Do You Talk At People or With People?

Apr 3, 2013
5 Min Read

Bill Boorman kindly invited me to speak at his TruLondon human resources conference here in London.  I use the word “speak” loosely because Bill expressly told me not to bring a presentation.  The Tru events are known for their informal structure, and I was to bring nothing except 5 questions about my topic that I could pose to the group.

This approach made a lot of sense.  After all, all Tru conference participants are HR executives who are experts in their own right.  What’s more valuable – for me to stand in front of them for an hour doing a one-way knowledge dump, or for all of us to interactively share what we know back and forth, generating new ideas and building on established ones?

Of course, it does put the audience on the spot.  No longer can they show up to an event and expect to passively sit with their minds somewhere else.  They will need to think, and they will need to be engaged.  And even if it wasn’t exactly what they expected, I am willing to bet that nine times out of ten, they will be more satisfied afterwards.

Is Your Communication a One-Man Show?

Whether or not you are in a role in which you routinely make remarks to a group, it’s worth considering if you could talk more with people than at them.  You see, even in a one-to-one conversation, talking at someone is less effective.  Your mind is made up as to the message you want to get across, and you aren’t thinking about how that message is being received or whether your remarks are appropriately customized for your audience.  You may not be paying attention to non-verbal cues or reading between the lines, and you may not be allowing the person a chance to respond and provide feedback.

Loosening Your Grip on the Reins

On the other hand, when you talk with a group, your agenda is more flexible.  You are working with your audience to have a discussion that benefits all involved.  By providing some baseline information that establishes context for the conversation and then asking open-ended questions that draw your audience out, you are partnering with others to shape the direction of the interaction.  And this can have unexpectedly positive results.  You might, for example, come away with data that helps you up your game – data that you never would have thought to seek out on your own.

There is Always Room to Learn

People who communicate by talking at others assume they have all the answers, but the most successful professionals understand that this is not the case.  No matter how long you’ve been in your field and how much knowledge you’ve accumulated, opportunities for growth and discovery abound.  Making every interaction a two-way dialogue ensures that you pick up information from as many sources and perspectives as possible, and that you are better prepared for future discussions on the same topic.  It will also improve your relationships because your audiences will view you as humble and caring rather than arrogant and untouchable.  So throw out that pedestal and settle for a seat at the table.  You’ll be glad you did.

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