March is Listening Awareness Month according to the International Listening Association, and since I believe listening is by far the most important part of communicating I offer these comments…
Speakers and presenters do most of the talking during a program. Sometimes — during keynote addresses to huge audiences, for example — they may do all of the talking. But, if you’re a masterful speaker, you actually do an equal amount of listening. Maybe even more.
First, you listen before you speak. It’s called research or speech preparation. You speak to the meeting planner. You reach out to prospective audience members. And you ask questions. Then you listen, not to confirm what you already believe but to uncover something new and to begin forging a bond with some of the people you’ll be addressing. (That’s what listening does — at least in part: it exposes you to the thoughts and feelings of others, and in the process it creates a relationship.)
Second, you listen as you’re speaking. This is difficult to do when you’re just starting out. Usually, you’re so nervous that you spend most of your energy focusing on yourself. You’re trying to avoid panic, to remember what you’re going to say next, and to slow down. You can’t imagine what it might mean to listen to your audience as you’re speaking. But if you get beyond all that and tune in to what your audience is saying to you — what they’re telling you in a thousand different ways through their body language, through the way they’re looking at you, through the quality and nature of their silence — you’ll become a much more powerful speaker.
Third, you listen during the Q&A portions of your talk, if you’re taking questions. (With a few exceptions, you should always, in my not so humble opinion, take questions.) The ability to understand what people are really asking and to respond in an appropriate way is what sets great speakers apart from all the rest. Listen on as many levels as possible: listen for the factual basis of the question, for the emotions underneath the question, and for the intent of the question. And then decide which level to respond to.
Finally, you listen after you’ve spoken. Listen to what people say about what you’ve said. Don’t just listen for praise or criticism. Listen to find out how people understood your presentation. Did they get the main point? If someone says, “I really liked your speech,” don’t go fishing for more compliments. Ask, “What’s the main thing that you remember about it?” Don’t try to correct them. (You’ll often be surprised — I know I am — when they attach to some relatively minor point you made, and loved it.) Just listen.
(You might want to take the listening quiz I created and posted here.)
Are there other times or ways you listen, as a speaker or presenter?
Photo courtesy of Ky Olsen at Flickr.