What does customer service have to do with public speaking?
Everything — because you’re literally speaking to the public. But public speaking isn’t about talking at people; it’s about listening to and engaging the public you serve, whether they’re in your audience or at a table in your restaurant.
Before Talking to Your Customers, Observe Them and Prepare to Listen
The other day, my partner and I had lunch in Manhattan with his former fifth grade teacher, Debbie — a vivacious woman who once famously sued the New York City Board of Education to get the same maternity benefits they were giving to male teachers’ wives.
Debbie took us to a cute little pub that was right next door to her apartment building. The food was good and the conversation delightful. The only problem was our server:
- Three minutes after seating us, she came back to our table to ask if we were ready to order. (Since we hadn’t yet opened our menus, “no” would have been a good guess.)
- Shortly after we finally ordered, she returned to ask if we wanted more water. (There was water in our glasses, we were deep in conversation, and she interrupted us.)
- Our server returned a few minutes later to ask if everything was all right, and before we could ask her for bread, she had walked away.
- When we called her back to make the bread request, bread never arrived.
I’m guessing that this server had been told by her boss to keep close tabs on her customers, asking them frequently if they needed anything, etc. But somehow the idea that customer service also involved observing and listening to her customers had gotten lost.
When You Do Speak to Customers, Engage Them By Being Yourself
Later that day, I passed by a neighborhood bakeshop for a bite of something sweet.
There was a server I hadn’t met before behind the counter — I later learned that his name is Mauricio — and a new type of pastry in the display case.
“What would you like?” Mauricio asked with a smile that seemed warm and genuine.
I pointed to the mystery item. “What’s that?”
He looked me in the eye, smiled again, and said, “It’s called a Kovign amman. It’s made of croissant dough with a sugar glaze, so it’s crunchy on the outside and soft and sweet on the inside. It’s really delicious.”
I said, “Wow, you make it sound really good.”
“Well,” he replied, “it’s a new item, so I thought I’d better memorize the description. But it is really good!”
Look at what was going on here (and how it differs from what happened at lunch):
- First, Mauricio listened to my question. He knew which item I was asking about, and engaged me with a smile and eye contact before he answered.
- Second, when I interacted with him (commenting on his description of the item), he picked up on both my tone and my essential friendliness, and replied in kind. He could have just said, “It is really good,” but instead he shared that he’d memorized the description.
By sharing something personal in this way, he expanded his relationship with me.
The Public Speaking Relationship that Underlies All Good Communication
When I give public speaking workshops and keynote speeches, I often talk about the public speaking relationship that I believe underlies all good communication.
Here’s how it works:
- When you build a relationship with your listener — by speaking with them instead of at them; by being authentic; and by listening to what they say — you bring them into a stronger relationship with your content.
- If your content is well suited to their needs, your listener will be more appreciative of you for presenting it.
- And when your listener is appreciative of you, you’ll work even harder to provide content that meets their needs, and the positive relationship will keep growing.
Not to belabor this metaphor, but Mauricio’s content was his description of the pastry — and the warm and personal way in which he offered that description made me more interested in buying the pastry, which I did.
It was, as advertised, delicious!
To Meet Your Listeners’ (and Customers’) Needs, Be Sure to Listen to What They’re Saying
As public speakers, we’re not always able to offer our audiences “content” that’s as satisfying as that pastry. But we can usually offer a genuine interaction.
We can talk to our customers instead of at them, and we can try our best to listen to what they’re saying.
When we do that, our listeners — whether or not they’re customers — are likely to feel well-served.
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