How to Listen

COVID-19 or not, we’re all going remote and Internet-based. This post is about the invaluable art of listening to and seeing others on video conference calls.

Just yesterday, I remarked that “if you don’t write about what you’ve listened to, you haven’t listened deeply enough.”

That’s true without being literally true; listening happens best live, in the present. But in a sense, you can keep listening to your memory of a conversation for years after it takes place. 

Do you have conversations in your head that have rattled around for years?

What about things you have seen – maybe expressions on people’s faces?

We’ve all said, “I’ll never forget the look on his face”. Or conversely, “I’ll never forget how he looked at me”.

Speaking of how we experience the present moment in relation to others, no one ever listened to me more closely than my 83-year old former therapist, who was trained in Gestalt therapy ((Gestalt therapy is described in Wikipedia as a form of psychotherapy that, “focuses upon the individual’s experience in the present moment, the therapist-client relationship, the environmental and social contexts of a person’s life, and the self-regulating adjustments people make as a result of their overall situation.” Sounds A LOT like consulting to me.)) by Fritz Perls himself, in 1960’s Esalen. His example inspired me to write about the close similarity between therapists and consultants who deliver value through Internet video calls. I believe that in the future all knowledge workers, let alone clinicians and other advice-givers, will need to learn this skill. (That means you!)

Listening Case Study: Sam Ovens

There is a class of digital marketers who I’ll refer to as, “Internet Marketers”. They fall into two camps: entrepreneurial scam artists and digital marketing innovators.

Both tend to be brilliant, original, and creative. The scam artist-entrepreneurs have figured out how to use every slimy direct marketing tactic in the book via the Internet. The digital marketing innovators know direct marketing like the back of their hand, but figure out new ways of doing things years before they are adopted by big marketing agencies and become conventional wisdom.

Shoemoney infamously arbitraged Google AdWords and Google Adsense to the tune of 100k+ per month back in the wild oughts, in the early days of PPC advertising. He was, by his own admission, an entrepreneurial scam artist. The scam went like this:

  • Place Google search ads on lucrative keywords.
  • Have ads lead visitors to a useless webpage  keyword-stuffed with nonsense and…. display ads targeting the same keywords.
  • From the useless webpage the users, of course, clicked on the ads. Cha-ching.

Shoemoney paid less in ads than he got paid back, hence the profitability – all at Google’s expense. Zero value created.

In fairness, Shoemoney figured out many other ways to make money using digital marketing and many of them created a lot of value. 

He was really good at noticing things other people didn’t.

But Sam Ovens cleanly falls into the other category of Internet Marketer – digital marketing innovator. Early on, he made slow-mo videos of him exiting a helicopter and getting into a limo. So he had the trappings of a scam artist. But his style evolved over time to 100% authentic and non-pretentious.

And if you look at what he says and does, he’s very clearly focused on creating value; few marketers have as fine-grained an understanding of how to create and market an online course. The fact that he may very well be the world’s foremost Facebook advertising expert (he often spends up to 10 million/month) doesn’t detract him from his focus: creating a great product which teaches others to.. create great products.

Not surprisingly, Sam is a master listener. Many people remark on how intently he looks at and listens to those he speaks with on the interviews with students who have taken and completed his course. He recorded several hundred of them over a 2-year period.

Watch the video below for 20 seconds and take my word for it that he maintains that level of focus for an hour straight.

Listening and Seeing

The intensity with which Sam listens to people is unexpected and impressive. 


You’ll notice that Sam listens by seeing. His eyes do not dart, look down, or look up, and his head and upper body movement is minimal. Yet he’s responsive to his conversation partner. He gives enormous attention and focus.

All of us need to cultivate this ability to listen and see in our – increasingly – Internet-based businesses. Especially the next year or two, but ever after we find and distribute a coronavirus vaccine. Good skill to have.

The classic first-time startup entrepreneur will tell me their solution is a 100% self-service digital product; no interaction needed. No listening needed, no seeing needed.

Wrong. We’re all in the relationship business; we have to listen to people and look at them.

I described my brief lessons in seeing in a post earlier this week where I talked again about the impact of coronavirus on how we do business:

I took a studio drawing class from artist Carrie O’Coyle, she taught us the art of the critique. She repeatedly made this point: if the painter or draftsperson puts significant effort into what she draws, there will always be something to critique, no matter how little technical ability she may at-present have.

what struck me hardest in that art class (studio drawing) was this contrast:

  1. people with little talent who tried extremely hard
  2. people with considerable talent who dialed it in

Because those with little talent produced much more interesting pieces of art. There was always something to offer critique on.

What does dialing it in look like? It looks like drawing what’s in your head, or what’s in a photograph. In both cases, someone else has already done the creative work. In the case of the photograph, someone has chosen which lines, colors, perspective, and lighting to capture. They give you not reality but their own filter. Just as Snapchat product designers and engineers give not reality but their own filters. Most people are fine with that; that’s great.

But that won’t work for as you try to improve the impact of your marketing. 

I’ll explain that in a bit, but first let me ask you this: if I say, “elephant” what do you see? I’ll answer the question for you. You see a composite of the thousands of elephant-related images you have experienced throughout your life:

  • in real life, at a zoo or safari
  • in a Disney movie
  • on a nature show
  • in a children’s book
  • as a brand

And you carry that composite around in your head with you, like a symbol, swapping it into your interactions as needed. That’s efficient. When someone tells you about their elephant ride in Thailand, you don’t have to imagine what it looks like, you have a symbol.

But such symbols prevent us from observing what actually exists; it short circuits the information intake process. What you end up with is almost never quite the same as an actual elephant.

Dialing it in is using the symbol in your head without putting effort into describing what you actually see in front of you.

Effort in the plastic arts starts with seeing the world as is. The most common mechanism for achieving that goal is to break down what you observe into components, such as lines, perspective, colors, and lightness vs darkness.

Wherever you are right now, stop for a moment and look. How many lines do you see, wherever you are as you read this? You see thousands. How many shades of light do you see? Colors? Sounds? 

Now try it with your customers.

Thank you,