I’m frequently asked what the most important skill in speaking is. It’s pretty simple: listening. I’m not being trite or spouting cliches! To be a good speaker, you must be a good listener. You need to listen with your ears, eyes, and brain – and not always in that order. Really skilled communicators, really dynamic and engaging speakers are the way they are because actively and intimately listen to and observe their intended audience. By giving his audience – be it one or many – his full attention, a speaker is able to figure out what the audience needs to perceive, needs to feel, needs to hear in order to adopt the speaker’s line of thought.
In short, the speaker has to know what his audience wants and how to connect the audience’s wants with his own desired outcome. But outside of asking someone flat-out (and hoping that they actually know what they want and are answering truthfully), how can we figure out what their needs and desires are?
Again, you achieve this by listening. I use the word ‘listening’ to encompass visual information as well as auditory information because really listening to someone involves more than just sensory hearing. It involves shutting off your own internal monologue so that you can take in as much information as possible while being sensitive about what it tells you about the other person.
People provide a huge number of clues about themselves by their manner of dress, their body language, their words, their voice, and more. Are they conservative or trendy dressers? Do they sound nervous or confident? Are they making steady eye contact or regularly looking away? What is their voice quality? What sort of words are they using? Do they seem forthcoming with information, or are they being reluctant or cagey with their answers? Are they focused or distracted?
This can be done with an entire audience, albeit in a slightly different way. You can get a ‘feel’ for an audience if you allow yourself to take in their group behaviour. Is there a lot of shuffling or chatting? Are people focused on you? Are they leaning forward and interested, or do they seem aloof? Are people laughing in the right places or responding when you call on them? How are they connected to one another, what commonality has brought this group together?
Listen. Listen closely and carefully. As I said, this is pretty simple, but like many simple things it isn’t easy. It takes close attention, focus, patience, and practice. The rewards, however, are powerful.