The importance of being a good listener


Yulia Annenkova, contributing editor, observer, proof reader
Under no circumstances would I have considered it right and justified to constantly do listening comprehensions when I studied English at the University. Frankly, most of my life I intensely loathed listening practice as a part of learning. How could it help? – I thought — all these dull voices of some mysterious distant spirits talking about far-fetched issues… Their voices make them sound half asleep! There are so many really helpful language practices, for instance: a one-to-one conversation with a native speaker or watching ‘House of Cards’ with or without subtitles. However, my grumbling didn’t reach the point of rebellion, and I mindlessly tried to tune my brain to listening to those slumberous voices on the tapes. An absolutely useless pastime, I used to think.

What a big surprise it was when my new job suddenly demanded me to take part in phone conversations with US and UK speakers! The people on the other end were from European Council, London legal practitioners, OSCE or American prison Fort Dix — no one cared that I am not so good at listening. If the interviewee was ready to talk, I had to forget all my problems and communicate in the best way possible.

And soon I understood that long-distance calls weren’t my only problem: I was all set for the talks, and even if I lost the thread of the conversation and had some difficulty in picking it up again, I could always change the subject or ask for some clarification. But when it was all over and I had to jot the conversation down, making it into coherent tapescript without perfect listening skills was next to impossible. Imagine: sometimes you hear only some snippets of conversation, sometimes your source is mumbling, or speaking with an accent, or is almost whispering, or doesn’t pause or uses slang. And, let us not forget, there will be some words you just don’t know. Your interviewee isn’t an audiobook reader: he or she has no concept of being slow, eloquent and clear. As a journalist and professional, you have to render what your interviewee/person of interest says word for word. And under these unfortunate circumstances you are bound to check up each and every word to be sure not to screw the whole thing up.

A misread quote can cause a huge scandal if your interviewee finds out that their words have suddenly been changed to mean the contrary. These days journalism is shrouded by great shadows of guilt, and you constantly have to prove your competence. A single mistake can result in years of your hard labour going down the toilet if someone accuses you of a premeditated fact-spinning or even an innocent misrepresentation.
Unfortunately, ‘House of Cards’, in all the genius of the cast and its creators couldn’t resolve my listening comprehension issues. When we see someone talking, our eyes help us to read the body language. A phone call deprives us of a key part of communication. It’s doesn’t make much difference when we are using our mother tongue, but during a conversation with a non-native speaker it can be really stressful. And here is why I have regrets that I deviated from listening classes. Turns out they were the only means by which to get myself ready for phone conversations spanning the world.

Watch the interview with Oxford University undergraduate Sophie Kinloch and make its tapescript.


In the tapescript underline the English equivalents of the following words and expressions:

  1. иметь обаяние
  2. занудные политики
  3. заносчивые знаменитости
  4. в чьих-то интересах
  5. лучшие фрагменты (сведения)
  6. создать лучший сюжет
  7. повседневные сюжеты
  8. поддерживать интерес (публики)
  9. короткий отрывок, фраза из речи знаменитости (цитируемая по радио или телевидению)
  10. носить пуленепробиваемый жилет
  11. «ухватить атмосферу»
  12. отразить события
  13. долг перед парижанами

Julia: Sophie Kinloch here, and she’s going to tell us some things about journalists’ car. Do you need any special education to become a journalist in the UK?
Sophie: Well, I think you need a lot of charm, because I think it is very important to be able to charm the most boring, the most dull politicians, the most arrogant famous person. You need to be able to get the best out of them, because it is in your interest to get an interesting interview. It is not in their interest and so you need to be able to convince them to give that… to give you their best snippets, their best life stories. Hmm…so, you can produce the best stories as a journalist.
Julia: Thank you. What about any qualities, some basic qualities of a journalism? Continue your idea.
Sophie: I think you need to be able to find in a story the most important, the most nuanced piece of information and run with it so that you can build on it and discover something new about a subject that might be quite everyday and quite boring. And I think you need to be able to interest and nurture someone’s curiosity in a subject that could be quite dull.
Julia: Thank you. And now because your train is leaving in a minute very quickly tell us about your most funny, the funniest experience and most, maybe, the most terrible experience I know you’ve got something to say.
Sophie: So, the funniest experience was Paris Fashion Week: jumping over a billion photographers desperately trying to get my camera in front of Catherine Deneuve the famous French actress. I’m to trying get a sound bite out of her. It is like a jungle in Fashion Week everyone is shameless and wants to get the best possible photo and video and it involved me climbing over the shoulders of three men to get to Catherine Deneuve, but I got my sound bite. And the most terrible were the attacks I had to do in Paris on the 30th of November.
Julia: You don’t say so! You were there?
Sophie: Yes, and I had to wear a bulletproof vest and report from the raids after the terrible attacks and it was a terrible time in Paris and it was very important to capture the emotion and atmosphere there.
Julia: Were you afraid?
Sophie: Yes, I was afraid, but it was also important to portray that was really going on in Paris and so was more duty to the Parisians and to the foreigners to best capture the story.
Julia: Why do you think it is important to get to cover this story and capture it?
Sophie: Because I think you need to… I think it is important to capture a city in crisis in, in its worst time, because then you can remember, what it is like to be in a city when it is jolly, happy and at its best.
Julia: Thank you very much, darling!

Listen to the interview and answer the questions:

  1. How many years has Jim Gardner’s been in the profession?
  2. Does one need a degree in journalism to join the profession in the UK?
  3. What qualities did Jim think were necessary for a good journalist before he joined the profession?
  4. What qualities did he really need?
  5. What was his first job as a journalist?
  6. What job did he do at university?
  7. What were the finest assignments he was given?
  8. What were the most upsetting ones?
  9. What sum of money was he given to make the readers’ dreams come true?
  10. What were the most upsetting tasks?
  11. What did «door-knocking» involve?
  12. Why do people like to read about the sensational so much?
  13. How do journalists get around the problem of the existing strict rules against publishing offensive info?

Make use of the following words and expressions:

  • to have a degree in journalism
  • educational background
  • to be literate
  • to be handy
  • determination
  • persistence
  • rat-like cunning
  • to be taken on as a trainee
  • women’s interest magazine
  • strictly speaking
  • to pretend to do sth
  • not to have a clue
  • to have a stressful time
  • to be given assignments
  • a large-circulation magazine
  • a dream-come-true
  • to be amenable to sth
  • to be incredibly difficult
  • to be absolutely delighted
  • to lead the lives of quiet desperation
  • outrageous
  • to be entertaining and interesting
  • publishing offensive and embarrassing info about people
  • strict rules about privacy
  • to do sth without one;s consent
  • to hamper journalism
  • to get a compromise between observing people’s privacy and sticking to the law