The secret to speaking well: listening well

By Greg Dardis / Consulting Column

I made a statement in my last column that several readers commented on: “Listening well is the under-appreciated foundation to speaking well.”

Their interest prompted me to dig deeper on that observation in my next two columns. It’s one of the greatest insights I’ve gleaned in my business of executive coaching. It can surprise people to hear this from the guy who teaches professional speaking, but it’s true: the heart of this skill hinges on keeping your mouth shut and your ears open.

The ability to speak well is predicated on the ability to listen well. The listening comes first.

Listening well makes you a more effective communicator – and, more broadly, it makes for an effective, more creative life. I’ll focus this column on the former and address the latter next month.

To speak well, you must first listen well to the assignment. What is really being asked of you?

This isn’t always obvious in the initial request for a presentation – be it in a boardroom, a ballroom or in back office to a small group. Often we feel shy about following up on the invitation or our pride prods us to appear self-sufficient and run with it.

But a few smart follow-up questions can ensure you deliver on the expectations of any given speech. Some questions are pointed: “What’s the goal of this presentation?” “What’s the most important objective for me to achieve?” “Tell me about the audience.”

Others are more oblique: “What surprised you about your experience giving this presentation last year?” “What kind of feedback did you receive last time?” “Who will be the hardest to please in my audience?” “What else is happening that day that I should be aware of?”

Some questions are aimed at clarification: “Do I have that right?” “Is that an accurate paraphrase?” “What did I miss?”

They can also be open-ended, a chance to catch anything overlooked: “What else would you like me to point out?” “What should I have asked that I didn’t?” These questions show a high level of conscientiousness and a commitment to excellence.

And if you’re circling around a seemingly “dumb question” in your head, by all means, ask it. It’s better to point yourself in the right direction from the onset than risk going completely off track because you were embarrassed to ask a basic or logistical question.

Asking good questions will shape your speech. The answers can help you identify the ideal length. Too often we err on the lengthy side to be thorough when a shorter, more tailored speech would work better. They can also provide clues on content, or the appropriate delivery style. Perhaps this isn’t a formal presentation, and you would look silly (and perform poorly) by walking in with a stiff script rather than key talking points to use in a conversational exchange.

Listening well also enables you to understand your audience, which is essential to a successful presentation. Do your homework! There are a host of details you can arrange in advance to ensure you nail your presentation, so why not set yourself up for success?

Find out more about your audience. If you have a primary audience member – the chair of a board, an executive, an employer or recruiter – you have a chance to gather great details and adjust your presentation accordingly. Does he or she have a preferred time of day to meet? Probably. A favorite spot at the table? Right in the middle or on the end for easier access (or greater ease for the left-handed).

You don’t need to bother the actual person for this information – check in with his or her assistant or someone else in the know. These questions aren’t superficial; they’re a form of preparation and hospitality that sets apart the best presentations.

Ultimately, a speaker who listens well does the upfront work that makes it easier for the audience to absorb his or her message. When that happens, everyone wins.

Greg Dardis is the CEO of Dardis Communications, based in Coralville. For more information, visit