“Engage your listeners. It does not matter how you do it, so long as you do it.” – Gavin Esler
Certain things that I hear, for whatever reason, stand out and remain in my mind while others do not; the details or specific circumstances might be ignored, but the message content remains unchanged. For instance, I remember years ago something that stood out to me was hearing about Bill Clinton made people with whom he spoke feel like they were the most important people in the world – that there was nothing that Bill Clinton would rather be doing in that moment than speaking to them.
People loved Clinton; that, above all else, is why he was able to withstand the particular, shall we say, indiscretions, that stained (ba-dum!) his political career. Similarly, people loved Reagan, and he was able to weather the storm around the Iran-Contra affair. People did not like Richard Nixon, so he was forced to resign in response to Watergate.
Anyway, as I said, for some reason that bit about Clinton always stuck with me…it just seemed important. Over the years, I’ve heard it repeated many times about Clinton, and sometimes about other leaders, too. Most recently, in Lessons from the Top, Gavin Esler mentioned it: “The British foreign secretary Douglas Hurd, a seasoned former Foreign Office diplomat and the calmest of men in a crisis, told me that he found Clinton’s charm utterly disarming, and he too experienced the illusion that Clinton acted as if he had travelled the globe just to meet him.” (p134)
The next few paragraphs following that quote provide other anecdotes from Clinton’s colleagues, associates, and even political opponents all describing how much they liked Clinton the person, even if they were dead-set against his policies. They also reveal some of his tactics, mentioning things like meetings with him involving “strong physical contact” (ha, how appropriate). In all his years, Esler has found one description that best captures the Clinton charm:
“He smiled understandingly – much more than understandingly. It was one of those rare smiles with a quality of reassurance that you come across four or five times in a life. It faced – or seemed to face – the whole eternal world for an instant, and then concentrated on you with an irresistible prejudice in your favour. It understood you just as far as you wanted to be understood, believed in you as you would like to believe in yourself, and assured you that it had precisely the impression of you that, at your best, you hoped to convey.” (quote from The Great Gatsby)
Holy crap, right? Wouldn’t you love to have someone write that after a conversation with you? There are all sorts of tactics to be a charming conversationalist (e.g., be an active listener, know your subject, master appropriate body language, etc), but I think the best one is probably to actually be genuinely interested in the other party (and this next part will sound contradictory), even if you have to convince yourself to be genuinely interested. I believe that every subject (applying the word to people, topics, and objects) can be interesting if you know what questions to ask, how to look, and how to listen; reminding yourself of this might just be the trick to make your conversation partner feel important.
Naturally, it is also important to be able to engage with an audience of more than one. I can think of reasons why this is harder to achieve than in a one-on-one setting, but also reasons why it is easier. Similarly, there are tactics that can be employed, but the outcome is the same: you want the audience, no matter how large, to think that you’ve travelled just to speak to them, and to deliver a message created just for them. Great speakers have the ability to deliver the same message countless times to countless audiences, and leave every audience in their wake feeling special.
How important is this lesson? Esler closes Lessons from the Top with a list of 16 lessons, and the first one in the list is “Engage your listeners. It does not matter how you do it, so long as you do it.” (Lessons from the Top – p250)