Are you a speaker who eats, speaks and leaves? Then listen up.

I am.  Or rather I was.  But I am trying to change.

Once upon a time it was only Government Ministers who turned up five minutes before their piece, said what they had to say, then left.  It’s not uncommon for them to depart the podium without even answering questions.  And then there are those who don’t turn up at all because of other, more urgent, commitments.

The only comfort I can give the conference organiser who is having a sleepless night worrying about such an eventuality.  Or an equally sleepless night after the event, cringing in embarrassment is this: don’t!  A large number of your audience have been where you are.  And most of us have come to the conclusion that the majority of Ministers are best neither seen nor heard.

Anyway, the ‘eats, speaks and leaves’ presenter has become a more common character in recent years.  They come, they expound their piece and then they disappear.  It is symptomatic of a culture which is stuck in broadcast mode and where the art of listening is in short supply.

I fully confess that, up until very recently, I was one of those people. But then I thought about the many rich conversations I had had when I had stayed at events, and how important these had been to my own learning and development.

The lady in the wheelchair and her carer at a dementia event in Bristol.  I thought she was there for herself.  How wrong could I be?  She had actually come along because, in spite of her disability, she wanted to help her neighbour with dementia who she was worried about.  That certainly challenged my assumptions.  It told me a lot about humanity and reminded me of the inherent goodness in most people.

The lady in Manchester who ruffled my feathers by asking ‘are you a patient?’ She was right to. Her experience as a patient told me a lot about the art of listening and how it is often missed in the delivery of health care.  But I wish I had not fumbled around when asked, and said more positively: ‘Am I a patient? No, but show me where to sign.’

The gentleman in Eastern region who eloquently criticised the waste of money represented by the tokenistic public involvement committees and forums he had been involved in over the years.  If only they had spent the money on the two or three that had really mattered and made a difference, he said, how much more could they have done.

Or just this week, at the excellent CF Trust clinical trials forum, hearing the wonderful, funny, inspiring men and women with CF who had to join us virtually because of the risk of cross-infection and spoke so eloquently about the issues they faced in getting on a clinical trial, the lack of patient information, the poor co-ordination across disciplines, the endless fight they had on their hands.

Their ingenuity made me want to paraphrase Shakespeare: Some are born innovative, some achieve innovation, and some have innovation thrust upon them.  This particular group of people seemed to be doing all three.

Yes, we are all busy.  And I can not promise that I shall never ‘eat, speak and leave’ again.  But I am going to do my best to be part of the conversation.  What is it that they say?  The first rule of communication is to listen.

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