John Maxwell: What Makes People Listen?
I want to tell you a story that will help you understand how bad I was as a communicator when I started out. I think it’s the kind of thing that can give anyone hope.
While I was in college studying for the ministry, it was common for small churches to invite potential pastors to speak to their congregation. One week before I was to preach my first message of that type, I accompanied a friend named Don so I could hear his first attempt.
Don got up before the congregation and launched in. But after only three minutes, he ran out of gas. He had nothing more to say. After a few moments of stammering, he quickly sat down. Everyone was in shock.
On the drive back to campus, the one thing I kept telling myself was, “My sermon has to be longer than three minutes.” The rest of that week I spent every spare second preparing for my inaugural speech. As I worked, I kept adding points to my outline. By Sunday, I had nine points. I didn’t give a single thought to connecting with my audience. I had only one goal: to last longer than three minutes.
Margaret and I were engaged at that time, and she accompanied me to the little church for this important first step in my career. When I was done with the sermon, I was pleased with myself and felt satisfied. I thought I had done a pretty good job.
On the drive back to town, Margaret was unusually silent. Finally, I asked her, “How did I do this morning?”
“I think you did fine for your first time,” she responded after some hesitation. She didn’t sound very enthusiastic, but I was encouraged nonetheless.
“How long did I speak?”
After a really long pause, she replied, “Fifty-five minutes.”
I was clueless! Can you imagine what the people must have thought as they left the service? I had no idea how long and boring my message had been. And they knew that I didn’t know. But what could they do? Too polite to simply walk out, they were held captive by an inexperienced speaker who had no idea how to communicate. They would have preferred three-minute Don.
Philosopher-poet Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “All great speakers were bad speakers first.” Those words certainly applied to me. I started off bad—really bad. It took me many years of practice to improve my speaking. And I got better only after I learned what all good communicators have in common: they connect.
What Makes People Listen?
If you want to be a better communicator or a better leader, you can’t depend on dumb luck. You must learn to connect with others by making the most of whatever skills and experience you have. When I listen to great communicators, I notice that there are a handful of factors they seem to draw upon that cause people to listen to them. As you read about them, think about which of them you could use to connect with others:
Relationships—Who You Know
Why did millions of people start listening to Dr. Phil McGraw, a psychologist who helped lawyers as a trial consultant, and begin taking his advice on life, love, and relationships? For the same reason that millions started listening to Dr. Mehmet Oz about health issues. They knew Oprah Winfrey and appeared on her television show.
Certainly these two men have credentials. McGraw has a PhD in psychology, and Oz is a cardiothoracic surgeon and Columbia University professor. But most people neither know nor care about these facts. As soon as Oprah Winfrey’s followers learned she had confidence in them, they had confidence in them.
One of the quickest ways to gain credibility with an individual, a group, or an audience is to borrow it from someone who already has credibility with them. It’s the basis of celebrity endorsements, sales referrals, and word-of-mouth advertising. Who you know can open the door for you to connect with someone. Of course, once the door is open, you still have to deliver!
Insight—What You Know
Most people want to improve their situation in life. When they find someone who can communicate something of value to them, they will usually listen. If what they learn really helps them, a sense of connection between them can often quickly develop.
One of the figures from American history whom I most admire is Benjamin Franklin. He had a remarkable career and is responsible as one of our Founding Fathers for the success of our nation. Franklin had little formal education—he attended school only two years—yet he was highly respected because of his knowledge and keen insight. A voracious reader and intellectually curious man, he became an expert in a remarkable number of areas: printing and publishing, politics, civic activism, the sciences, and diplomacy. He was an innovative inventor, secured the support of France during the Revolutionary War, founded the first public library in America, served as the first president of the American Philosophical Society, and helped to draft the Declaration of Independence. Walter Isaacson called Franklin “the most accomplished American of his age.” He was highly influential, and the people of his time felt a sense of connection with him when he shared his wisdom.
If you have an area of expertise and generously share it with others, you give people reasons to respect you and develop a sense of connection with you.
Success—What You Have Done
A lot of people ask me how I got my start as a speaker outside of a local church. They want to know what my marketing strategy was and how I was able to break in. The truth is that I didn’t have a plan to become that kind of speaker. People became aware of the success I was having in leading and growing a church, and they began inviting me to speak on the subject. They wanted to hear what I had to say because of what I had done.
America has a success culture. People want to be successful, and they seek out others who have accomplished something to get their advice. If you are successful in anything you do, there will be people who want to listen to you. I think many people assume that if someone can succeed in an area, they possess knowledge that may be valuable to them in their own endeavors. And if the person’s success is in the same area as theirs, the potential for connection is even stronger.
Ability—What You Can Do
Individuals who perform at a high level in their profession often have instant credibility with others. People admire them, they want to be like them, and they feel connected to them. When they speak, others listen—even if the area of their skill has nothing to do with the advice they give.
Think of someone like golfer Tiger Woods. He has been called the world’s most marketable athlete. Fortune estimates that Woods received more than $100 million in endorsement income in 2007.[i] He endorses everything from sports drinks to management consulting. One of the products he has promoted is the Buick Rendezvous. Is Woods an expert on cars? No. But he is one of the best golfers in the world. People like him and listen to him because of what he can do. Excellence connects. If you possess a high level of ability in an area, others may desire to connect with you because of it.
Sacrifice—How You Have Lived
Mother Teresa had the respect and the ear of leaders around the world. People of all faiths seemed to admire her. Why was that? Why did they listen to her—a poor, diminutive schoolteacher who lived in the slums in India? Because of the life of sacrifice she lived.
I think our hearts naturally go out to people who have sacrificed or suffered. Consider the feelings of sympathy and connection that people felt for the firefighters who served in New York City during the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center Towers. Notice how much respect is given to the families of servicemen and servicewomen who died while in Iraq and Afghanistan. Think about the weight that is given to the words of civil rights leaders who helped to pave the way for election of Barack Obama, the United States’ first African-American president.
If you have made sacrifices, suffered tragedy, or overcome painful obstacles, many people will relate to you. And if you have been able to remain positive yet humble in the midst of life’s difficulties, others will admire you and be able to connect with you.
These five connection factors are just the beginning. I’m sure you can think of other reasons people connect. The point is that you must take whatever you have, and use it to connect with others. The more factors you have and the better you become at using them, the greater your chance of connecting with people. You must play to your strengths, develop your own style, and cultivate whatever skills you can in order to connect with people.
John C. Maxwell is an internationally recognized leadership expert, speaker, coach, and author who has sold over 19 million books. Dr. Maxwell is the founder of EQUIP and the John Maxwell Company, organizations that have trained more than five million leaders worldwide. Every year he speaks to Fortune 500 companies, international government leaders, and organizations as diverse as the United States Military Academy at West Point, the National Football League, and the United Nations. A New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and Business Week best-selling author, Maxwell has written three books which have each sold more than one million copies: The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership, Developing the Leader Within You, and The 21 Indispensable Qualities of a Leader. You can find him at JohnMaxwell.com and follow him at Twitter.com/JohnCMaxwell.