Richard Radcliffe: Pay attention and shut up

A good leader listens in order to understand, not necessarily to answer back

Richard Radcliffe
Richard Radcliffe

There I was driving to a university client, listening to the Today programme on BBC Radio 4: Radio 4 is my centre of knowledge and learning (except for The Archers).

An American was talking about Donald Trump’s attention span. Trump is 70 years old. He can’t (or won’t) read to the end of a brief communication, which reflects a typical supporter. The only way they encourage him to keep reading is to make sure his name is in every paragraph, which is not totally similar to a typical supporter even though name repetition can enhance response rates.  

Perhaps Trump, and other leaders, should just shut up, listen and learn. Then he and other leaders might become good leaders. Is a good boss one who tells you what to do or one who listens to your views and acts on them?

In my view, Trump’s biggest problem is that he never listens – he just wants to tweet, talk and tell us what he wants to do.

I am in the very lucky position of listening to donors, volunteers and service users every week to understand them, which leads to an informed fundraising strategy (if you manage the meetings well). I think I have asked almost 750,000 questions to about 27,000 people.

The art of learning to shut up is hard. It is not the fact that we have two ears and one mouth that is important. It is the fact that we have a mouth that can shut and ears that cannot.

And yet all fundraising stories focus on storytelling rather than story listening.

We need to give donors their voice, not in terms of "I am great because I give", but because fundraisers can learn to listen so they understand supporter motivations and communication needs.

Witness a street fundraiser: they are trained to talk. How many are trained to listen? Key messaging leaflets should be replaced by key listening techniques. Listening produces self-awareness, self-knowledge and reaffirmation of philanthropic dreams.

In this age of outgoing messaging, we should shut up and listen. This is why bereavement counselling works and why Samaritans is so good. This is why meeting donors works: not to tell yet another story, but to listen to theirs. For supporters this is a healing exercise that re-engages and remotivates. What percentage of your communications programme is focused on receiving information rather than giving it?   

And boy do we need donors to be healed and heard as new regulations hit us head on.   

We read and remember little. Communications should not be the art of what we are going to say, but the art of what we are being told. Learn and listen. For 30 years my brain goes into overdrive every time I start a focus group. Listening is so exciting.

We are in the age of click and tell. When we should be offering a "?" rather than a "!".

Every day, a typical person spends the following time on communication channels: eight hours and 41 minutes texting, typing, gaming, watching social media; three hours 42 minutes watching TV; one hour and eight minutes on laptops; and 28 minutes making calls on mobiles. And let’s not forget sleep, which is about 8 hours and 21 minutes a night.

Direct mail, telephone, websites and newsletters are all focused on storytelling.

Pretend for one moment you are at an event-planning meeting. How much time do you spend asking "who should speak and what are they going to say?" as against "how much time are we giving to listening to our supporters?" and "what questions are we going to ask to ensure we understand them?"

Think for one moment about the word "listen". It is an anagram of silent.

Can you imagine a silent Trump, a silent May or a silent Macron – someone who is willing to listen, NOT to reply but to understand? We need to refocus our communications from the "I/we" to "you".

It is about time we stopped imagining it and did it. What do you think? I must shut up now.

Richard Radcliffe is the founder of Radcliffe Consulting, which focuses on getting charities more legacies through supporter-informed strategies

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