On the Art of Critical Listening
I was quoted in the newspaper the other day. The quote was technically inaccurate—I didn’t say what the reporter wrote that I said. But it was correct in the substance. In effect, the reporter understood my meaning, and got it right, but wasn’t writing down or transcribing my words verbatim. The quote was an approximation, rebuilt by the writer.
Was it okay? All’s well that ends well? No, not really. It can’t be. My view from years of work in journalism is that if you use a direct quote, it has to be what the person said. As a reporter and editor, I’ve cleaned up quotes, and taken out repeated words, and eliminated sentence fragments that come up when people speak extemporaneously and change their direction as they go. I’ve even clarified quotes, inserting nouns when the speaker used pronouns.
But that’s different from “reconstructing” a quote because you didn’t write it down—or you weren’t listening carefully.
Which leads me to my point. In journalism or PR—indeed all communications—listening is a technique. In PR, it could be about understanding the context and underlying objective of a campaign, not just what the client’s RFP said, or what the CEO indicated at the Monday meeting. It is something close to intuition, even if that can be tricky. There is a skill to training your ear to listen, even as you’re taking notes.
The process is fascinating, really. I remember early on, when I’d have one of those old-style reporter’s notebooks, furiously scribbling, standing up, as the mayor (or whomever) rattled off a comment. I got so good at it that I could listen, and engage critically, responding to what was said, and not just merely transcribing. And at the same time, I could sense in real time when a quote was good enough to take it down verbatim.
And that’s the crux. As a communications professional, great engagement and great results can only come from truly listening—call it critical listening—and being able to separate the fluff from the substance. On the fly.
An example: Just last week, I attended a conference, but spent more time than I should have tending to matters back at the office. When it came time to write a cohesive report on the event, I kind of surprised myself, because all the while I had been doing critical listening. I was tuned to the speakers and the comments that mattered the most. The report wasn’t half bad.