Designing for Active Listening

In this excerpt, poet Edna St. Vincent Millay ponders who will “weave” the overwhelming amount of facts from a state of “uncombined” droplets into “fabric.” Essentially, she is asking who is going to mould this fragmented bit of unrelated information into something useful or usable? This was written around 1939 so you can imagine how she might feel about the barrage of information we have in 2020.

Today we are in ‘information overload.’ Between 24-hour news programs, social media, emails, texts, household responsibilities, sick parents, and our children’s schools, our brains are exhausted and we are finding it difficult to focus. Neuropsychologist Dr. Kenneth Freundlich writes: “Being constantly bombarded with far more information than we can process works to the detriment of our memory, our concentration and ultimately our ability to produce timely results and make good decisions” (“Information Overload“).

Humans are natural pattern-seekers; our brains are constantly in a state of comparing, processing, connecting, and prioritizing information, and it’s difficult to turn it off. As a result, we come to workplace settings (meetings, presentations, etc) distracted and lacking an ability to focus. As I discussed in my previous post “Human Needs in Conversation,” humans are finding it hard to listen at all, much less actively or aggressively listen, engage, remember, or respond thoughtfully.

When designers are planning for conversations, there are two sides to balance while considering the act of listening: the TALKER, and the HEARER.

If the narrative is a snore-fest, we can’t expect it will engage distracted, overloaded brains. But we also need those brains to respectfully turn their attention to the moment, turn off their personal distractions, and focus. Thus, I’ve developed two tenets to achieve active listening, one focused on the talking and one focused on the hearing.

In The Art of Focused Conversation, a wonderful Edna St. Vincent Millay poem excerpt is shared:

“Upon this gifted stage, in its dark hour

Rains from the sky a meteoric shower

Of facts . . . they lie unquestioned, uncombined,

Wisdom enough to leech us of our ill

Is daily spun, but there exists no loom

To weave it into fabric”

-Millay, qtd in The Art of Focused Conversation, 107

Two Considerations of Designing Conversations to Achieve Active Listening



“Go into any meeting in any company, and you’ll see the same thing: people surreptitiously checking their devices while checking out of the conversation that’s happening right in front of them. I will readily admit that this behavior goes on my Most Annoying List, made even more relevant by the amount of work I do with groups” (Hedges).

It is common to see our co-workers “multitasking” right next to us in meetings, during presentations, sometimes in the middle of our one and one conversations. One study “found that when people switch back and forth between tasks, they lose up to 50% of their efficiency and accuracy” (Hedges).

So yes, simply put , it’s frustrating. But it also significantly hinders our ability as communicators to meet all four of the human conversational needs: distraction undermines our ability to understand concepts and form common ground, it restricts our sense of safe sharing and trust building, prohibits us from connecting to any especially important narrative happening in the room (above), and detaches us from bonds forming during time of playfulness and humor.

The designer’s role in these situations is not always clear. During storyboarding and planning, designers need to consider the role technology will have on the conversation and advocate for its limited use, yet, it may be difficult to enforce. Kristi Hedges, a leadership development consultant, suggests establishing ground rules beforehand, such as requiring devices be turned off or muted until a predetermined tech-break. “…If they are kind enough to put their phones away, then you can do your part by honoring breaks for them to check in… give participants a clear break time with a set beginning and end. People are more likely to unplug when they can plan for when to plug back in” (Hedges).



“In Made to Stick, authors Chip and Dan Heath give numerous examples of stories that cling to our brains like burrs on a Corgi… What gives them their Velcro-like adhesion? According to the authors, it’s because they’re 1) Simple, 2) unexpected, 3) concrete, 4) credible, and 5) emotional. When you apply these five principles to stories that align with your key messages, you deepen the emotional bond…” (Neumeier 92).

Not unlike the “sticky” visuals we discussed in my previous post “Designing for… common ground & understanding,” good stories can adhere to our brains and catch us up in their nets. “Using principal storytelling elements will boost the impact of your message dramatically and prevent you and your audience from drowning in an ever-rising sea of information” (Choy 66). But crafting a story is difficult, an art. Many of us have had no formal training on story development. Luckily there are a plethora of training sessions, videos and books out there to help us craft engaging and powerful stories with our data within work contexts. It takes practice, but most people are able to elevate their ability to tell stories, even with data.

For designers, one tool we can use to craft engaging narratives in conversations is storyboarding. Not unlike wireframing, a method frequently used by web designers and developers, a storyboard is a “visual depiction of the scenes, dialog, action in a sequential order. It is a method used to mock up ideas, designs and concepts…” (UX Design). Similar to the way we might practice an anticipated conversation in our minds (or sometimes out loud), a storyboard can aid designers in crafting anticipated conversations by mapping out who will be in the room, what subject matter will be presented, when certain visuals will be needed, and how certain information may be perceived. If there is anyone invested in the success of a conversation, from a direct manager to the CEO, a storyboard acting as a conversation “prototype” could aid in establishing buy-in from senior leadership about the conversation’s purpose and objectives.


An Anti-PowerPoint Manifesto

You might think it’s crazy for me, a tried and true visual communicator, to say this… but here goes:

Ban PowerPoints

“Death by PowerPoint” has become an actual phrase in today’s working landscape due to the prevalence of over bulleted, often text-heavy slides, with cliched stock photos of handshakes, puzzle pieces, or gears sprinkled in (Wakefield).

Jeff Bezos has even famously banned PowerPoint presentations in executive meetings at Amazon, opting instead for a shared reading of a “Narrative Memo” before beginning any discussion on a topic (Gallo).

LET’S JUST ALL AGREE TO BAN… any PowerPoint deck over 10 slides. All graphics of gears or puzzle pieces or well-tailored white people shaking hands. There should be no spreadsheets copied and pasted directly from Excel. There should be no bulleted lists with paragraph after paragraph of text.

And you should never EVER– just read directly from your slide.


If you like this idea, but are not quite sure where to get started, the has some help creating narrative memos: “The Anatomy of an Amazon 6-pager.”

“I know it’s mundane, but do people ever get together – and if they get together, do they do something other than watch stupid PowerPoints together? …Why would you bring people together—which is a big undertaking—and not use the time for real learning?” (Senge).