Everybody’s Talking at Me

Harry Nilsson’s Grammy award winning song has been stuck in my head all day. I actually met Harry Nilsson years ago when I managed a restaurant in Southern California called Severino’s. Nilsson’s sister and her partner Severino Surace owned the place. Nilsson decided to make a surprise visit to his sister and walked into the restaurant one busy Saturday night. He bypassed the Maitre D’, walked into the bar and started playing the piano. I didn’t recognize him, so I did what any attentive restaurant manager would do; I officiously insisted that a Grammy award winning singer/songwriter get up from the piano and stop disturbing the other patrons. In my defense he wasn’t exactly dressed for a night out at a high-end Italian restaurant. Luckily, Severino intervened before it turned into an argument by walking up to us and giving Harry Nilsson a big bear hug. Severino introduced me to Harry, after which I made some sort of lame apology and beat a hasty retreat to the kitchen.

As I told the story of my Harry Nilsson encounter to a few of my colleagues, I recognized that I had acted out the song title by “talking at” Nilsson. Now that I can’t shake the song, I find myself thinking a lot about the prevalence of “talking at” as opposed to, for example, “talking with.” When we have a responsibility, work to do and we need the cooperation of others to get it done, influence generally looks like “talking at.” The police officer says, “move along.” The clerk says, “next!” Even a request for information can feel like you’re being talked at, like when a bureaucratic agent at a call center asks with a blend of tyranny and boredom, “name and account number?”

The meeting rooms of our organizations have become arenas for talking at. Meeting participants take turns expressing important ideas in a bulleted list hoping to influence, inspire and/or inform. Recall something you heard that you found influential, informative or inspiring. My guess is that you are recalling a narrative or image not a list. We are wired to take in narrative. Narrative involves us, whereas a list on a slide highlights the separation between the presenter and those being presented to. In a recent letter to shareholders, Jeff Bezos reiterated his prohibition against presenting ideas in the form of bullet points. “We don’t do PowerPoint (or any other slide-oriented) presentations at Amazon.”

If you’re not ready to ban PowerPoint at your meetings, you could make one small change that will switch the level of involvement you get when you present.

Next time you have to make a presentation to people whose cooperation or approval you need, consider starting with the question, “What will you be listening for?”

Depending on the number of people in the meeting, you can hear each person’s answer or have them talk it over in small groups and then request a few responses. Giving people the opportunity to tell you what they need to hear not only helps you shape your presentation, it also creates an atmosphere of shared responsibility in the room.

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