Many times I have posed this question to a student gazing out the window or at a wall in my classroom way back during my teaching career. I was sure that they were not! Later, when I helped the high school where I was teaching to implement a study skills program, I learned that these students might actually be listening to me, and that the manner in which they received information influenced them to look away when they listened. Now in the business world, when I am (often) tempted to ask the same question during a meeting or presentation, I remember what I learned back then.
There are a number of factors that influence how people acquire knowledge; the most obvious being a preference for visual or audio. I am without doubt a visual person and there are two long-time habits that I have that reveal this: the first is that when I drive, I often listen to the radio. If I am driving in familiar territory or on the highway for long miles, the radio is on. But if I am trying to get to a place where I have not been before, I always instinctively turn off the radio. It turns out that I do that because I prefer visual, and the audio signals make it hard for me to concentrate.
The second story is my presentation style. I thought it was just a holdover from my teaching days, but I can rarely make a presentation of any sort with out getting up to a whiteboard or a flipchart to start drawing pictures and diagrams. Again, since my preferred style is visual, I much prefer to present visually as well as verbally. Ever meet someone that can’t talk while sitting on their hands?
There are some interesting and important conclusions to be taken from this: first of all, if you have an audience of even 2 or 3 people in front of you, it is entirely possible that you will find at least one person whose style is different from yours. So, if you are visual, like me, and you are talking to an audio person, you must take care; the audio person would prefer to listen rather than look.
How will you know? It is very possible that you will want to ask that person “Are your really listening?”, because they will not be looking at your drawings. They may also be asking questions with words that are pointed to audio, “Could you explain?”, “Could you say?” as opposed to visual, “Could you illustrate?”
You can maximize your meetings and presentations by preparing yourself for both styles. As a visual person, I often prepare graphs, drawings and other materials as part of my presentation. However, in order to accommodate people who prefer audio, I must also prepare my words well; I need to be clear and concise with my message.
I noticed a few years ago that at times, people that I gave direction to verbally at times struggle to understand what I wanted them to do. I realized that I had to be more precise in how I described things when I was talking in order for them to get it the first time around. This would be a case where a thousand words (well chosen) are better than a picture!