Listening First

I have been married to my wife for almost eight years now. Other married men will tell you that this means two things. 1) I have learned to say “sorry” and 2) I have learned how to listen. Marriages where people don’t learn those two skills don’t last too long. It’s the second of those two that I will write about in this post.

What does all this have to do with connecting? I’m glad you asked”

I would estimate that around 90% of speakers (and especially academic speakers) assume that speaking is all about transferring information from your head to someone else’s as quickly and efficiently as possible. Thinking this way, it makes perfect sense to cram all this info on some kind of visual aid and it also makes sense to stuff as much info as possible into one talk. The result is not pretty.

Imagine all the cars on a busy motorway (highway, if you are from the US) trying to get into the same car park (or parking lot) at the same time, during rush hour. Not pretty. Common sense tells us that car parks not only have a maximum capacity but only so many cars can get in and out of them at once.

People’s brains are a bit like that too. If you see your job as cramming them full of knowledge, you will soon hit the traffic jam scenario I just described. If you don’t know what your audience want to hear, you might even find that most of your “cars” never get into the car park at all, even the really important ones.

The secret to successful speaking is listening!

I’ll admit, I am still learning this one. Naturally, I will tend to speak more than I listen, which gets me in trouble. However, when I do manage to listen and think about what people are saying, the results are way better than I could have imagined.

Here’s an example. Anyone who hangs around researchers in the UK will realise that there is a creeping pressure for them to not only make their research available to the public but (oh the horror!) get the public involved in it somehow too.

Last summer, I was due to present research on an attempt to do just this at a conference aimed at PhD students. Now, the classic way of presenting this research would have been to talk about loads of theory, followed by some methods stuff, followed by my data and results and then, if I still had time, to drop in a line about possible applications to the conclusion.

Having heard what so many academics had been saying about engaging with the public, I turned the whole thing on its head. I started with the problem everyone had and pitched the entire presentation as an attempt to solve it. In other words, I started where people were and then took them with me. Diagrammatically, my presentation looked a bit like this:

Problem we all have -> a solution a group had attempted -> results -> what this means for your work

It didn’t take long to realise that working this way meant that people were a lot more interested and engaged right from the get-go. The question time was animated, and I even walked away from the conference with a prize, which was nice.

The lesson? Rocking your talk means moving away from “how do I get people interested in my work?” to “what does my work say about stuff people are already interested in?” If you connect with people where they are, they will be much happier to follow you later.


About Jonathan Downie

I am a conference interpreter, public speaking coach, preacher and researcher.
This entry was posted in Audience, Preparation, Public Speaking. Bookmark the permalink.

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