When the story is right, people listen

listen closely By twenty_questions on flickrIt been quiet here this week as I’ve been traveling.   I spent the week in Chicago talking to clients and refining the story of what I do.

Its fun to talk to new people…especially when they are receptive to the story you are telling and when that story is authentic.

When the story is real and right, people listen. When the story has holes or isn’t backed up by facts and experience, people tend to stop listening – or worse – never start to listen.

I sat through quite a few meetings this week and it was clear after about 30 seconds that the story that we were telling was interesting.  We were peppered with questions. We were asked about deliverables, schedules and processes.

Contrast that with other meetings where the story isn’t heard.  You spill out your story to blank faces and glazed-over eyes.  You try to connect with the people in the room but nothing works.  You continue talking but never connect. Why? Well…it could be that you suck at storytelling and presentations…or your story sucks.   Or…you are presenting to a room full of mannequins.

How can you know that your story is right?  How will you be sure people will listen?

You can’t be sure…but with practice and refinement, you can get close. Ask for feedback from friends, neighbors, colleagues and clients.   You’ve also got to take the time to make sure that you story is worth telling.

That said, I think most stories have an audience. One of the hardest things to do is find that audience…but once you do, practice the story.  Get the story right and people will  listen.

But…be careful to not take advantage of that audience. Make sure you can deliver on that story. Make sure you don’t change the story in mid-stream either.  There’s nothing worse than believing in a story (or person) and then finding out half-way toward the destination that it was a big fat lie.    Remember…you want to tell a story of truth…not one of fiction.

Once people listen, watch out…because things will start lining up in your favor then. Whether you;re selling SEO services, photography, technology consulting or widgets…get the story right and people will listen.

Image Credit: listen closely By twenty_questions on flickr

Listen. Or…the one where Eric washes his car at 3AM

listen closely By twenty_questions on flickrBack in my college days, I was quite the party animal.

Well…that’s actually a bit misleading…I was a physics major…so partying was really more like sitting around with the other Physics and Chemistry majors, having a few drinks and talking about wormholes, time travel, music and just generally hanging out.

I met some great people in college…and I have some really great stories…many of which aren’t really appropriate on this blog  – but if I ever have a beer with you…I’ll share a few 🙂

I do have one story that I’d like to share.  The story is hilarious (at least to me and the two other people involved) but also provides a nice moment of learning and has stayed with me ever since.

Ready? Here we go.  Warning – if you get sick easily, you may want to skip this post.

This story involves me and two good friends from college – I’ll call them W and S to protect their innocence (or guilt!).

In case you don’t know, college was Southwestern Oklahoma State University in Weatherford, Oklahoma…and there was zilch going on in that town. So, to get into any trouble, we’d have to drive to Oklahoma City (about an hour drive) (aka ‘the city’).

One night we decided to drive to the city to hang out and do some bar hopping.  We all climbed into my Geo Storm (yes…I had one of those 90HP beasts) and headed to the city.

We hit a few bars and quite a lot of beer was consumed by W and S. I was driving so I didn’t drink too much and I spent the evening making sure W and S had a good time and didn’t get into too much trouble.

After a long evening of drinking and carousing, we all loaded back up into my Storm and headed back to Weatherford. I was driving, W was in the front seat sleeping and S was in the back seat stretched out snoozing.

Me – I was rocking out with the stereo turned up pretty loudly so I wouldn’t fall asleep and was enjoying the drive back.   Out of the corner of my eye, I notice W moving around so I glance over at him and see him looking at me and trying to say something.

I can’t hear him over the music but I assume that he’s telling me how great the Metallica song is and to turn it up…so I throw him ‘the horns’ , nod and say something like ‘rock on’ then commence to turn the music up louder and continue driving.

Seconds later I notice the window rolling down and the cold air rushing in (it was winter…and starting to snow a bit).  I then see W hang his head out the window and I realize that my assumption was way off…he wasn’t talking about the music…he was telling me to pull over. Now…he was hanging his head out the window and ‘releasing the evil’ to say it politely 🙂

I was doing 80 miles/hour down the highway at 2:30 in the morning…so there wasn’t much traffic to worry about so I quickly pull over to the side of the road and slam on my brakes. W continues with his business while i sit there feeling like a moron for not listening and realizing what W really needed from me.

While sitting there with the car door open and W hanging out the car, I hear some rustling in the back seat and I hear S say “Do you have a napkin”. I’m a 21 year old college student…you think I carry napkins in my car? No.

So…what do I do?  I scrounge around and find a piece of plastic that came off the CD that I’d bought earlier that week.  I turn to S and say – here’s a piece of plastic.

He takes it and I hear plastic rustling and ask him ‘what are you doing back there?’.

His response, which has become a classic in the annals of Eric’s Life , was: “I’ve got caca in my hair!”

Apparently, the ‘evil’ from W was affected by the 80 mph wind and made its way back onto S.   eeeeeeeewwwwwww!    🙂

After a few minutes of me laughing, W finishing his business and S trying to clean up with a piece of plastic, we were back on the road.

I drop them both off at their respective dorms and W tells me that I should think about washing off my car.  I take a look and sure enough..I need to go to the car wash.

So…the night ends with me at the car wash at 3AM in 30 degree weather with it snowing and me washing my car.  And it wasn’t one of those automatic car washes either…it was a good old-fashioned hand wash.   Man it was cold.

It got better (or worse…depending on your outlook). About halfway through washing my car, a police officer pulled up.  He sat there and looked at me. And looked at me.  And looked at me.  He rolled his window down with a stern look on his face.   Then…he said ‘you missed a spot on the back’, laughed and drove off.  Whew!

So…other than just sharing a story from my wild college days, what’s the purpose of this post?

Its pretty a simple one – but one that we often get wrong.  The moral – pay attention when people talk. Listen to what they say.  Don’t assume you know what their trying to say.

I assumed that I knew what W was saying and I ended up washing puke off my car at 3AM while staring down a police officer.

If you assume that you know what your team or coworkers are doing or trying to say, you may end up cleaning up a pretty nasty mess.

Open up your ears and listen.  Or…don’t…and wait for the mess that will inevitably come your way.

Image Credit: listen closely By twenty_questions on flickr

CIO’s – If you can improve one trait in 2010, let it be this one

I’ve been sitting here thinking. Gene De Libero say’s I’m always thinking…not sure if that’s good or bad! 🙂

What have I been thinking about?  Lots of things…but as it relates to this post, I’ve been thinking about the one trait that CIO’s can improve upon for 2010. By improving this one simple trait, I believe the ability of the IT group to deliver real value to the organization will increase exponentially.

What’ trait am I talking about?  Listening

In the world of IT, we do a lot of talking.  We talk. And talk. And talk.

We do listen some.  We send business analysts and project managers out to talk to customers.  Did you catch that?  We send people to ‘talk’ to customers.  We don’t send people  to “listen” to customers.

The blame for this lies squarely on the shoulders of the CIO and the IT group as a whole. We’ve built our processes and our procedures to be focused on IT issues, not user issues.  We’ve built our requirements gathering methods around what customer’s want and need and then we mediate those wants/needs to ensure that they don’t break any of our guidelines/processes. We’ve built our IT organizations to tell the rest of the company how things will be done.  While focused on talking, we’ve failed to listen.

In many organizations, users are going around IT to get things done.  In many cases (at least in my experience), this is because IT doesn’t hear the real needs of the business users.

I’ve got an example from a previous consulting gig that I’d like to share…I hope it drives the point home:

The IT group heard that the Marketing team needed a Content Management System so a project was started to buy and implement one.  But did we really listen to the need of the marketing team? Did we hear that they want and need to be able to make content changes on a whim?  Did we hear that they need to be able to do A/B testing (or some other testing/optimization techniques) on a regular basis?

I can tell you that the IT group didn’t those things.  All we heard was Content Management System.  We were the System experts right? So…we bought a CMS, implemented it and allowed the Marketing group to have access to it.  And…doing what IT does best, we put a convoluted change process around the CMS.  Lo and behold, within 6 months the team that asked for the CMS stopped using it because they couldn’t do what they needed to do with it.

And we wondered what was wrong with those ‘marketing people’.

Nothing was wrong with them.  It was us! We didn’t listen.  We heard ‘content management system’ and ran out and implemented one. We “knew” what they needed.

BTW – that marketing team got so fed up with us that they went around the IT team. They found a hosted platform that would allow them to do everything they needed.  Now, that organization’s IT team has been changed for the worse…they went from a team of 20 to a team of 5. They do nothing but keep the lights on now because they weren’t able to provide real value to the organization,  and have become irrelevant to that company. The IT team failed to listen and it cost them dearly.

So…do you see why I think ‘listening’ is the one trait CIO’s should focus on in 2010?    The world of IT is changing dramatically. I don’t believe the IT group has the ability to ‘tell’ the organization how things will be done any longer.  Unless you listen to the real business needs, the IT group and CIO might just become irrelevant in the future.

Here’s my plea to all CIO’s and IT managers:

If you only improve one trait in 2010, let it be this one. Listen well. Fail to listen to your organization’s real needs and you might find you’ve become irrelevant and unnecessary.

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