The Phone Test

One evening a few months back, I was sitting in an audience listening to a famous person share his wisdom on how we could create a fantastic user experience for our clients and customers. And he was boring me to death…

He had me tapping my feet and daydreaming as he presented what was clearly a talk he had perfectly memorized and given word for word a thousand times.

You’re no doubt wondering what I wondered. Why was someone so clearly incapable of creating a fantastic user experience for his audience talking to us about how to create a fantastic user experience?

My first thought was that it was me–I was missing something. But when I looked around I saw the tops of a lot of heads. Many people were reading their email or playing games or watching videos.

I wondered if the speaker realized how few people were paying attention to him. He should have. As M. Scott Peck, psychiatrist and author said, “You cannot truly listen to anyone and do anything else at the same time.”

I notice this quite often when I observe people in meetings or talking in groups. They’re not listening. Many people’s attention is not where it should be. Or rather, many people are doing such a poor job communicating that the listeners have tuned them out. Fully.

There are many things about mobile phones that are not so good for us but there is one thing they are spectacular at: letting us know right away if we’re boring people to death. Which takes us back to the speaker on user experience.

We all are centers of user experience for those around us. Each and every interaction is a chance to capture attention and leave listeners better off. Or a chance to send them back to their phone. The results we achieve as a person or a company are dependent on how well we do at keeping their eyes on us and not the latest trending tweet.

I hear I’m a pretty good storyteller, but I wasn’t when I was younger. I took steps to get better. I did some amateur acting and played around with improv. I forced myself to speak in front of people which used to make me nauseous. Since improving the way you capture attention and create great user experiences is a continuous learning process, these days I use the phone test to see what leads to rapt attention and what leads to me seeing lots of bald spots. And do more of the former and less of the latter.

Now if only the supposed expert in user experience knew how to use the phone test he just might have had a bigger impact on those he was talking at. Are you using the phone test to ensure you’re having the impact you’d like to have? Or are you just mouthing memorized words while examining bald spots?

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Commenting area

  1. Steve,

    You are so right! It is very hard to be very good or truly excellent at communicating.

    I used to think of presentations as a way of communicating, but all too often, presenters simply fire-hose the audience with information, which like the water cannon of riot police, drives the audience away rather than engaging them.

    I also used to think of teaching as a one-way form of communications, e.g., big lecture with lots of wisdom being dispensed to students who eagerly write it all down, hoping to absorb enough to pass the exam.

    I’ve learned that fully engaging with a topic – interactively asking questions, discussing implications, and applying learnings to personal situations – leads to much better learning and deeper understanding.

    You shifted very smoothly from presenting to storytelling, which is also a great way to improve engagement. People are generally good at listening to stories, so long as they aren’t really boring, probably due to millennia of human evolution where storytelling was the primary way of sharing information. But storytelling is still a difficult to acquire skill that requires practice.

    Bottom line, one of the best compliments I’ve had after giving a presentation, moderating a panel discussion or leading a roundtable discussion is “I don’t think anyone looked at their phone the whole time!”

    The opposite shouts “you are bombing!” If only presenters were listening.


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