What?... I Missed that???

I’ll be honest up-front… I have a VERY short attention span when it comes to speeches. Unless they grab me in the first 30 seconds or so, I’m outta there… mentally anyway! Boring monotone voices are the worst for me.

As a kid I developed a keen sense of listening to the radio. Mostly radio plays and the latest rock ‘n roll music taking the world by storm. Then later listening to far away voices via the short-wave radio (with all its whistles, crackle and pop)

That fascination with sound got me started in commercial radio on my 15th birthday followed by the ABC doing sound effects for live radio plays, eventually followed by a move to London and a job as a music recording engineer at Island Records Studio where I learned how to listen from the very best.

Producers Glyn Johns (Rolling Stones et al) Brian Humphries (Pink Floyd) and musical arranger Paul Samuel-Smith (London Symphony Orchestra etc) were among the amazing mentors who taught me how to listen to the many subtle differences in music. Whether its rock, rap, classical or any genre actually, you need to be able to train your brain to tune out unnecessary clutter so you can listen closely and understand what you’re listening to, to get the desired end result.  

So, how do you learn HOW to listen?  How do you help your audience hear and understand what you’re trying to tell them?

The good news is that there’s a handful of very easy steps – seven in fact – that you can start using right now that will guarantee what you say is not only HEARD, but UNDERSTOOD – or ‘listened to’ by your audience – whether that’s a room of potential clients, co-workers or your partner!

Hearing Vs Listening

But first let’s look at the difference between hearing and listening.

Parents of young or teenage children would be very familiar with this phenomenon.

You’re talking to the child giving some instruction or request and looking for a response, but you may as well be ‘talking to a brick wall’, right?

Or perhaps your man is engrossed in watching a game of late-night footie and you ask in your nicest non-confrontational voice “don’t forget to take out the garbage dear” (yeah ok – no worries!).

And it’s not just kids, teens or football loving blokes either…

Although they will all deny it categorically, females can also have trouble ‘tuning in’.  Have you ever wondered who is actually ‘listening’ in that group of ladies having lunch at the next table when all of them appear to be talking at the same time? (Ok – let’s not go there - but you get my very tongue-in-cheek meaning I hope!)

In fact getting we human beings to LISTEN – getting us to PAY ATTENTION is actually an advertiser’s worst nightmare. There’s so much of it in our faces every day, in newspapers and magazines, television and radio, on billboards and vehicles - is it any wonder we all start to ‘TUNE-OUT’? 

This is why advertisers and their agencies are always looking for ways to ‘grab our attention’. 

The same is true for anyone making a speech, doing a presentation or even going for a job.

Clever Advertising

I remember a very clever radio and TV campaign some years ago starring comedienne Julia Morris.

The ads were all very well written and recorded - a series of three or four of them I think - with Julia cutting across other people who are trying to sell her something which she obviously is not the least bit interested in.

That particular ad campaign grabbed a lot of attention. But did it actually get across the message to ‘buy brand X breakfast cereal?’

Well – it certainly grabbed my attention which is no mean feat because I literally tune-out of ads most of the time.  That’s probably because I’ve written and produced several thousand ads over the years as a radio producer. 

But I guess if I was ‘in the market’ for breakfast cereal and saw the brand mentioned in the supermarket then I’d probably try it at least once – and THAT’S all the advertiser wants you to do. At the end of the day, they have succeeded in getting their message across. You’ve listened and ‘taken that message on-board’ – they win.

And YOU can win too – getting YOUR message across to the listener.  But you need to understand a few of the ways we listen first.

Silence Is Golden

We live in an increasingly noisy world.  So no sound - or just silence – can actually work in your favour. There are a few different types of silence though and some very good reasons why saying nothing, actually works.

Here’s a technique ‘old school’ school teachers used to use a lot. Imagine a classroom full of rowdy kids. How do you get them to pay attention WITHOUT clapping your hands or banging on the desk?

Easy – say nothing! That’s right – just shut up and wait.

And it works! (unless your audience is full of gym junkies and you’re trying to flog cheese-cakes and ice-cream - in which case you might as well go home!) 

The very first words uttered by one very clever primary school teacher of mine in a rather authoritative voice after at least a minute’s silence to get our attention were; “the next child to make a sound will be on detention all this week!”

See? We not only HEARD the teacher… we LISTENED closely to her and more importantly we UNDERSTOOD. (oh boy did we understand dear old Mrs Samuels!)

Now I’m not suggesting you wait a minute or more for your audience to settle – or that you threaten them with some kind of disciplinary action, but silence is one way of making sure people know you have something important to say.

Of course, if it’s not important then how do you expect people to listen to you and why are you saying it in the first place?

Generally people really do want to listen to what someone else has to say – but they can be unforgiving if they don’t like what they hear. 

Body language, the way we speak and HOW you say it will improve the way people listen and understand you.

Comedians use silence to great effect – Marcel Marceau the famous French mime artist never spoke a word – but very few of us have his extraordinary skills.  We need to get people to listen to us.

The punch line to any good joke has ‘just the right amount of silence’ before it’s delivered… Too much and the moment is lost – too little and it’s rushed. 

It’s a fine art and those who do it well have mastered its secret. Like the late Bert Newton!

Even in a meeting or presentation at work, the right amount of silence, will not only grab your listeners’ attention, but will also add an air of ‘confidence’ to your presentation.

Remember; rush and the message will be lost – too slow and your audience will ‘drift-off’. Pace yourself when you speak so your listeners can more easily hear AND listen to what you have to say.

And speaking of pace. Have you ever noticed how the people in some places speak faster or slower than others? 

Queenslanders are famous for a relaxed way of life in the ‘Sunshine State’ and as a generalisation tend to speak a lot slower than say someone from Sydney or Melbourne. (No – this is not about interstate rivalries or Queensland bashing! ) In the USA, New Yorkers are famous for talking faster than say someone from southern states, such as Texas or Idaho.

Why is this information useful?

Because if you know your audience and the overall speaking pace of the locals, then you can use that to your advantage – slow down (a little) or speed up (a little) to fit in. 

It will help the ‘locals’ feel more comfortable and it’s one less thing to distract them while they listen – and hopefully understand – what you’re saying. 

That way you’ve a much better likelihood they will HEAR what you mean.

Another incredibly effective technique used by  some of the best speech makers around is what  I call ‘Tell ‘em’

  • Tell ‘em what you’re going to tell ‘em
  • Tell ‘em
  • Tell ‘em what you just told ‘em

Repetition helps us ‘hear’ better. To remember what is being said. In fact many of the reality TV shows these days use a similar technique.

Like this:

“Coming up… will Ricky & Sylvia be able to pull through and complete the job before it’s too late…” (commercial break – up to 3 minutes+)

Then, right after the last commercial or station promo…

“Ricky and Sylvia have been making a meal of the job so far and are lagging behind the rest of the team. It doesn’t look good for them at this stage….” (continue with next segment).

So as you can see, the story tellers (scriptwriters) used a similar technique to ‘tell ‘em’. 

They told us what was - or might - be going to happen, then after the interruption to the show (the commercial break!) they reminded us again and THEN we were told – or in this case shown – what was happening.

A speech is really just a ‘personal presentation’. It doesn’t matter if you’re addressing one person, ten people or ten thousand.

It might be best man cousin Benny at your wedding or Uncle Gerry at a funeral or it could be you answering a simple question at a job interview such as “where do you want to be in 5 years time?”

If you don’t consider how to make people really LISTEN to what you are saying by either saying something unique or saying it in a way that MAKES people listen, then people won’t HEAR you.

Irrespective of your political persuasion, Former US Pesident Barack Obama was a great speaker. Former Prime Ministers Kevin Rudd and Gordon Brown (UK) are not!

What’s the difference? – For a start Mr Obama is known to have employed a voice coach to improve what was a good voice and delivery technique and with practice, he turned into a master orator.

Many public speakers use a teleprompter - which is a tool most of us unfortunately don’t have available to us – but the key difference is HOW you use one of these. To come across as ‘honest/competent’, you need to watch and listen to your audience and alter the speed and tone of delivery to keep them engaged - just like a great storyteller or a preacher.

In fact, some of the techniques Barack Obama used stem from his early religious connections where the preacher got the church going faithful all worked up. 

Now I’m not suggesting you need go quite that far – but by using repetitive phrases and colourful metaphors you can help paint word pictures and create a ‘movie’ in the listeners head that helps them understand what you’re saying. And it’s not just colourful words that grab attention – colourful actions help the listener retain the information.

That’s why sometimes a simple slide show (Powerpoint or cardboard cutouts) can help boost listener retention. Keep in the back of your mind that we humans are very VISUAL creatures.

Have you ever heard a new song on the radio and thought nothing of it until you saw the video clip on TV or YouTube?

It’s the same song right?... but just seeing the colour, movement, sexy outfits and dancers perhaps gave the song a totally different MEANING. Then, a few days later when you hear it on the radio you REMEMBER the video clip and visualize the whole thing in your head.

So what has that got to do with making people listen?

Plenty. 

Unless you are already a top-notch speaker doing ‘the speaking circuit’ (and good speakers are always looking to improve their technique!) try to use something to help make your listener take notice of what you are saying.

It might be a funny hat to illustrate a point – It might be two dog collars, one cheap and nasty the other costing about $100 bucks! The MESSAGE you give at that crucial point in your presentation will be more readily remembered BECAUSE you gave the listener some visual cues to connect with your words.

Former US Vice-President Al Gore used this technique to great effect. Putting the Global Warming debate aside, Al had rock-star size Powerpoints on stage to support his theories. He even used a ladder at one point and a cherry picker just to EMPHASISE what he felt were the most important things he wanted listeners to take home. 

Activists of all kinds do exactly the same thing. They use ‘props’ to get their messages across.

Animal activists are the best (or worst) in this regard. Blood-spattered fur dumped in front of a high fashion furrier makes sure they get on the six o’clock news.

Irate truckies drive ‘slow’ to block a freeway for the same effect even if the reasons may be different (taxes, speed cameras, COVID protocols! etc).

Farmers dump loads of cow manure on the steps of Parliament house just to make a point.

One of the most famous uses of an ‘action’ to make sure a particular message heard was the ‘Boston Tea Party’. This was a major turning point in American history when workers revolted against unfair taxes and dumped imported tea into Boston Harbour in the early 1700’s.  Can you imagine how dramatic that looked? 

Blue sea turned a delicate shade of ‘sludge’ with expensive tea leaves!

So getting people to LISTEN and understand your important messages is clearly not just about the words.

It’s not WHAT you say it’s HOW you say it”.

It’s  true… We really don’t listen to every single word even though we think we do. 

There are so many things racing around in our minds at any given time; a wedding anniversary or important meeting coming up tomorrow, the sick parent or child, overdue bills, our mind is rarely still!   All that WHILE we are trying to listen to what someone – you - are saying.

To use an advertising term, we need to CUT-THROUGH all that internal chatter using a variety of techniques.

Here are Seven Easy Steps to making sure your listeners HEAR you.

1 – Tell ‘em what you’re going to tell 'em
2 – Now tell 'em - Not too fast. Not too slow. Pace yourself
3 – How you say it may be more important - than what you say
4 – Use repetition, colour, similes and anecdotes to reinforce your points
5 – Illustrate your presentation with something – make it memorable
6 - Tell ‘em what you just told ‘em
7 – Thank them for listening and if appropriate ask for any questions

I hope some of the ideas here help you to understand how we listen.

Like any activity the best way is to participate.

Good listeners make better speakers because they know how to listen.


©2009 – Edited 2022 - Brian Pickering


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