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The Listening Mind

Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning

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To be sure, effective speaking and writing share many attributes; however, while readers can set their own pace, reread a complicated paragraph, or leaf back over several pages to refresh their understanding of the central argument, listeners cannot.


The posting below looks at the importance of understanding the listening role of your audience when making oral presentations. It is from the Stanford Center for Teaching and Learning newsletter, Speaking of Teaching, Fall, 2008, Vol. 18, No. 1. It was written by Doree Allen, Ph.D., director of the oral communication program; email: [] Note: Several other articles, many with very specific speaking suggestions, appear in this issues of the newsletter which can be found at: []


Rick Reis

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Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning

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The Listening Mind


Central to an effective oral presentation is a design that takes into account the needs of your listening audience. Obvious? It should be, but our focus as scholars, researchers, and writers often distracts us from our otherwise intuitive understanding of this basic tenet of successful oral communication. And although speakers in a variety of contexts frequently rely on an idiom more suited to writing than to speech, this tendency seems especially tempting for those who are presenting scholarly and scientific research that has appeared previously as a journal article or book chapter. However, a speech is not "an essay on hind legs," as James A. Winans, a noted scholar of rhetoric, famously observed. As efficient as it may seem to borrow language and structure from a text you've already completed, there is also a lost opportunity to engage with your audience when you neglect to reappraise your material in light of this new rhetorical situation in which your audience is listeni

ng to your ideas rather than reading them.

Because the spoken word is evanescent, listening poses distinct challenges, especially when it comes to abstract subject matter. Studies reveal that listeners cannot process as much information as readers, they have difficulty staying oriented and, unless they hear something more than once, it is difficult for them to retain it. Given these constraints, here are some strategies to bear in mind when "translating" a text into an oral presentation, which should enable you to better know your audience so that you reach your listeners as well.

In the opening 60 to 90 seconds of a presentation you are not only introducing your topic but also yourself. So it is important to take advantage of this time, both to connect with the members of your audience personally as well as to orient them intellectually by placing your work in a larger context and providing a preview of what is to follow. More often than not, speakers will sacrifice this valuable time to turn away from the audience to read their titles (and sometimes even their names) from the slide projected behind them. How can you make your introduction more memorable? Some possibilities include opening with a startling statement or statistic, a rhetorical question, a vivid anecdote, a challenge or a provocative quotation. But if these options feel contrived, you might simply consider how to link your subject to the experiences and interests of your audience so that you motivate their "need to know" and establish the common ground that is elemental to effective com

munication. Since listeners tend to remember what they hear first and last, it is similarly important to think carefully about your concluding remarks, which should not only summarize your main points, but emphasize their significance and suggest the implications of your analysis or research.

A strong introduction and conclusion are part of a clear organizational structure that should also include explicit transitions, internal summaries, and the repetition of key words and phrases. Because the listening audience is at a speaker's mercy for organizing content, "signpost" language such as "first," "next," or "finally" reinforces transitions and marks your progress through your presentation, linking the details to your overarching thesis and acknowledging where you are in relation to where you are going. Introducing your main points with a rhetorical question can also help to keep your audience on track. And, because questions invite subliminal answers, they serve to sustain audience engagement.

To be sure, effective speaking and writing share many attributes; however, while readers can set their own pace, reread a complicated paragraph, or leaf back over several pages to refresh their understanding of the central argument, listeners cannot. Therefore, a speaker must think beyond content and be constantly aware of speech pace, attending to listeners' need to keep up with what they are saying. Additionally, because it is difficult to listen to abstract discourse for very long, concrete language and examples - metaphors and analogies that make unfamiliar things familiar or vivid images that paint mental pictures - enable listeners to retain information and grasp abstractions or highly conceptual material. Simpler syntax and vocabulary rather than long, subordinated sentences and technical jargon also appeal more to listeners' aural perception.

Rhetoricians often say that public speaking is enlarged conversation, and as sensible as this may seem, it is often a challenge to keep the relational nature of speech in mind when the weight of our research or data crowds the audience out of our mental picture. We must remember that although our content is essential, there are - or should be - reasons why we are presenting our work orally rather than distributing it as a document. Of course, there are many motivations leading to each speaking opportunity, but one is simply the power of the spoken word and the ancient potential inherent in the communion of speaker and audience - especially when what the speaker says is meant to be heard and not read.