Listening And Speaking
Gordon Wainwright is an independent management training consultant. He has written several books on management communication skills, including 'Read Faster, Recall More' (also published by How To Books) and runs courses for a wide range of organisations, including multinationals and government departments.
We now turn our attention to information exchanged by means of the spoken word. Let us first of all, however, look at the nature of listening skills and consider how they may be improved and help in the transformation from headless chicken to laidback bear.
The Nature of Listening Skills
Of all the communication skills, none has been more neglected than listening. There is almost no training in listening provided in our schools and colleges. Such little training as does occur takes place incidentally during training in oral expression. Yet our ability in aural comprehension probably provides us with the basis of most of our knowledge and awareness of the people and the world around us. Headless chickens never listen. They are too busy keeping busy.
Differences between hearing and listening
As the terms are used in this chapter, ‘hearing’ is a passive, random accidental activity and ‘listening’ is active, purposeful and systematic.
All those of us who are not actually deaf can hear; very few of us have developed the essential skills of listening that we increasingly need in a world in which the spoken word is rapidly becoming more important than the written. If we do not develop our listening skills, we fail to operate with full effectiveness as students, workers, managers, citizens or anything else.
The importance of the ability to listen
Without efficient listening skills we can never be sure that we have properly understood what we have been listening to. In speech things are said once only and if we miss them we have no opportunity to listen to them again. This is true of many lectures, meetings, speeches and broadcasts.
In lectures and many kinds of meetings, we have to be able to listen sufficiently well to be able to remember, and recall when necessary, important things that have been said. This kind of listening, as we shall see, is closely associated with the activity of notemaking.
At a time when so much is being communicated to us by means of the spoken word, we have to be able to discriminate and evaluate the relative significance and importance of a variety of utterances.
Seven Kinds of Listening
The listening activities we encounter fall into seven groups:
This category includes such everyday activities as telephone conversations, talking with friends and other conversational situations in which the listening is part of a more important social interaction rather than an activity in its own right. There is often little information of significance being communicated in such situations.
This term covers situations in which you are trying to separate sounds heard, so that not all the available sounds are listened to. Picking one sound out from others, for instance, trying to identify one bird singing among many or trying to listen to what one person is saying at a noisy party, could be described as discriminative listening.
Listening for relaxation
Here the activity is very close to mere hearing because the act of relaxing is what is important and the listening - to poetry, stories, recordings, broadcasts and the like - is secondary. You are listening in order to relax and have the mind and the attention diverted from everything else, rather than relaxing in order to listen.
Listening for information
This is one of the main forms of the active, purposeful, systematic listening referred to earlier and is the kind of activity required for assimilating announcements, listening to lectures, and so on. It is important here, as in the other kinds of listening which follow, to know as clearly as possible what it is that you require to know from the source being listened to.
Listening to organise ideas
In situations like lectures, discussions and meetings it is important to be able to discriminate between one person’s voice and another’s, and to listen effectively for information. In addition, it is essential to be able to organise your thoughts and ideas about the information and to sort out mentally the relationships between various pieces of information and ideas expressed. You must be able to assess the relative significance and importance of the various facts, ideas and opinions encountered, so that you emerge with a coherent and meaningful mental picture of what the lecture, discussion or meeting has been about. Unless you can organise both your own thoughts in this way and the expressed thoughts of others, you are at a serious disadvantage during many forms of social interaction.
In many ways, critical listening is similar to critical reading. Particular attention should be given, when listening critically, to both one’s own purposes in listening (e.g. ‘What do I need to know?’) and to others’ purposes in speaking (e.g. ‘What are they trying to tell me?’). Attention should also be paid to the problems of identifying bias, emotion, exaggeration, propaganda and the like in what other people say. In these ways one is better equipped to reach an objective assessment.
In listening to music, drama, films and similar aesthetic experiences, there is more involvement than mere listening for pleasure or relaxation. The ability to discriminate between sound patterns is often required, as, for instance, in listening to music. The ability to assimilate the information contained in what is being listened to is important, as is the ability to organise the facts, ideas, themes and so on into meaningful wholes. Above all, for the greatest enjoyment and satisfaction to be obtained, the critical faculties should be active and the whole artistic creation appreciated in its total context. The more you know about a work, its creator, its predecessors, its philosophical or theoretical stimulus and its technique, the better your judgment and the more creatively fulfilling your listening will be.
People like students and managers will clearly be interested in the fourth, fifth and sixth kinds of listening described above. But if listening skills are to be fully developed, there must be practice in all kinds of listening, rather than a special concentration only on those which appear to be directly relevant to one’s work or one’s studies. In this way, breadth as well as depth is obtained and you are better able to develop a flexible, systematic approach to listening.
Methods of Improving Listening Skills
Seven methods of improving listening skills are outlined here. Together they provide a basis for a systematic, efficient and developmental approach to listening.
The efficient listener will always make notes where this can conveniently be done without inhibiting the person who is speaking. Memory is notoriously unreliable and, especially if reference may later have to be made to what has been said, a record of the content in note form can be invaluable.
Necessary details should be included within this framework. The aim should be to produce a short, coherent summary of the content of what has been said. The act of preparing these notes will help to improve the quality of the listening itself in many ways.
Defining purposes in listening
It is as important to know your purposes clearly when listening as it is in any other activity. Three factors will help you to define purposes.
- 1.The nature of the material being listened to. Form and content, length, relevance, etc.
- 2.The reason for listening to it. Why this particular material was selected, how much information is required from it, how the information will be used, etc.
- 3.Expectations in listening. What you expect to hear and how this satisfies reasons for listening, how useful the information is expected to be, how easy or difficult to understand, how interesting or dull, how entertaining or serious, etc.
After listening, the material should be reviewed and some assessment made of how far your purposes were satisfied and your expectations met. You should also consider how far defining purposes and expectations beforehand in this way improves the quality and efficiency of your listening.
Active involvement in listening
Because listening is a receptive activity, like reading, it is easy to allow it to become passive. This leads to a loss of listening ability, with consequent effects on the ability to base effective decisions on what has been listened to.
Active involvement is essential for efficient listening and most of the methods offered here for improving listening skills depend upon it for their success. Instead of simply sitting back and letting the information hit your eardrums, you should be actively listening for the information that will satisfy your purposes and expectations, as well as for information that is unexpected but relevant.
This is the basis of active involvement and an effective counter to passivity. Your whole attention should, as far as possible, be given to whatever is being listened to. Only in this way can a proper assimilation and understanding of the information presented be obtained. Distractions should be avoided and notemaking will help to achieve this. ‘Doodling’ when making notes should be avoided, though it may be an indication that whatever is being listened to does not command the attention sufficiently and may not even be satisfying your purposes in listening enough to be worth continuing listening to.
A perceptive listener must be sensitive to many aspects of the material he is listening to. It is not enough simply to be aware of the nature of the content, how it is organised and the purposes of the speaker as well as of the listener. There are a number of other factors you must also be sensitive to:
- 1.Tone of voice. This can totally alter the significance of a statement.
- 2.Choice of words. Many words have similar meanings, but the slight differences between them can be critical.
- 3.Timing. When something is said can be as important as how it is said.
- 4.The speaker. There are many ways in which a speaker’s personality can affect what is said and its significance. One person says something and regardless of tone of voice, choice of words or something else, it is taken as a joke; another person says the same thing and offends people.
- 5.The method of sound transmission. In the case of broadcasts or recordings, the meaning and significance of something can be enhanced or impaired by the nature of the means to convey it. A speech will sound quite different when heard over a loudhailer outdoors from how it will sound on a good-quality tape recorder in a lounge.
- 6.Your own role in encouraging easy, fluent interaction. A listener can help a speaker immensely by showing an active interest in what is being said and by smiling, nodding and agreeing at the appropriate points.
Pattern of organisation
Except perhaps for long, rambling conversations of a personal, intimate nature, every discourse has a pattern of organisation. A speaker wants to say something and he organises it into an acceptable form before he begins to speak. If he does not, he may fail altogether to communicate with his listeners. In the case of broadcasts, pieces of music and other recordings, the presence of pattern will be even more evident. The efficient listener must be able to identify the pattern which has been imposed upon what he is listening to. It will often take the following form:
- 1.Introduction. The subject or theme is briefly stated or outlined.
- 2.Development. The subject or theme is explored, discussed or explained in greater detail along the lines indicated in the introduction.
- 3.Conclusion. The conclusions drawn in the development are restated for emphasis, or the audience is shown how the outline given in the introduction has been treated and given substance.
There are many variations which can be based on this simple pattern, but you should be able to identify these three basic elements in most of the material you encounter.
The advice given in Part 3, Chapter 22 on critical reading applies here as well and need not, therefore, be repeated. The main point which needs to be emphasised is that you should listen critically at all times.
Many people receive invitations to speak at meetings or conferences, or serve on committees or study groups. For those who are inexperienced in putting over a point of view, a methodical approach can save time and produce the confidence necessary for effective oral communication. One such approach is the SPEAKER method, which I have devised. It has six sections:
- Selection of subject
- Preparation and Examination
- Audience assessment
- Keeping it brief
Selection of subject
If the choice is yours, select a theme which will enable you to convey some of your interest in it to your audience.
Preparation and Examination
You will speak more effectively if you are thoroughly familiar not only with the actual content of your speech but also with the topic in general. Examine your subject from all possible angles, so that you can approach it in a new way for your audience. Select no more than half a dozen main points to make.
You should know:
- how many people you will be speaking to
- their approximate age range
- whether male or female or both
- whether the occasion will be formal or informal
- the kind of room or hall you will be speaking in
- any peculiar features about the audience.
Keeping it brief
This is perhaps the most important feature of the construction of any speech or lecture. The plan of your speech will be:
- 1.Introduction. Tell them what you will be talking about.
- 2.Body of the speech. Develop your points (no more than six).
- 3.Conclusion. A brief summary of the main points made.
Speak naturally and avoid both overformality and a too casual approach.
- Speak with the aid of notes but have a full transcript ready in case you ‘dry up’.
- Number the sheets of your notes and the points you wish to make clearly, so that you do not confuse the order in which you want to say things.
- Speak distinctly so that people at the back can hear you, but do not shout.
- Avoid mannerisms and poses and too much walking about.
- Use concrete examples, illustrations and (if they come naturally to you) anecdotes to reinforce the points you are making.
Whenever possible, practise your speech beforehand in private or in front of a sympathetic but critical friend. A tape recorder is useful here as it will tell you how you will sound to your audience.
Oral Reports, Presentations and Briefings
Basically, there is little difference between a written report and an oral report (or presentation or briefing). What differences there are lie in the delivery of the report, rather than in the stages that precede this. The work on which an oral report is based or the information collected may well be the same as that for a written report.
An oral report should be planned in a similar way to a written report, dividing itself into three basic sections:
- 2.Body of the report.
To put it simply: in the introduction you will tell your audience what you are going to speak about or show them; in the body of the report you will tell them accurately and logically all that you want to say about the particular subject, and show them your charts, graphs and other aids; and in the conclusion you will summarise what you have said and shown, picking out the most important points for further emphasis and repetition.
The main differences between oral and written reports lie in the manner in which you speak. In a written report, slang and colloquial expressions are completely inappropriate, but this may not be the case with all oral reports.
If you don’t establish this relationship, you will have the feeling that you have not secured the full attention of your audience, and this is bound to affect your ability to put across effectively what you have to say.
Oral reports or lectures should never be read. You should take notes on what you want to say, using similar headings to those you would use in a written report, and use them as a guide to what you want to tell your audience.
No attempt should be made to memorise the report (this will make it sound unnatural, dull and uninteresting), although it does help if you can give a ‘practice’ talk beforehand when alone, or in the presence of a colleague who can be trusted to listen, criticise sympathetically and suggest improvements. This increases confidence.
Here are several further hints to successful public speaking:
- 1.If your mouth feels dry before you start, and there is no glass of water handy, relax your lower jaw, letting your lips scarcely touch each other, for a few moments. You will feel your mouth watering and the dryness will disappear. Alternatively, suck a fruit sweet or chew some gum before going into the room or hall where the speech is to be made.
- 2.Remember the value of the pause in letting an important item of information sink in. Do not rush from statement to statement fearing that a pause means you have run dry. Never speak too quickly, and do not use long words if shorter ones will suit the purpose.
- 3.Use statistics carefully. Cut them down to a minimum as they rarely register when merely spoken. Put them in a handout or on a slide or overhead projector transparency and let them make a visual impact.
- 4.Avoid mannerisms and poses. Do not wander about restlessly, but move easily. Do not fiddle with your notes or other objects.
- 5.Treat your audience as human beings. Talk to them rather than at them and do not talk to the wall at the back of the room, or the window, ignoring your audience. Maintain ‘eye contact’ with members of the audience.
These points may help a little, but the main guides to follow in delivering an oral report, presentation or briefing (or speaking in public generally) are:
- 1.Know thoroughly what you are talking about.
- 2.Prepare your material carefully and speak with the aid of notes.
- 3.Practise what you are going to say at least once privately beforehand.