I so often write about how to create and give better speeches that I rarely write about listening to speeches. But of course the audience is one of the three essential elements of a public speech – without an audience, it’s not a speech any more than it’s a speech without a speaker or content. And yet that third element, the audience, can get lost in all the rest of our efforts to create a successful occasion, strange as that may sound. Aren’t all our efforts focused on giving the audience a better experience?
Well, yes. But the audience has a role to play, too. And it’s one we rarely talk about. We have a right to expect something from them, in fact.
So for this post I’m focusing on what the audience needs to do to help create a great speech: listen. If you find yourself in an audience, then, what should you be focusing on? How do you listen most effectively to a speech?
I’m going to suggest five ways an audience can listen that will enhance its experience of a presentation – and therefore make the occasion better, too.
First, listen for the frame. The most important moments of a speech are the opening ones. That’s the time when the speaker should tell us what the speech is about – preferably something interesting, and preferably in an interesting way. So listen for the frame at the beginning of a speech, because that will guide the entire rest of the occasion.
Second, listen for the emotion. Ask yourself, what emotion (besides a little natural stage fright at the beginning) is the speaker trying to convey? Most speakers find their emotions attenuated by the difficulty of emoting on command in front of hundreds of people, so you may have to interpret for the speaker, or even make an educated guess. But knowing the emotions at play in the speech will give you a road map for the important landmarks in the journey the speaker is trying to take you on.
Third, listen for the false notes. Of course, I’d much prefer for the speaker to succeed beautifully, but it’s also the job of the audience to decide whether or not the speaker is credible, and whether or not to trust the speaker. Sometimes that involves deciding that the speaker is not succeeding. You need to kick the rhetorical tires, and decide for yourself whether the speaker is what he or she claims to be.
Fourth, listen for the stories. Good stories are at the heart of a great speech, and so the audience has a right to expect those stories at regular intervals, and for the stories to carry much of the emotional freight of the speech. Those stories should reveal personal involvement in the topic and should tell us things that we can’t learn any other way. Beware the speaker who tells stories that are clichés, that you’ve heard many times before. Because that usually means that he or she is letting someone else do the thinking.
Finally, listen for the ask. At the heart of every great speech is a request, from the speaker to the audience. Even if it’s only a minimal “believe with me that this is important,” there’s always a reason why the speaker is doing all that work. Listen for that because to understand the ask is to understand the speech and the speaker.
And here’s one more: listen like a child. Children have the opposite listening ability to grownups – kids listen to the whole experience. They have a hard time focusing. As a result, they notice a good deal more than most adults, some of it irrelevant, but some of it not. Spending some time listening like a child is a great way to open up your listening, refresh it, and avoid missing out on something essential.
Listening is hard work, and most people find themselves half-listening at best, because what’s going on around them competes with their inner voices, and all the other distractions of the daily to do list. A little thought about what to listen for can help you get the most possible out of a speech – which will make the speech successful, too.