I post often about how to give a speech.  But most of us also find ourselves on the receiving end of speeches too, and listening to them is nearly as hard work as giving them.  So how do you listen critically and well to a speech to get the most out of it, and avoid the rhetorical traps the speaker may be setting for you?

Following are three tips for getting the most out of a speech.

1.  A good speech is a feast for the emotions as well as the intellect.  Listen for powerful stories, and ask yourself, what is the intellectual point the stories are making?  And listen for the ideas, facts, and stats, and ask yourself, what is the emotional attitude underlying these notions?  Why is the speaker telling me this set of data and not some other?  Getting the most out of a speech means listening critically to both what’s said and what’s emoted.  Speeches have emotional arcs as well as intellectual ones, and you want to understand both.

2.  A good speech is clear about the speaker’s ‘skin in the game’.  What’s in it for the speaker?  is a question that you need to understand clearly, or you can’t evaluate what’s being told to you.  Good speeches offer that freely, but some speakers try to conceal their interest or at least sugar-coat it.  So don’t be shy about asking if you don’t hear it clearly stated.  I remember years ago seeing a study showing that adding PowerPoint slides to a talk increased audience retention.  A number of details of the study made me suspicious, so I looked into the background of the study and learned that it was funded by – you guessed it – Microsoft.  That doesn’t automatically discredit the study, but it certainly makes further investigation important.

3.  A good speech minimizes the rhetorical tricks played on the audience.  It’s hard to take in information through the ear, and so we have to be on high alert to catch all the tricks that can be played on us as audience members.  When I used to teach rhetoric to students at Princeton, we had a list of over 60 ways to play with the logic of a good argument and pull a fast one on the audience.  I can’t go over them all here, but following are some of the most egregious to watch out for.  If you hear one of these, you’re being tricked:

  • All-or-nothing thinking – Politicians pull this one all the time.  One illegal alien commits a crime, so all aliens should be sent back to… wherever.
  • Jumping to conclusions – from a tiny kernel, a whole corn plant of decisions are made.  If you disagree with me on one thing, we are mortal enemies always and forever. 
  • Either/or – this one is depressingly common.  It’s either black or white, so many people claim.  But there’s often a third way, or shades of grey.  Don’t be fooled!  There are more choices, always!
  • Argument ad hominem – this means argument “to the man,” and it refers to character assassination as a means for discrediting an idea.  Just because someone has done something disagreeable, it doesn’t mean necessarily that her idea is wrong.  This is a tough one to combat against, because we love to dislike people who disagree with us, and disagree with people we dislike.
  • Begging the question – this is a two-fer, because the phrase itself gets mis-used so often.  So let me try to set things straight.  Begging the question does NOT mean ‘demands that a question be asked.’  That’s the way people tend to use it today, as in “this begs the question, are dolphins fish?”  Begging the question IS a form of fallacious reasoning in which one assumes the conclusion in the premise statement, a form of circular reasoning, as follows:  “My client would not steal because he is an honest man.”  Well, how do we know your client is an honest man?  You’ve assumed that, you haven’t proved it. 
  • The Red Herring – this is a form of changing the subject by throwing out a new thought as a diversionary tactic, as in, “You accuse me of cheating on my income tax, but doesn’t everyone cheat on their taxes?”  There, I’ve tried to change the subject by throwing in a new topic.      
  • Argument Ad Populum – this is an argument that appeals to some large irrational fear or prejudice – an argument “to the people.”  So if someone starts suddenly talking about America and apple pie, we should rightly examine our own emotional responses to those two wonderful institutions before embracing everything that follows unquestioningly. 

Listening effectively to a speech is a challenging art, the more so today because of the constant demands on our time that mean that it’s hard to leave our smart phones alone for any length of time.  Use these three tips and the accompanying list of rhetorical tricks to help you get through speeches retaining the best parts and discarding the junk.


  1. Dr. Nick,

    Working the Room is one of my favorite books, and I enjoy your blog. There’s an ocean of “stuff” competing for my attention, but I always read and enjoy your posts. Thanks for sharing.

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