How Good of a Listener Are You? (And Why it Matters in Copywriting)

The other day, I heard an interview with the famous political pollster Frank Lutz, who signed on to convince a group of people to get the COVID-19 vaccine. He is a master of this—someone who top politicians have leaned on over the past few decades to persuade their electorate to vote this way or that on some of the most visceral issues.

When the interviewer asked how he got so good at this, he shared two magic words: “I listen.” And not just to the things people are saying. Frank listens to the way they’re saying them.

The focus group he was running took place on Zoom, and the 20 subjects were decidedly against getting the vaccine. They described the pandemic with words like “controversy,” government manipulation,” a “hyped-up version of the flu.” To them, the vaccine was “rushed,” “suspicious,” “unproven.”

Frank took it all in. Hearing that all of these people lined up behind one political party, he started with taped messages from politicians from that same party who were urging people to pull together and do their part. But even though the focus group participants had voted for these politicians, here’s what Frank heard:
“Condescending.”
“We’re not all in this together. Their kids have gone to private school.”

These people didn’t trust politicians—even the ones they shared a party with—so even the best produced ads from politicians would have hit wrong. Because Frank was listening, he knew to try a different tack. While he heard participants express a distaste for politicians, he also heard them express confidence in doctors.

Frank reached out to the former head of the CDC, who also happened to be a doctor. He shared the participants’ questions with the doctor, and the doctor addressed them with hard facts and logical points like these:

  • If you get the virus, it will move throughout your body and remain there for a week or more and be much more likely to cause long-term problems than the vaccine will.
  • If you get the vaccine, it will prime your immune system, but it won’t linger in your system.
  • More than 95% of the doctors who have been offered the vaccine have gotten it.
  • The faster everyone gets the vaccine, the faster America can return to growing the economy and creating jobs.

The doctor didn’t try to indoctrinate. He sought to educate, and for the first time, Frank started hearing people express a greater willingness to get vaccinated. Other things worked, too, like personal stories about young, healthy people dying of the disease. (The focus group members had previously expressed that as long as they weren’t overweight and didn’t have pre-existing conditions, they were immune.)

The things that Frank originally thought might work fell flat, but he ultimately made progress toward his goal because he listened.

Ernest Hemingway said it well in his no-frills way: “I like to listen. I have learned a great deal from listening carefully. Most people never listen.”

We’ve all been guilty of letting our minds wander when our spouse or child tells us about their day. Or being so focused on what we’re going to say next in a group conversation that we tune out the speaker. Or turning someone’s experience back to our own with comments like, “I know exactly how you’re feeling,” or, “That happens to me, too.”

So what makes it so hard to listen?

  • Focus. Listening takes focus, and in this era of heavy multi-tasking between multiple devices and feeds, most of us aren’t as good at focusing as we used to be.
  • Desire to be right. Often, we’re so sure that we’re the correct one in the conversation that we’re only concerned with getting our point across. That makes us tune out everything that doesn’t line up with our convictions.
  • Overload. Listening well takes energy. It requires us to process new information, empathize, and affirm. If we feel like we’re on overload ourselves, we may be hesitant to take on even more challenges.
  • Shifting dynamics of control. When you’re the one talking, you’re in control. When someone else is talking, their pace may be too slow, their message may seem irrelevant to your life, or just plain boring, and you may have no idea when they’re going to stop talking. The open-endedness of it all creates discomfort, and it’s tempting to end the discomfort by gearing up the gab.

It’s easy to say, “She’s a gifted listener,” or, conversely, “I’m not inherently a great listener,” but the truth is, anyone can become a really good listener if they cultivate the skill. Here are some time tips for practicing the art of active listening.

1. Check your agenda at the door. When you go into the conversation, clear your mind of opinions and judgments. There’s a time for those things, but it’s not when you’re in the role of listener.

2. Don’t interject/interrupt. It sends a message that you think your thoughts and words are more important than the speaker’s.

3. Resist the urge to circle a conversation back to you or “one up.” There’s nothing like telling a friend about your trip to the beach in San Diego and hearing, “That reminds me of my trip to the Seychelles.”

4. Remember. As you listen, make a conscious point of committing things to memory. Let’s say a client has previously told you that their daughter is attending Arizona State University. Later, they tell you that they can’t make a meeting because they’re attending their daughter’s graduation this weekend. If you’ve remembered well, you can chime in with, “So are you heading to Arizona State for the ceremony? Congrats to your Sun Devil.” (Cue the brownie points.).

5. Avoid abruptly changing the subject. Slow your mind down and discipline yourself not to jerk the conversation around. Jumping to a whole new topic while the speaker is still focused on the old one is a dead giveaway that you’ve been focusing on something other than what they’re saying.

6. Ask questions. “Can you tell me more about…” goes a long way—both in making people feel like you’re genuinely interested in what they have to say and in gathering information that you might need later (as with clients).

7. Validate. People put themselves out there when they share things with you. Validate their thoughts and words with responses like, “I hear you on that,” or “I appreciated your thoughts on…” or “That sounds really challenging.” Phrases like this let people know that their words are heard, understood, and valued.

So what does this have to do with copywriting? In copywriting, “listening” is everything! If you’re on the phone with a potential client, ask questions about their company and let them talk. You’ll often find that they’ll lead you right to the pain points of their business, which will allow you to show how you can fill them.

If you’re responding to a job opportunity, “listen” to what the company is saying in their help wanted post. If they want someone who can pitch a new product in the health and fitness space, respond by letting them know how you’ve succeeded in pitching other new products or letting them know about your experience in health and fitness (with work samples to back it up). If you’re new and looking for experience, don’t focus on that. They don’t want to hear how they can help you. They want to hear how you can help them. Offer to write free copy to help them pitch the product. They want results—give them evidence that you can deliver.

When it comes to how to write good sales copy, once again, listening’s the key. Listening to your target audience can play out by reading what they have to say in social media groups, Amazon reviews, and online forums. That’s all part of the R (Research) step in my RMBC method, which is arguably the most important step. It’s foolish to ever start writing until you know your target audience inside and out—their hopes, fears, pain points, etc.

Even if you’ve never been a great listener, why not start today? You can be as good of a listener as you’re willing to work to become! This skill can change your relationships—both personal and professional—and it can make all of the difference in your copywriting, too.

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© 2020 SPG Educational Resources LLC

Stefan Georgi

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