Listen Up! Your Most Important Presentation Tools

While in conversation, you find yourself unconsciously looking around the room, or checking your watch. Maybe while the other person is in mid-sentence, you interrupt with a thought. Are you listening? Instead, what if you were nodding your head in agreement, using the phrase "uh-huh", or the classic — making good eye contact? Are you listening now? What is it about listening that we find so important but so elusive?

Separate out the visual cues that typically suggest "listening". Visual cues are important, but they don't necessarily mean genuine listening is taking place. Think about the times you found yourself nodding in apparent agreement but had no clue what the other person was saying or didn't care.

Is listening different if you attempt to paraphrase someone's comment? To paraphrase, you hear the other person's words, privately interpret their meaning, then use your own words to convey it back to them. In either case (head-nodding or paraphrasing), what is the measure of being a good listener? Simple. The speaker feels heard. As the listener, you demonstrate that the point got through to you.

Imagine a conversation where you're apparently listening and before the other person even finishes their thought, you're privately rehearsing your reply. Person pauses for half a second and you jump in like a wild animal. I think you can slot that in the poor listening category.

What does any of this have to do with presentation skills? Just everything.

Consider for a moment that your challenge is not public speaking, but public listening. We're sold on the idea that being a good communicator means projecting ones voice, making eye contact, the list goes on. How about at the heart of presentation skills is listening, not speaking. Sort of turns the whole thing on its head. Think about it. What are the major complaints about meetings, presentations, and lectures? That we are not reaching our audience. Translation: we are not listening!

The problem is that when we publicly speak, our personal measure of success is the quality of our ideas or how well we deliver, not necessarily how it's heard. It's just a bonus if we connect with an audience. Listen up! The quality of your presentation is first and foremost how well you connect with a group, and connecting means listening; watching body language, facial expressions, extracting comments; anything that reveals how the group is feeling and what they are thinking.

How do we shift to be a better listener? Start by becoming keenly aware how difficult it is to just listen. No agenda, no quick replies, just get what the other person is saying. Consider this possibility; The people in your life who command authority when they speak are first and foremost excellent listeners, not excellent speakers. Their secret is that they speak when there is something of value to share. They don't talk for talking sake.

Here are a couple of simple exercises:

  1. The next time you're in a dialogue, observe when you are listening versus waiting to speak. Attempt to paraphrase someone's comments before providing a reply.
  2. In a meeting, plan to make NO points. Just listen. Take notes. Be prepared to summarize the key points made by the group. You may discover something profound: There is more power in genuine listening than speaking. While everyone else is fighting for the right to be heard, you're listening for the big picture. You may even end up getting asked what you think, and contribute something of value to everyone.
  3. Be more patient in dialogue. Patience is not just a virtue; it's the ticket to being an effective listener and in turn, public speaker. There you go. Now read this again and paraphrase it to someone else.