Paying attention at a cocktail party


“You’re not listening to me.”

If you have said this to someone (or if they have said this to you.. eep!), it probably means they were not being an active participant in the discussion. The person may have been hearing you, with the sound waves going into their eardrums, but not actively listening. Listening is paying attention, absorbing information, reflecting back what was said, building on and responding to what the other person is saying.

The “cocktail party effect” in social psychology says we do have the ability to focus on one thing at a time and drown out everything else – provided it holds our attention.

We are at a very large cocktail party in the Information Age, with noise coming at us from all directions, and many channels competing for our attention. We have to be selective with our focus – is it the person in front of us, the music, the dance floor, our own thoughts, or that person walking around with those teeny bacon-wrapped things on toothpicks?

In these conditions, I’m sure that hearing vs. listening happens a lot. At the same time, we have an unprecedented opportunity to gather information from our customers and supporters and really listen to them.

This leads to two critical questions.

Are you listening to your customers and supporters or just hearing them?

If you have a customer service phone line, email support desk or, more recently, social media feedback team, and collect information but don’t do anything with it, you’re hearing, not listening.

In the noise of profits, revenues, budgets and strategy, it is easy to forget about the voice of your fans and supporters, whether they are giving you positive or negative feedback. This is a shame, because they are offering you plenty of clues as to how to keep them engaged, and ultimately, keep their business. So listen, and then (and this is key)… do something about it!

If someone at your party likes their martinis shaken, not stirred, then shake them! Especially if it’s this guy.


The end result of strong listening should be taking necessary action.

Are your customers really listening to you?

The cocktail party effect also says that something will grab our attention if it is meaningful for us (like our own name or someone screaming “FIRE!”), even if we are focused on something else.

So while infovores run rampant these days, it is possible to grab their attention for an important few moments.

To move from hearing to listening, the message must be extremely relevant. Rather than just getting louder and more frequent (read: SPAM), make the messages better. This is the key for a strong elevator pitch – you must be able to answer the question that all of your audience will be asking – “Why is this important to me?”

If a partygoer shouts “The spring rolls have gone bad!”, then I think anyone who cares about their own wellbeing will be raising an eyebrow because it impacts them.

Don’t compete with the noise, cut through it with extreme relevance. They are sure to listen.

Party on.

Constant Questions: How can you ensure you are really listening? How do you ensure your message is relevant? How can you successfully get through with all of the random stimuli out there? Do you hear what I hear? Did you hear it through the grapevine? Whatever happened to the California Raisins?

PS – Speaking of cocktail parties, this holiday season, or ever really, don’t drink and drive!

PPS – If you’re looking for some great cocktail party tips for that upcoming work or personal event, check out Paul Nazareth’s awesome post about holiday networking.

What do you stand for?

I have a big problem with apathy. Apathy is complacency with a capital C.

Everyone can find something meaningful and invest some of their time and energy. There is no shortage of issues, ideas or movements to get behind, so take your pick my friends!

The dynamic, young complacency crushers at Apathy Is Boring are on the right track. Their mission of using art and technology, and most recently social media, to educate youth about democracy is a shining example of inspiring others to take action in the modern age. They are giving passionate, young leaders an outlet to influence change.

Whatever you choose, there are many benefits to getting involved:

  • Make new connections: You can meet exciting people who share the same interests and expand your network. You may even find your future life partner – it’s not that strange, I’ve seen serious love connections happen!
  • Hone and build your skills: Employment isn’t the only way to gain useful skills. Volunteering, activism or community involvement give you some great opportunities to learn new skills and practice existing ones. Personally, I have gained skills and knowledge in Board and corporate governance, grant applications, volunteer management, networking and public speaking – all while “off the clock”.
  • Support the community (however you define it): There are a lot of organizations and causes that can use your amazing skills to fulfill their missions, so lend your expertise in finance, social change, technology, marketing or tying fancy knots.
  • Feel good about yourself: Doing your bit to make a difference gives you a higher sense of purpose and meaning, and makes you feel pretty darn good.

  • Vote, volunteer, write a letter, have an engaging discussion, challenge the status quo.

    The idea is to get involved. It’s your world, so take an active role in shaping it into the world you want it to be.

    No one has an excuse to be bored.

    Constant Questions: What do you stand for? What have you gained from investing your personal resources into something meaningful? What are you doing to get others involved? Is caring sharing or is sharing caring? Remember the Care Bears? Why were some of them not actually bears?