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Podcast Episode 038: Listening to the unsaid in your audience

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Liz Gross leads the team at Campus Sonar, an agency which empowers colleges and universities to find and analyze relevant conversation, learning and engaging with them. She calls it social listening.

The cost of not listening has led to public distrust of these institutions in the USA, and this distrust fundamentally undercuts tertiary education’s mission of access to learning. It also carries a financial cost in slowed enrollments, and legal fees.

Liz speaks about the importance of listening in a crisis situation. It’s these moments when trust will be lost the fastest and will cost the most to repair, but good listening can mitigate these.

Whilst it’s tempting for Liz and her agency to bring new clients onboard as quickly as possible, she has found that taking the time to listen to potential customers leads to better outcome to both her and the client.

Campus Sonar reveals that there’s often a disconnect between owned and earned conversations about a college. Clients need to get on board with the conversations that are already happening, alongside looking for results of their own campaigns.

Listen to hear about the example of Spring Hill College, and why ‘family’ was such a topic of discussion. Spring Hill College were able to embrace this and make it a key part of the college’s identity; engaging everyone from parents, prospective and current students, to alumni decades out from graduation.

Tune in to Learn

    • Cost of not listening is financial, legal and reputation
    • How to go from purpose-driven listening at work, to listening without an agenda
    • How listening to your audience makes speaking to them more effective


Episode 38: Deep Listening with Liz Gross

Oscar Trimboli:

Hi. I’m Oscar Trimboli, and this is the Deep Listening podcast series, designed to move you from an unconscious listener to a deep and productive listener. Did you know you spend 55% of your day listening, yet only 2% of us have had any listening training what so ever? Frustration, misunderstanding, wasted time and opportunity along with creating poor relationships are just some of the costs of not listening. Each episode of the series is designed to provide you with practical, actionable, and impactful tips to move you through the five levels of listening.

So, I invite you to visit to learn about the five levels of listening and how others are making an impact beyond words.

Liz Gross:                                

I think she would give the practical advice to try to listen without an agenda of your own. If you don’t listen to them, it is completely realistic that you lose your trust. Then in the long term, that will affect our viability as an institution of higher education.

Oscar Trimboli:                   

In this episode of Deep Listening, impact beyond words, we’ll hear from Liz Gross, from Campus Sonar, an agency dedicated to helping higher education institutions listen and learn from what’s said and what’s unsaid on campus and online. Liz explains the massive cost of not listening on university campuses. She speaks about Michigan State University and the cost to their reputation and their legal costs as a result of not listening for decades to student complaints. Liz tells a compelling story about Spring Hill College and how they discovered what’s unsaid across so many generations of the Spring Hill family.

The Spring Hill story is about the impact that you can make when you listen well beyond the words, when you listen beyond the classroom, when you listen beyond the obvious that’s online. Liz and the Spring Hill showcase, a massive impact listening can make in creating connections across community, students, and generation. Let’s hear from Liz.

Liz Gross:                                

I am the Founding Director of Campus Sonar. Campus Sonar is an agency that works specifically with colleges and universities. We empower them to find and analyse online conversations that matter to them. Those conversations might be about their own campus, or they could be about topics or other campuses that have interest to them. So, we find and analyse those conversations. We identify immediate engagement opportunities for them. So, through social media, there are students and families talking about colleges but not to them all the time, and we help them make sure that they seize those opportunities.

Then, at our core, we’re using all of the information that we gather from those online conversations to develop data-driven insights that actually impact campus strategy. Often that impact is not just online, it can be offline as well. So, we generally are working in one of three areas on campus, and that would be in the admissions and enrolment management function, helping to recruit and retain students, and the marketing and communications function working with brand management, reputation management, crisis communication, and market research.

In the alumni engagement and development part of campus, working to keep alumni connected to the university and engaged with them and also helping them understand ways that they can improve their fundraising and development strategies to raise more money from their alumni and constituencies to continue the work.

Oscar Trimboli:                   

What do you think the cost of them not listening to these three stakeholder communities is?

Liz Gross:                                

The cost of not listening to your core audiences, your constituencies, your consumers, however you want to use the C words really, is developing a lack of trust between the two. In the United States as well as across the globe, but I live mostly in the US data. We can see very dramatically that the general public does not trust institutions as a whole. But institutions of higher education specifically have been declining in trust in our country for years. And specifically, in one political party, there’s data that says that the majority of the folks in that party actually believe that colleges and universities are harming society more than they are helping it.

I don’t believe that is because colleges are doing harm and they’re not educating students. I think it’s because they are not listening to what the public needs, and they are not responding when the public voice has genuine concerns, and very, very often the academy forgets that the majority of our country is not them. The majority of the United States doesn’t have a four-year college degree. So, when you live in a bubble, like I could, where a lot of my friends and colleagues have bachelor’s, master’s or doctoral degrees, it’s hard to remember that the general public is not those people.

If you don’t listen to them, it is completely realistic that you lose your trust, and then in the long term, that will affect our viability as an institution of higher education, our ability to achieve our mission of educating folks who do not yet have any post-secondary degree and our mission of providing access to information and knowledge and furthering constructive and critical thoughts across the world. So, I really think the costs of not listening in higher education is enormous. Currently, we are seeing a lot of institutions deal with the consequences of that.

Oscar Trimboli:                   

Beyond the issue of trust, are there any other costs that institutions aren’t thinking about because they’re not listening?

Liz Gross:                                

From a reputation management standpoint, there is a monetary cost and what happens if you don’t listen in a crisis, and that crisis from what I see often is because of some sort of bad actor situation associated with the institution. So, somebody breaks the law. Somebody says something incredibly offensive that is associated with an institution. If a lot of work has to be done to rebuild trust then through paid means whether that’s public relations or outreach or anything, that is a real dollar value cost.

There are some folks right now that think that one of the largest university trust issues that’s in the news in the United States in spring of 2018, is a trial going on with a former employee of Michigan State University. Headlines just came out that they’ve already spent over $500 million on legal fees, potentially, because the campus did not listen to reports and complaints from students and student athletes’ years ago. So, in addition to the cost from the survivors’ psychological impact and physical impact, there’s a monetary cost to the institution there.

So, all of the fallout that can come when you’re not listening to feedback can be incredibly quantifiable. I think if folks would really sit back and think on that, we would dedicate a lot more positions to listening than we do to speaking.

Oscar Trimboli:                   

Exploring the cost of not listening or the impact of listening deeply. I’m sure you spend time with customers. Have you got an example of either or both when you didn’t listen to the customer with your organisation, or you thought you did a great job of listening and then had a really positive outcome?

Liz Gross:                                

I think an example of a really great job of listening is when we can deliver a product, and for us, that is analysis and strategic insights that are well aligned with the priorities of our customer without us having to lay that all out in advance. So, when we can be in a situation where we say, “Is this what you were thinking?” And they are immediately five steps ahead and know exactly what it is that we’re working towards, I think that’s a situation where we listened well. A really good example of that, when we launched our business, we launched with a few pilot partners, and one of them was Beloit College, a small liberal arts college in the southern part of Wisconsin, almost in the state of Illinois.

We started having a conversation with them of what it was they wanted to know about the online conversation surrounding their organisation and what we could do to help them better draw strategic insight from that. If you go back and look at the transcript of that call, which does exist, we were talking very much at a tactical level to a lot of things. But there was one person in the room who shared some key phrases that were very clearly strategic rather than tactical. He was the person that’s in charge of their communications and marketing strategy.

He shared phrases like demand generation initiative and needing to clarify brand attributes and didn’t tell us what to do with that or how that might work. But we took that back and started working on some analysis for them. He saw something in our analysis that we had not even seen. He determined based on what we had done that what we were doing was taking the entire online conversation about his institution, showing what was resonating the most among the public, which wasn’t what they wanted to be resonating, and then showing them how in the future we could clearly track the things they wanted to be resonating at a somatic level.

So, for instance, they’re a liberal arts college. One of the things that they want people to know about them is that they provide mentorship opportunities for college students. But clearly, a college is not going to say,

“Mentorship opportunity. Mentorship opportunity,” over and over and over again. There’s a lot of other words and phrases that make up that concept of mentorship. What we’re going to work with him to do is build a lexicon of everything that could mean mentorship and help him look at the greater online conversation over time and see how that part of their brand grows.

That is now something that resonates with a lot of potential clients, but it’s something that only came out of that initial discussion and then a back-and-forth process, where we really had to listen to what they had to say. It was not something that my team sitting back in the office ideating what our product offering might be. It was not on our list. So, we knew that we had listened to each other well when we came up with something brand new that had value to both sides.

I think an example of when we didn’t listen so well, and this actually happens multiple times, and we’re actively making some organisational structures to change it, is when we hear someone who comes to us whether that’s at a conference or via email and says, “Hi, I’d like a demo of your product,” and our first response is, “Sure. Here’s a demo of our product,” which means we spend a lot of time and energy investing in a demonstration for someone who may not need our product or may not have an ability to purchase our product or may not even understand what our product is.

We have learned over the last few months that the appropriate response to, “Hi, can I have a demo of your product?” is, “We would love to give a demo to you, but in order to better customise that demo, let’s learn more about your organisation, your role, the challenges that you’re facing right now, and ways that we might be able to help you be successful.” In those calls, we have literally three questions that we ask for a call that might take 30 to 60 minutes. The rest of the call is that prospective customer talking to us and telling us all of the things we need to listen to to determine if we can actually provide value to them.

So, taking the opportunity to listen there I think is going to be much more effective for us. But as a new business that wants to book revenue, when someone says, “I think I want to buy your thing,” your gut reaction is, “Sure, let me sell you my thing,” when listening you might actually help us get to a better fit or a better outcome.


Oscar’s little book carries a big message on why deep listening is so important if we’re to have impact in a noisy world, or if we simply wish to work our way through a noisy world with much less frustration over not being heard. Oscar’s insights for making it so are easy to follow and apply. For me, his finishing with wisdom around the ancient Chinese character ting brings all of the aspects of his messages together. Simplicity in a complex world. I encourage you to have a listen, a deep listen to what Oscar has to say. I know I feel better able to engage with the modern world through applying his wisdom.

Oscar Trimboli:                   

When you work with institutions, how do you help them to listen to what’s not said by their stakeholders?

Liz Gross:                                

So, for us, that would require us to have a really good understanding, again, a very strategic approach but also what it is that they are saying themselves as an institution. One of the things that we do … I think this is a good example of that … is we capture all conversation about a campus. So not just what constituents are saying about the campus but what the campus is saying about itself on its own channels. Oftentimes we will take that owned conversation and map it up against what everyone else is saying and that’s the earned conversation.

When you look at the themes and owned conversation and then see how many of them do not map at all to the earned conversation and vice versa, it becomes very clear where a disconnect exists because one group is just completely not saying something that the other group is saying over and over and over again. So, we will use that to help institutions understand what they should be talking about that might resonate with their audience, because their audience is already talking about it, but also, to stop talking about the things that they have become very accustomed to talking about that have never been repeated with their audience.

So clearly the message wasn’t resonating and didn’t have any legs to get moved on organically at all. So, for us, that is the biggest way we see what’s not being said, is by comparing those two sets of conversation to the other. Another one back to the Beloit example that I used earlier is knowing key strategies that a campus is assuming they’re using to either spark conversation in the public or in the media and then building some very clear categories on that and looking at it over time. So, you might say you’re very interested in service learning and that you build graduates who have lifelong service learning orientations.

But if no one is ever talking about that after they leave campus, are you really doing as good of a job with it as you could? So, one of them is just looking for gaps between groups, and then the other is knowing what we should be looking for and understanding if exists at all.

Oscar Trimboli:                   

What’s the most potent example of organisations working with you to listen beyond the obvious? And what impact has that made for the institution, the staff, and the students, and their constituents?

Liz Gross:                                

I love this example from Spring Hill College, which is a small, private Jesuit institution in Alabama, and we worked with them. They wanted to do a refresh to their University brand. Something that would help them recruit students, retain students, gain public recognition, increase engagement with alumni, all of the things. We started with a three-year survey of what they had said about themselves and what have been said about them online. When we do that, we start with some top-level insights of the topics that have just risen up in conversation over time. When you’ve worked with enough colleges and universities, you tend to see a theme there, right?

There will be some names of some prominent faculty members. There’ll be a lot of references to athletics. Any big championships or awards will pipe up and then general things, like move in or graduation. With Spring Hill College, what came up right away that surprised us was the word family. It rose to the top as something that was in the top 25 phrases used within the university. We dug in deeper. We put an analyst on the project to look beyond the word family and look for any familial terms. So, mother, daughter, son, uncle, and then see really what this meant.

We gathered this subset of conversation about family and Spring Hill College, and we defined one instance and one theme that the campus has really been able to embrace and use to drive some exciting things. So, one instance that we found was a post from the granddaughter of the first African American woman to graduate from a private college, which was Spring Hill College. Her granddaughter had tweeted about it with a very popular hashtag, but not tagged or mentioned to the college in any way, shape or form. You know, talked about how proud she was of her grandma, how she was a strong black woman, and that tweet went completely viral without the campus ever knowing about it.

So, it was a missed opportunity that they saw that they could have been able to be involved with and amplify and learn from had they been listening. But at the larger scale, the theme that we saw was that this concept of Spring Hill family extended from a prospective student all the way to alumni and included the college itself. So, we were seeing accepted students when they were still seniors in high school say, “I’m so excited to join the Spring Hill family.” We were seeing parents of college students saying they were glad their son or daughter was a member of the Spring Hill family.

We were seeing athletics teams refer to each other as family. Then we’ll see alumni 10-20 years out say they really miss their Spring Hill family. It was something that clearly United people that were associated with the college and was really resonating with them, but it had never been used purposefully by the college. So, there was no family tagline. There was no family messaging. Once they saw that, they were able to grab it as a new part of their brand campaign and help people realise that this is an expectation that you will have a sense of family when you are at Spring Hill College.

It’s something they were able to learn quickly and at a very low cost just by looking at online conversation, whereas in some traditional brand research, it could take months or years and a lot more money to come to some sort of theme that you would then have to test for a few more years. So, they were very, very excited about that outcome, and I like to tell the story, and I’m excited to see how they continue to implement it. It’s just something they’ve started implementing.

Oscar Trimboli:                   

I love how Liz’s story illustrates the power of what’s unsaid, and it reminded me about the deep listening playing cards, specifically as it relates to unsaid. The Deep Listening playing-card series is organised into five levels of listening, and each level has 10 cards to help make listening practical and a daily activity for you. Some of my clients have used these cards by themselves, created an accountability buddy where they share the cards on a daily basis with somebody else, used it as part of a monthly theme in team meetings.

The Deep Listening playing-card series have been used in a diverse range of organisations, from prisons, to schools, corporate workplaces and everything in between. Each of the cards are organised around four key terms: The concept, the explanation, the tip, and the question. They’re designed to make it really practical and useful for you on a daily basis. When we look at the concept that Liz has just talked about unsaid, the explanation is, how do you listen beyond the words? It provides a tip that says, “The unsaid is three times more impactful than what is said.”

Then to make it even more practical, it provides a question you might be able to ask the speaker. The question here is what I’m most curious about so far is what we haven’t discussed. Deep Listening, the playing cards, available at

Oscar Trimboli:                   

Like all institutions, universities must listen and adapt to the changing requirements of their constituents. The Michigan State University case is a powerful example of what happens when complaints are ignored and when people aren’t listened to. The impact of the MSU case to their reputation will be felt by them for many decades to come. When people ask me, “So Oscar, what’s the cost of not listening?” I can simply point out in the case of MSU as tens of millions of dollars in legal costs alone, but that’s only one of the costs. It’s cost to their image, cost to their reputation, the cost of how many students are likely to come to that institution in the future.

The way Liz was explaining how to mine for stories and stories that connect, stories that are beyond the obvious, and a great example of level four, listening to what’s unsaid through her stories about Spring Hill College were really compelling, to hear what’s happening, when you listen to what’s unsaid across generations, across campuses. If you’ve got a couple of extra minutes, I’ve got a little bonus where we learn from Liz’s college communication professor, Dr. Rhonda Sprague, a really powerful listening influence on Liz and her career, where she talks about the importance of listening without an agenda.

Thanks for listening.

Liz Gross:              

I actually was an interpersonal communication major in college. Our main professor in that major was a woman named Dr. Rhonda Sprague, and she was a phenomenal listener to students. She taught courses in interpersonal communication, nonverbal communication, family communication, and there was always some sort of discussion involved in her courses. She was one of the first instructors that turned the class around for us and had us teach parts of the class after times of self-study. I specifically remember that she was good at seeing if we needed something other than the lesson that she had planned for the day, and she would be willing to deviate from her plan.

This was probably a little more serious than you were intending. But the thing I remember the most is she was my professor the day that the planes hit the twin towers in New York City. That happened probably about 15 or 20 minutes before my class with her was about to start. So, as I was walking to class, I walked through the student union, saw the news on television and then kept going because I didn’t want to miss class. She had written on the board and then left the room. “You need to go watch the news. Today is not a day for me to lecture.”

It was things like that … I mean, that was a major situation, but even on a smaller scale, where she would make sure that she was giving us what we needed as college students, not just people who needed to pass a test and get a good grade at the end of her class. She would definitely talk about trying to listen to understand a person beyond whatever that outer layer is that they presented themselves. So again, she’s an interpersonal communication theorist, so she had a lot of research and theory behind this.

But the idea that you have your public self in this persona that you put forward, and then you have your authentic self that is known to you, and then there’s also yourself that may not even be known to you depending on your level of self-awareness. She would argue that if you listen to someone both with your ears and your eyes, over time you can get beyond that outer level and get to know how does this person really see themselves and how do other people see this person in a way they might not even recognise. I remember her class on nonverbal communication, really teaching us to see what we could learn from a conversation if nothing was actually said out loud.

After I graduated, I would basically use that technique as I was riding the subway home in Washington DC every day to try and understand the dynamic between people on the train car. So, she would definitely speak about those layers of folks and the importance of what you hear and what you see and using both of those.

Oscar Trimboli:                   

If we were to ask her for one really practical thing to do that she notices most people don’t that would make a big difference what do you think she’d point out?

Liz Gross:                                

I think she would give the practical advice to try to listen without an agenda of your own.

Oscar Trimboli:                   

How do you go with that today?

Liz Gross:                                

But for me, that’s hard. I am in a leadership position where it is my job to set vision and define strategy and help an entire business move forward on a regular basis. When I’m out of the office, I’m usually … I’m not usually. I’m often on a stage speaking to people and trying to share ideas. So, in those situations, it’s very important for me to have an agenda of my own, where it’s easier to take Dr. Sprague’s advice and listen without an agenda or with less of an agenda, is when I’m in one-on-one conversations with people who I work closely with.

I find myself asking questions and those conversations such as, “Well, what did you mean by that? Or what were you expecting to happen in this situation?” So that I can get an answer from somebody in their words rather than I think what a lot of us try to do, which is say what we think they think and ask them to confirm or deny that.


Oscar Trimboli:                   

Deep listening, impact beyond words.


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