates to something called The Buying Conversation. How often when we win new biz or secure a hit do we turn around and ask the ‘buyer’ what drove their decision? When you ask questions like that, you begin to truly see things from the ‘other’ perspective. This kind of understanding pays enormous dividends down the road. If I know the challenges a company in industry X faces not because I assume them, but because I’ve been told first hand… well then I’m on to something.

    And that can only be accomplished if we ask, and listen.

    I’ll admit, I’ve been lucky enough to work with people and agencies that believe that the presentation isn’t about us… it’s about the client and building the relationship. Can’t do that if all we’re doing is flapping our gums.

  6. @ari adler – i love that line. there’s really no way to argue against that.

    @cathywebsavvyPR – an a fellow extrovert, i can empathize. i, too, try to stay conscious of how much i’m talking in a conversation. the way i do that is by asking questions. you have to stay engaged to be able to ask questions. plus, i like details, so i usually have lots of questions when others are talking. i like for stories to be rich and colorful.

    @prjack – this is why i heart you. great insights. I especially love:

    “Keeping things focused on challenges and solutions indicates forward thinking. Talking about what you’ve done is navel gazing in the past tense.”

    Thanks for sharing your wisdom!

  7. Bravo, David! Great post and advice!

    New business pitches can be challenging no matter what your level of experience. You want to get across all of the great things that your firm has done and what you can do for the client in a limited amount of time.

    When I started pitching business, I was reminded of a sales tactic from a car dealer I once knew: Give them your elevator pitch and then let them talk. You can round out the conversation on the flip side with your benefits.

    This has served me well in initial business pitches, and creates a more conversational meeting than a traditional PowerPoint pitch – which I think is appreciated and more productive.

  8. Boy, David. You hit on a pet issue of mine.

    I was a professional fundraiser for several years, did business development and client services also before moving into marketing. It’s a rampant issue. Here’s the secret: you’re not making a presentation to win a job. More often, you’re making it to lose it.

    Agencies especially love to discuss themselves, flaunt their qualifications and achievements. But if you haven’t shut up long enough to START the presentation by talking to the potential client and asking what problem you’re trying to help them solve, how exactly do you know which of your achievements is relevant?

    I’m a renegade, I guess, but I detest PPT presentations in biz development pitches. It’s a prop and a crutch. I always have one in case it has pertinent information, but every successful pitch I’ve ever made has started with a series of questions to the client, and a discussion of their real needs. How do I know it works? $60 million raised for non profits and businesses that grew.

    Sales are made plain and simple because you allow someone to articulate a problem, and you’re able to match it to a solution that you offer. Period. The only way to get there is through listening in the first place.

    Fabulous post.

  9. Amen, brutha!

    In fact, I’d even caution against asking them what keeps them up @ night, since some of my C-suite connections have lately bemoaned the ubiquity of that question from all vendors.

    Authenticity, engagement, value. Those are the holy trinity of any customer relationship in any sector.

  10. Brilliant post! (who uses ppt slides anymore – how boring!) lol
    As a graphic designer, when I meet with new clients I hardly EVER talk about myself. I am more interested in asking them about their business, their core values, how they want to be “seen” in their visual communications, and what their plan is to accomplish this. This opens up a great dialogue and they understand that *I* care about their business and will be working from *their core values* when I design for them.
    Bottom line: it is my genuine interest in them that sells the deal (well and a kick ass portfolio doesn’t hurt either!) lol
    Again great post!

  11. Great post – and VERY true. When I do initial meetings with new customers – I generally make them talk about themselves, their business, goals, their roles and such… For me, the best way to develop a new relationship is to LEARN about my customer and what makes them tick. They need to know they are important part of the puzzle.

    The best is when I catch them off guard because they think I’ll do all the talking. Always makes me smile.

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

  12. Superb advice, David.

    Let’s face it – you’ve been invited to pitch because the potential client already knows a bit about you. So why not go in, ask them what their ultimate goal is, what timescale is involved, what market they want and then say a simple phrase:

    “Okay – let’s sit down and work together to create something great.”

    The key phrase is TOGETHER – if the client wants to know about your expertise in that field, you can be sure they’ll ask.

    Besides, how are you ever going to really know what your client wants if they never get a chance to speak?

  13. Yes, good post, I’m really thinking much about this these days as I find my ghost-blogging position typical of what my I think my PR agency sold to its client. I can even figure out the meeting
    PR agency – “so THIS is the web and YOU are here (somewhere NOT on the picture), we will get you IN the pic”
    firm – “ow, but I…”
    PR agency – “Yes you’re RIGHT, but we are RIGHTER !”.
    As a result, after a month working on the ghost-platform for the firm, I can say it is totally irrelevant, and worst, I still don’t know what was the intention at the first level, and I’d say my Pr agency doesn’t know it either cause they didn’t listen.
    Another connection, as I’m a reader of many psychoanalysis book, I’d say those firms willing to have some work done by a PR agency are actually like patients (not crazy patients, just patients having questions, as you say “that wake them up at night”), the PR agency being a psychoanalyst not listening to it (often the case) and edicting a treatment irrelevant to the “problem”.

  14. Great post and comments as usual, David. Now here’s a question – say you’re going to talk more about the prospect or client than about the agency (80-85%), but you do still want to give them a little agency info (15-20%). Do you start with the client info and close with your info, or the other way around? This is something I wonder about every time we do a presentation.

  15. I think the talk about yourself too much syndrome escalates as you move up in the ranks. Senior leadership gets so used to talking about themselves day after day that it becomes almost second nature. I’m not bashing leadership by any means. I think it simply comes with their job. But what will turn a good agency from a great agency is taking a second to pause and think of questions you can ask. It is fighting nature, but it wil pay off in the end.

  16. Great post David, and a wonderful, thougthful reminder. This subject is one of the aspects of being a sole practitioner that really works for me. At agencies, I always felt like new biz pitches were sales jobs – and often success was quantity v. quality. Get the account! But, is it a good fit? Who cares, get those billings up!

    As a solo PR pro, my first meetings with potential clients are filled with questions. I do research ahead of time, but I still inquire “from the mouth” info on challenges, strengths, competitors, etc.

    I also like to ask questions that give me a sense of the company’s culture, too.

    I love to talk (maybe a little too much), but I learn nothing if it’s just me.

    The balancing act can be tough, but beneficial on both sides.

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  18. Know a gal in PR — we call her “MiMi”.

    It’s not her real name. It’s just that she can’t open her mouth without saying, “Me Me Me Me…”

    Not a great listener, our MiMi. And a frequent interrupter.

    On the other end of the listening spectrum, a client frequently asks me, “Are you still there?” when I’m listening to her on the phone.

    I’m listening to her as she talks, so I’m not talking. This freaks her out, every single time.

    She’s used to be interrupted. Constantly.

    And of course, there’s every kind of listen/talk ratio along that spectrum!

    (I probably should say “Uh-huh and mmm-hmm” more. Cell phones being what they are and all. Or get all Frasier and say, “I’m Listening”!)

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