Are you a good listener?
By Robert W. Bly

In the1980s, when Burroughs announced its plan to merge with fellow computer giant Sperry, they turned to a big NYC ad agency for help naming the new company.

The ad agency turned to me ... and a bunch of other copywriters ... and paid us for name suggestions.

My simple-minded solution, Sperry/Burroughs, was not chosen. Nor was my alternative: Burroughs/Sperry.

The winner, as some of you may know, was Unisys – and I can't say the freelancer who sold that to the agency and its client earned his fee.

I bring this up because, for reasons unknown, a few years before the merger, Sperry ran a major corporate ad campaign around the theme of "listening."

Although I think the campaign was a dud, the idea of becoming a good listener is a valuable one.

I will never forget a line in one of their content pieces on listening: "Remember, you have only one mouth but two ears. So you should listen twice as much as you talk."

It's relevant, because increasingly people ask for my advice and counsel, and then when I try to give it, constantly talk over me and never listen to a word I say.

For instance, entrepreneur CM called a few weeks ago asking for advice on how to market his business.

He did not want to become a paying client. He just wanted to pick my brain for free.

As is always the case, I said yes, with a line I learned from speaker Patricia Fripp.

"CM, I charge $500 an hour, but I will give you 5 minutes, starting now."

By the way, if you charge $500 an hour, 5 minutes of your time is a gift worth $41.67 -- a nice freebie for a stranger you don't know.

So CM told me his marketing idea. But instead of shutting up and getting the answer, he proceeded to tell me why he was convinced it was brilliant, his life story, and on and on.

Finally, I said in a loud voice what Charlie on "Its Always Sunny in Philadelphia" loves to say to talkers: "Stop talking!"

CM stopped, and I said: "CM, you asked me the question. I know the answer. Can you be quiet and let me tell you the answer?"

Actually, I insisted that he stop talking because (a) my time is valuable and (b) since he was not paying me, he was wasting it. And what would be my incentive to allow a non-client to do so?

The kicker to the story: When I told CM his idea will not work, he began arguing vehemently. I (figuratively) held up my hand and said once again:

"Stop. I don't care what you do. Do what you want. You asked for advice. I gave it. Five minutes up. Goodbye and good luck."

Some days it does not pay to get out of bed, but despite that, I am here at the PC every day by 6am, in case you have something to ask me.

Only ... whether you are a paying client or a freebie ... wouldn't it make sense to stop talking enough to get my answer?

If you are a paying client, I will gladly debate its merits until you are comfortable with my explanation and can make an informed decision about whether to accept my advice.

If you are a freebie seeker on my 5 minute meter, I will not.

Action step: implement Sperry's 2:1 rule in your life: Listen at least twice as much as you talk -- and you will be well served whether you are a customer, a vendor, or a moocher.


Bob Bly is a freelance copywriter with 20 years experience in business-to-business and direct marketing. He has written direct mail packages for Phillips Publishing, Agora Publishing, KCI Communications, McGraw-Hill, Medical Economics, Reed Reference Publishing, A.F. Lewis, and numerous other publishers.