Good Speaking Requires Good Listening Help (page 3)
Introduction to Good Speaking Requires Good Listening
It is the province of knowledge to speak and it is the privilege of wisdom to listen.
—Oliver Wendell Holmes, 1809–1894
Before you can become an effective speaker, you must learn to be an active listener and observer of your surroundings and your audience. By listening to others and to yourself, you will learn what makes or breaks a great speech.
A wise man once said, "Nobody ever learned anything while he was talking." This is not entirely true when it comes to public speaking, because the art of public speaking can only be learned by speaking in public. In this sense, you will learn while you are talking.
Nevertheless, there is still truth in that maxim. You are reading this book because you want to learn how to speak in public effectively, and part of your learning will involve listening. You will want to listen to others who speak well so that you can learn by imitating their styles and content. You will also want to listen to public speakers who don't make such a good impression, and learn how to strengthen your own abilities by avoiding their short-comings. Perhaps most important of all, you will want to listen to yourself as though you were sitting in the audience, asking yourself how you'd respond if you were listening to someone else deliver your speech.
This lesson will help you learn how to listen by showing you the sort of problems that can hinder your own public speaking. You will learn these things by paying attention to others who speak in public, whether you're listening to a college lecture or watching a political speech on television, noting the speaker's delivery style and content while also paying attention to how well you're paying attention. You can then take that information and apply it to your own content and delivery, because you will have some understanding of how well your own audience is paying attention to you.
Limited Attention Span
It's a well-known fact that people have fairly short attention spans when it comes to listening to someone lecture. This means that the average audience member can only focus on a speaker's words for a certain period of time before he or she stops listening. The average adult can pay careful attention to a task for approximately 20 minutes before losing focus, and the average length of time for children is much shorter. Modern technology and entertainment, such as television and the Internet, also influence our attention span, and many researchers have suggested that people today have shorter attention spans than people did 100 years ago.
The next time you're listening to someone speak, focus on how well you pay attention. When you catch your mind wandering from the speaker's words, take note of how long you'd been paying close attention before you lost focus. Then bring your mind back to the speaker, and see how long you last before your mind wanders again. If you're like most people, you will find that you last approximately three minutes at a stretch before your attention is diverted.
Also, take note of why you stopped paying attention. It doesn't mean you were being disrespectful and it doesn't even necessarily mean that the person giving the speech was doing a bad job. It's human nature to wander.
This knowledge will help you plan your own speeches, since you can generally assume that your audience will be following closely for three minutes before they start to drift away. What you'll want to do is to regain their attention periodically, and you'll want to make the most of those three minutes. We will discuss some strategies that will help in these areas as we go along.
Simple daydreaming is not the only hazard to an audience's attention span. There can be any variety of environmental factors that distract your listeners, as we discussed in Lesson 1. You might get up at your friend's wedding to offer a toast to the groom, only to have a loud party kick into overdrive in an adjoining room at the banquet facility. You might have a positively brilliant speech planned for your public speaking class, only to arrive and find that the room is overheated and everyone has just finished a heavy lunch.
Some of these factors can be minimized by you, as we discussed previously, but you can generally anticipate that something unexpected will come along to offer distractions to your audience. Just remember this important point: If you have encountered such situations, so has everyone else who speaks publicly. You can learn from this by paying attention to your environment the next time you're listening to someone speak publicly.
First, take note of the environmental factors that are trying to distract you. Perhaps you're seated near two students who are whispering to one another, or maybe there is something fascinating happening outside the windows. Maybe you'll be listening to some-one speak after you've eaten a good meal, or maybe you'll be sitting under an air-conditioning vent that is creating icicles down your spine. Whatever the distractions may be, ask yourself what would help you to pay close attention to the speaker—other than removing the source of distraction. Is the speaker aware of the problem? And if so, does he or she overcome it in some way or just continue to drone on? Does the speaker manage to engage your attention despite the distractions? And if so, how? By making light of the situation and then moving on? By upstaging it in a certain way?
You will discover that part of what makes the distraction so distracting is that you choose to focus on it rather than on the speaker. Those whispering students draw your attention from the speaker because you choose to listen in their direction rather than toward the person speaking. Perhaps you're dying to know what they're whispering about, or perhaps you simply find the noise irritating. Whatever your reason, the real issue is that you find the whispering more interesting than what the speaker is saying.
This provides you with a very important piece of information: Your audience will be far more likely to pay close attention to your speech if they are interested in what you're saying. Many famous speeches have been given under adverse conditions, yet the audience didn't seem to notice those conditions because they were riveted by what the speaker was saying. For example, both Abraham Lincoln's "Gettysburg Address" and Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" were delivered outdoors to large crowds with infinite environmental distractions. King gave his speech at the Lincoln Memorial in the heart of Washington, D.C., with all its traffic and city noise going on all around, while Lincoln delivered his address on a foggy battlefield without the aid of microphone or even a podium.
When you are the speaker, you can take note of the environment even before you get up to the podium, asking yourself what factors might become a distraction to the audience. If there is loud noise coming in the windows, you will remember to speak loudly and clearly to overcome it. If the room is overheated, you will consciously add more animation to your delivery, using large gestures and perhaps walking away from the podium once or twice. If you feel comfortable, you can address the noise or the heat early on, so your audience is aware that you know they might be uncomfortable, and that it matters to you. These techniques will help you to draw the audience's attention away from the distraction and toward your words. And of course, you will know you have written a speech that will be of genuine interest to your listeners, because you spent time doing your research on the audience before you even began writing.
What's Bugging You?
The central point in this lesson is that you can learn how to be an effective speaker by first becoming an effective audience. If you find something distracting, chances are that others around you are also being distracted by it. At that point, take note of how the speaker handles the situation, and also take note of anything that causes you to pay closer attention to the speaker rather than to the distraction.
In the same way, you will occasionally hear a speaker who simply fails to grab your attention, even though the environment was perfectly suited to his or her talk. That will give you an excellent opportunity to analyze what factors make a speech less effective, and you will know what to avoid in your own speeches in the future. The following sections offer some practical advice on things to cultivate, as well as things to avoid.
The TMI Problem
One of the most common problems with speeches is TMI: too much information. This is actually the downside to the principle that we outlined in the previous lesson: You should always speak about something you know. When you know a great deal about your topic, your natural temptation will be to cram everything into your 20-minute presentation.
The problem with this goes back to our three-minute attention span. If you ask your audience to pay close attention while you pour out a torrent of facts and figures, they will be mentally fatigued by trying to absorb all those facts in a three-minute period, after which they will need to rest their minds by thinking about something else.
Think of your speech as though it were a gun. You could use a shotgun, which fires countless small bullets that scatter in all directions or you could use a rifle, which fires one bullet that penetrates very deeply. In other words, it is better to focus on one or two major points and delve into them deeply than to cover a host of facts in a superficial manner.
We will address these techniques in a later lesson, but it will be helpful here to know how to break up your speech to avoid the TMI syndrome. You can cover a few major points in greater depth, for example, if you provide lots of examples on each point, helping your audience to better understand your ideas by showing them how those ideas work out in a variety of practical situations. This will engage your listeners' minds as they visualize a variety of examples, and it will prevent information overload.
You can also use personal anecdotes and stories that don't seem to have any connection with your speech—provided that you do make a connection by tying the stories back into your main points in some way. This is an effective method of introducing humor into your speech, as well. You can interject a humorous story about something that happened to you when you were in elementary school, and then explain how that experience illustrates your point.
And don't forget about visual aids! Using PowerPoint slides, flip charts, or overhead transparencies will definitely keep your audience awake, because it provides them with something interesting to look at while they also listen to your words. Holding up some object that ties in with your points will keep all eyes riveted on you, and it will prevent information overload by forcing you to make practical applications as you go along.
Engaging Your Audience
Make Eye Contact
An important element of being a good listener is to look at the person who is speaking to you. We all know this instinctively; we can all tell when someone isn't listening to what we're saying by watching his or her eyes. Wandering eyes indicate that your listener is more interested in what's going on behind you; blinking eyes may indicate that your listener is confused; squinting eyes can mean that you have angered the other person. But when your listener is looking intently into your eyes, you know that you have his or her full attention.
The same principle works in reverse. If you see that your listener's eyes are wandering, you can regain his or her full attention by moving in front of the person and looking directly into his or her eyes. This brings your listener's attention back to what you are saying, and frequently elicits a response.
When you are speaking to a group of people, you can hold their attention if you make direct eye contact with them as individuals. This also forces you to remember that you are in fact speaking to individuals rather than to an abstract nameless mob. Your audience will find it much easier to pay attention to your speech when you connect with them individually in this way, because it holds each person accountable to listen.
Spice Up Your Speech—Carefully
What is your favorite type of ethnic food? Do you like spicy foods, such as hot chili, or do you prefer more bland foods such as rice or plain noodles? Most meals are made more enjoyable with a little spice—but too much spice can ruin good food.
The same principle is true with public speaking. You can spice up your speech by using visual aids, but too many visual aids can become very distracting. Here are a few techniques that you can use to add some zest to your speech:
- Visual aids: As discussed previously, visual aids can add great impact to your speech by demonstrating visually what you are discussing verbally. They also help to keep your audience awake.
- Humor: An amusing anecdote from time to time livens up your speech and can also increase your rapport with the audience. Too much humor, however, can backfire, making you seem like a stand-up comedian rather than someone with a serious message.
- Practical examples: It is important to give practical examples in your speech, especially if they address technical matters. But don't get carried away with these, or the audience will think you're treating them like children.
- Speed bumps: You can use verbal techniques to jar your audience into attention, such as an unexpected pause or attention-getting phrase like "Now listen carefully to what I'm about to say," or "Did you catch that?" Overuse of such techniques, however, can make you appear too slick.
- Poetry: Reciting a short poem is an excellent way to regain your audience's attention, and it can also help them remember your main points. Restrict yourself to one poem per speech, however, which should be just enough to keep it interesting without going overboard.
Losing Your Audience
When the Messenger Hinders the Message
You have probably encountered speakers who have odd mannerisms. I once had a math teacher who would stop lecturing, walk to the window, and stare outside every time a fire engine went past. This peculiar habit may have been endearing, but it was also very distracting—since my high school was located across the street from the fire department. It was a daily affair for his lectures to be interrupted in this way, and each time he had trouble remembering where he'd left off.
Now, most of us are not as eccentric as my math teacher, yet we probably do have some mannerisms and verbal habits that can be distracting to an audience. Frequently, we are not even aware of such mannerisms ourselves. This is one reason why it will be important for you to make a video of yourself giving a speech, which we will discuss in Lesson 17.
Personal mannerisms that can be distracting include rocking back and forth while you speak, playing with your hair or touching your face, sniffling or clearing your throat out of nervousness, or jingling change in your pocket. Verbal mannerisms can also be distracting, such as saying "like" or "you know" frequently, constantly using "um" and "ah" as you search for the right words, or speaking in monotone.
Facial expressions can also work against you, conveying some meaning to the audience that goes beyond your spoken words. If you gaze up at the ceiling, for example, it communicates to the audience that you are confused and uncertain about what you're saying. If you lean forward and jab your finger at the audience, it suggests that you are angry and confrontational—even if you're only speaking about the weather. You might have a smirk without even being aware of it, but it tells the audience that you hold them in contempt.
A speaker's unconscious mannerisms can get very much in the way of what he or she is saying; conversely, they can also be used to great effect to make the message more powerful and memorable. Once again, you can learn a great deal about how body language helps and hinders by paying attention to others who are speaking. What gestures helped this speaker get the point across? What unconscious habits got in the way of that speaker's message? What unconscious habits do you have that might be hindering your own speeches? Being an observant listener will help you become a better speaker.
Pushing Their Buttons
Think back on a time when someone offended you with a casual comment. Perhaps someone told a joke that you found offensive, or maybe someone made a general comment about some religious or political group—not realizing that you were a member of that group. How did you react? What emotions surged up inside you? How did those emotions influence your attitude toward that person?
Now imagine if you were speaking to someone who you didn't know well, and you expressed a strong opinion on some topic—only to discover that your new friend held the opposite opinion just as strongly. How would you feel? What effect would your words likely have on your relationship with the other person?
This same principle holds true, and even more so, when we are speaking publicly. If you angrily denounce some principle that your audience holds dear, you will have lost your audience and gained a hostile mob. There is a time and place for such speeches, but it is very unlikely that you will find yourself in such a situation. The vast majority of speaking occasions will require that you gain the audience's sympathy and good will, not that you stir them into an angry frenzy.
Yet this very problem is more common than you might think. Most speakers don't stand up in front with the conscious intention of offending their audience, yet it is surprising how many beginning speakers do just that—inadvertently. This ties back to Lesson 1, where we discussed the importance of understanding your audience. You need to be sensitive to what your audience might find offensive, and you need to avoid any possibility of giving offense if you want to gain their trust and attention.
A less volatile form of this is to use words and terminology incorrectly. You probably won't make your audience angry, but you certainly will lose credibility. For example, if you were speaking to a group of medical professionals, you would want to be sure that you used medical terminology correctly. Confusing a stethoscope with a kaleidoscope might give your audience a chuckle, but it will also cause them to stop listening. The best approach, if you're not completely sure of yourself, is to avoid technical terminology altogether.
The rule of thumb on offending your audience is this: "When in doubt, leave it out." If you're not sure of technical jargon, don't use it. Or, if you want to include it, do your research! Talk to experts, read books, do everything you can to make absolute certain you know what you're saying is true and correct. If you're not intimately familiar with your audience's views on a controversial subject, think about avoiding that subject—usually, offending your audience means losing your audience. However, if you think you might want to address a controversial issue, you definitely can. Think about starting by sharing a pleasant, familiar anecdote, experience, or idea, and then gently persuading your audience to your point of view. There may be times when you want to challenge your audience, which can indeed be thrilling when it works. Always be respectful and sensitive with your mannerisms and words, and you should be fine.
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