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How to be a better speaker, by being a better listener


Most people are just terrible as speakers. In an effort to sound professional, most people just end up sounding like robots, reading something prepared. Audiences just hate that. I know, because my audiences just hated my carefully-prepared stuff when I first started out.

Now waitaminute, I'm not saying that you shouldn't be prepared. Please do. Unorganized speakers who just ramble on and on are an insult to their audience. So do prepare your words carefully. But also take a moment to consider listening.

Being a speaker is like being an actor. And the best actors don't just act, they re-act. Not easy to do, but it comes from stopping for a moment, looking to the people to whom you are speaking, responding to questions. This is very difficult to do, and it's why great speakers are rare. But you can do this.

My public speaking was in front of a classroom, in college. I taught software. And part of my preparation was to always have a handout, with bullet points, that everyone would get, and I would use as an outline, to keep myself organized. But it wasn't until I started making mistakes that I started becoming a better speaker. It's embarrassing to lose your place, or say, "uh, where was I?" but it's at that moment that you stop being just a speaker and become someone who communicates.

When I first started out I would say stuff like "please hold your questions until the end". And that just meant that I wanted to stay on track, and listen only to the sound of my own voice. A lot of speakers make this mistake. They're alive, right there in front of people, but no more responsive than if they were a video. So I say, if you're there, be there! Look at people who are listening to you, thank them, respond to questions. Don't just act, re-act. I remember the first time that I got a genuine laugh from an audience. They weren't laughing at me, they were laughing with me. I liked the engagement. I learned to answer questions. People love having questions answered!

I watch actors, and I watch speakers. I look at their eyes. The best ones are seeing, the worst ones are glazed over. And it's normal to be nervous in front of an audience. Luckily for me, I'm a nervous smiler. That is, I smile when I'm nervous. A lot of people do this, and if it's you, it's a good thing. No, you'll never stop being nervous. My favorite expression about this is "You can't stop having butterflies, but you can try to make them fly in formation!"

The next time you see me speaking, look at my hands. I have a trick with my left hand, which I form into an L (just casually). When I look down at it, I'm reminding myself to listen.

Thanks for listening. Now go be a better speaker! People just love that!


Image at the top of this post: Cartoon of my client Debbie O'Connell, who is an excellent speaker, and an excellent listener. Used with permission.