Public Relations: Are You Really Listening?

Close your eyes.  No, seriously – Close. Your. Eyes.

Now what do you hear?  Don’t be so quick to open your eyes. Even if there’s no apparent sound in the room, take your time.  What do you hear?  Maybe the hum of your computer?  Maybe the voices of your colleagues? Maybe the sound of silence? Yes, that does exist.

To be honest, I never really thought about how much our other senses, light sight, get in the way of one another (like hearing).

Yesterday, I had the fortunate opportunity to be the guest of one of our dear friends and partners, FiveFifty, at an eye-opening (yes, pun intended) event with Mike Hess.  Mike likes to describe himself as “the token blind guy in the room.” It would be easy to write Mike off as just that but within five minutes of hearing him speak it’s clear he just might be the coolest (and smartest) guy in the room.

After nearly 20 years of working in high paying IT jobs (yes, as a blind guy) Mike decided to follow his entrepreneurial pull and founded The Blind Institute of Technology. BIT for short, is dedicated to placing extremely capable technology professionals into employment opportunities they might otherwise be missing.

BIT’s goal, as described on their website:

BIT strives to reduce the excessively high unemployment among the visually impaired community by educating employers about the advantages of working with the visually impaired, by improving accessible technology capabilities within the workplace, by increasing access to professional training and certification programs, and by partnering with employers to create access to meaningful employment opportunities.

Mike Hess, Blind Institute of Technology Founder
Mike Hess, Blind Institute of Technology Founder

In addition to running a successful staffing start-up, Mike Hess is an evangelist for making people see (pun again intended) that employing blind professionals just doesn’t feel good, it makes amazing business sense.  And the first way to make this connection is to make those with eyesight understand that being blind can be an advantage.  You read that right.  Mike Hess believes, and successfully communicates, that being blind is an advantage.

Through a series of visual presentation, storytelling, and hands-on activity we were able to understand how our sight sometimes gets in the way.

Mike talked about the extremely smart, witty, and capable woman he interviewed for a position.  After sending her to work, the employer called back and said “Thanks for sending the woman with the pink hair. She’s great!”  Mike was confused about who they were talking about because he never saw her pink hair. He, like most blind people, are just focused on the content. The stuff that matters. He doesn’t make a judgement when first meeting someone based on their looks.

He then talked about a recent study in France with a group of the world’s best sommeliers.  Unbeknownst to them, some scientists took glasses of white wine and put in a drop of odorless, tasteless red food coloring.  All the sommeliers upon tasting went on to describe and characterize the glasses as red wine. Their sight trumped their taste and got in the way!

Now think for a moment. How many times does your sight trump your other senses and cloud your judgement?

We participated in several exercises:

We watched a short video on the story of a man with no arms and how he is able to work from home.  The audio was him telling all about his work but the video was him sitting on the floor working with his feet!  When Mike asked us all to recount what the man had said, our recollection was poor. Everyone was focussed on the video.

BIT blindfold
B.I.T blindfold

Then we did the same exercise on a different video but blindfolded. All we could hear was the audio.  When asked to recount facts, statistics, where the subject was from, what year was he born, etc. the group was able to recall that info with ease.  When you take your sight out of the equation you really listen!

We did some other exercises but the one that struck me was a group exercise. Six of us stood in a circle with blindfolds. We went around the circle, each person with only 45 seconds to introduce themselves to the group and tell who they were. What made them tick.  What’s on your bucket list.

Mine went something like this:

I’m Marc Gutman. I’m originally from Detroit. I have a wife Lindsey that I adore who is a painter and three kids: 5, 7, and 11. I just completed a bucket list item: I went on a heli-ski trip recently. I like to be outdoors…”

Everyone else in our group did the same.

Then we went around and had to say what we remembered about each person without repeating what someone else had said.  And it was amazing what I was able to recall about people I was just meeting for the first time. It’s amazing what I can still recall a day later:

  • Hannah was recently married, likes to paint, and refinish furniture.
  • Abby is from Maine and likes wine.
    Marty is a good golfer and is a dead head.
  • Dave is working on Beethoven songs on the piano and just got an electric guitar.
  • Mike is not a good golfer.

It made me think to how many times I meet people for the first time and really don’t listen. For somebody who works in public relations, I’m a little embarrassed to admit that sometimes I hear the words, but I’m really not listening, digesting, remembering.  This was an important lesson for me to learn.

Someone suggested it would be great to start company meetings like this — and I think they’re right.  Start by really listening to your teammates. Hearing what they have to say.

Get your sight and other senses out of the way.

Huge thanks to our friends at FiveFifty for organizing such a great event.  And thanks to Mike Hess and The Blind Institute of Technology for reminding us that in order to hear all we have to do is listen.

Are you and your team having trouble listening to one another? Which of your senses get in the way of each other? Join the discussion and leave your comments below.

Lastly, please feel free to contact us directly.  You can always send us a message via our contact form or email me directly at: mgutman at wildstory dot com

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