Listen Up!

An important aspect of public speaking occurs, paradoxically, when it the speaker’s turn to stop talking and listen to questions or comments from the audience. You should welcome these moments. They show that the audience members are engaged and they afford the speaker an opportunity to interact more closely with them. To make the most of these moments, a speaker must embrace active listening.

Active listening means listening for the meaning and feeling of what the other person is saying. It means paying attention to what people say and thinking carefully about how to respond. This might seem like common sense, but as Mark Twain once said, “Common sense isn’t so common.”  So how we listen actively? Here are some points:

1.  Look at the person who is asking the question. Do not turn away or attend to another activity, such as filling your water glass.

2.  Listen not just to the words but to the tone.

3.  Notice the body language and facial expressions of the speaker; do they convey anything about what the person might be feeling?

4.  Depending on the length of the question or comment, signal to the person that you are following by nodding occasionally or even, if an appropriate moment presents itself, interjecting a “yes” or an “I see”. Of course, you have to mean it. Don’t just go through the motions.

5.  Thank the person for the question or comment.

6.  Before responding, pause for a moment to reflect on what you have heard. Too often speakers will start talking while the final syllables of the audience member are still resonating. Doing so signals that you are more interested in hearing your own voice those of others, and that you couldn’t wait until the person finished speaking.

7.  Seek clarification if you do not understand something.

8.  Paraphrase the question or comment back to the audience member, especially if it was lengthy. “You’ve raised three issues . . . one, two and three . . . let me respond to them in order . . .” Doing so confirms to the audience that you have indeed been paying attention.  It also ensures that all members of the audience have heard the question from the floor. And, it gives you time to collect your thoughts.

9.  Always be respectful. You do not have to agree with the person asking the question or making the comment. However, as the speaker on the stage, you have an obligation to ensure that the interaction with the audience is carried out in a professional and dignified manner. “I can tell that this is an issue about which you are passionate. I respect your views but I don’t share them. Here’s why . . .”

Active listening is a skill that can (and should) be developed. We have two ears and one mouth, so we should listen twice as often as we speak! And when we listen, there is only one way to do it – actively.

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  1. Great points. I especially like point 9 about respect. Sometimes I find myself, halfway through what a person is saying, visibly shutting them out and already thinking of rebuttals which must be plainly obvious on my face. I really need to practice keeping some type of poker face until they are finished.

  2. Regarding #5, you can also preface your reply by saying, “I’m so glad you asked that!” “That’s a great question!” “That’s an excellent perspective!” This demonstrates right away to the person and the audience that you are not going to be confrontational even if you disagree with him or her. It also buys you an extra second or two to sort out your response. I have three or four similar replies so that I don’t repeat the same one each time.

  3. I think point number six has always been very valuable. I think, even myself included sometimes, that I just want to jump in and answer questions because I am so passionate, and I want to be able to answer the question right away. But pausing and letting that extra second or two for the question to sink in makes a huge difference.
    Thanks for leaving a comment on my website ( about my listening article. It’s greatly appreciated. Keep up the great work!

  4. Hi John. Thanks for the post. Active listening is something almost all of us need to keep practicing and improving.
    Re #7, I like the idea of reminding yourself and other listeners of the points if there have been several. I’m not so sure about paraphrasing. By definition if you paraphrase you are translating from their words to yours. Tends to work better if you pick out words the questioner has used that you think captures the gist. That way they will recognise what you say as the points they were making!

  5. Great suggestions for active listening. One comment regarding point #9: often times it’s helpful to use the conjunction “and” instead of “but” to keep dialogue moving forward versus creating what can often be points of contention, especially when we don’t necessarily share someone’s perspective.
    Here’s what it would look like:
    ”I can tell that this is an issue about which you are passionate. I respect your views. And I’d like to share another vantage point for your consideration; let me explain…”
    I’ve been amazed to see how replacing “but” with “and” can foster open dialogue and active listening with all parties involved.

  6. Great points.
    You can increase your chances of getting quality questions by giving the audience time to discuss their questions before asking them. This techniques only takes 30 seconds, and works wonders.
    Darren Fleming
    Australia’s Corporate Speech Coach.

  7. Thanks John – I love how this post is both so helpful, and so succinct! (I’ve added a link to it from my own post about handling Q&A. That post shares many tips from speaker-coach Denise Graveline, like how to handle a hostile audience, and even how to use Q&A at the start of your talk rather than at the end.)

    By the way, like you, I agree with Dan Burns’s comment re “I respect your views but…” in #9. Another simple way to make that easier for the person to hear would be just to swap the parts of the sentence. So you could say “I don’t share your views, but I respect them.”

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