Saturday 24 June 2023

The value of listening

My old school, Marist College in Canberra, asked me to write a few words for their quarterly newsletter. They like to feature successful old boys and someone dobbed me in.

These things are generally a potted biography, but I wanted to say something that might actually be of value. And this particular subject is close to my heart. As is this photo of me with Big Ted.

My name's Joel Rheinberger and I talk for a living. But the skill is really in the listening.

I'm a Presenter for ABC Radio in Hobart, doing a daily talk show about every subject under the sun. It's a delightful job, where you meet new people every day and help them to tell their stories.

It took me a while to get here. After graduating from Marist with the class of '88, I did a communications degree with a writing major. And I found work writing and voicing comedy at a radio station.

Voice work is also all about listening. You've got to pay very close attention to the people you want to sound like and pick the words that give them character. Then you have to do the even harder thing of listening to yourself to see if you're nailing it.

Most people hate hearing recordings of themselves. This is because you normally hear the vibrations of your voice via bone conduction inside your head, which is very different to hearing your voice vibrating through the air. And so the recordings don't sound like you at all!

Except they actually do. That recording is how you really sound to everyone else.

To become better at voice overs, I had to listen to what I really sounded like. I previously thought I had a great voice, but it turns out I was quite nasal with some odd breathing habits. And some of my impressions were terrible. It's humbling, but only by listening did I get better.

After I was done with comedy, I spent some years writing ads, before finding my current career at the ABC. My day basically consists of interviewing people and I can’t emphasize enough the value of listening to them.

You want to hear the facts, but also the emotions behind them, so you can find the heart of their story. Sometimes a guest will drop a tiny nugget of gold in a conversation, which can lead you to brilliant tales. So you've got to follow the gold!

I once interviewed a French woman who acts as a tour guide here, to talk about what French tourists want to see in Tasmania. She mentioned sailing to Australia with a look of great nostalgia, so I asked questions about that. It turns out she and her husband lived on a yacht, adopted a child in South America, then sailed with him to Antarctica. She showed me pictures of this grinning dark-haired waif standing in snow next to an emperor penguin.

What an amazing story! And if I hadn't paid attention, I would have missed it.

Sometimes I think my guests have never experienced someone listening to them this way. Nobody has ever given them that quality of attention, so it's very powerful. They will trust me with dark and difficult tales, shedding tears on the radio, because they can see I am truly with them.

So I talk for a living. But first I listen.

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