Keeping my mouth shut is not something that comes naturally. I couldn’t start to explain why. Genetics? Maybe. My mum talks a lot. Conditioning? Quite possibly. I was raised in a small Yorkshire town and spent my youth surrounded by friends who each… See, there I go. Unnecessary back-story again. Cut it out, Tallon.
I had a small, yet important epiphany just recently. It’s a belated and full appreciation of a new skill called listening, and should be mastered by all in the arts. Forgive me if I sound patronising. This is another public bout of introspection that I’m choosing to share with you.
It started when I received an email from a regular listener to my Arrest All Mimics creative innovation podcast. He contacted me to point out that I interrupt my guests too often and share too many of my own stories. He was right. I’m still very new to broadcasting and appreciated him taking the time to constructively criticise. Since this piece of feedback, my interviewing technique has vastly improved and without seriously compromising the nature of it.
This got me thinking… I’m very passionate about creativity. It is the reason I produce a weekly show, write articles, give talks and balance them with a full time schedule as an illustrator. While I do listen, I have a tendency to jump ahead of myself and wade into conversations too soon because I am excited, when a guest may need a little more time to recount a piece of advice, story or cautionary tale.
Thanks to the feedback, I am now consciously aware of it and improving my listening does not have to end with the podcast. When you really listen, you learn things and soak them up fully, including all the tiny details that may not make themselves known until your mind has digested them. This might sound like I’m stating the obvious, but it’s a skill so often undervalued at great cost in the modern world.
During a catch up meeting with a client and friend last week, I really listened. As she spoke, telling me about all the things her company had been up to, I found that my brain started to notice things that if I were merely waiting for my turn to speak, would probably have passed me by, vanishing like embers into the November night. These things presented themselves in many guises – funny stories, obvious opportunities to pitch my services for forthcoming projects or simply new things to learn about an ever-evolving industry from a person way more experienced than me.
Test yourself. Next time you’re in a conversation, pay attention to your brain. Does it whizz around in circles, a blurry puppy of restlessness, chasing its own tail, deflecting any valuable grains of knowledge? Are you sneaking out your phone under the table to see if anyone has commented on your clever Instagram composition, nodding to show you are ‘listening’ when the key might be in the facial expression of your company? My girlfriend consistently has to ask me if I registered that, am I paying attention? I’m not an ignoramus, more a victim of the blitz of information we’re all exposed to and subsequently, the jelly-mush mind I’m left with by the evening.
I think back to so many pivotal moments in my career and a high percentage of them hinged on the learned ability to interact with human beings. Maybe it was the fact that I recalled correctly someone’s answer to my question of, ‘what have you got planned this weekend?’, that edged me ahead of my competition for a commission. Or perhaps they liked the way I tend to be suggestive and bring my own ideas to the table. I can never truly know, but if you listen intently, allow you mind to focus solely on the matter at hand, you’ll greatly benefit as a freelance professional. Listening in its simplest terms, is giving each person the attention they deserve and that goes a long way in any industry, but especially in one so driven by people and their personalities.
Ben Tallon is a freelance illustrator, author of Champagne and Wax Crayons: Riding the Madness of the Creative Industries and host of Arrest All Mimics, the Original Thinking and Creative Innovation podcast.
He works with WWE, EMI, Channel 4, The Guardian and The Premier League among others.
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