Originally published with the Forbes Coaches Council, April 2018.
What makes a great speaker? The qualities that immediately come to mind are things like confidence, expertise, poise, concision and great storytelling. These are all incredibly important pieces of not only engaging an audience but also persuading them. But there’s another aspect to excellent, convincing communication that can be easy to overlook: respecting your audience.
Why respect? Because when we feel that the person speaking to us values our time, understands our needs and considers our circumstances, we are a lot more likely to believe that they have a product, initiative or viewpoint that we want. Feeling respected takes us halfway toward feeling persuaded.
There are lots of ways we can show respect for our audience. We can demonstrate that we understand the context of their workplace: Do they have a new boss? Are they under pressure to deliver short-term results? Are they expanding or contracting? We can use negotiation and consensus-building to show that we value their input. We can obey the golden rule and treat them in the same way we’d like to be treated.
But perhaps the most immediate way we can show our respect for an audience is simply to listen. It’s the skill that feeds into the others — after all, how do you understand context or begin to negotiate or build consensus without first listening to what your audience has to say?
Now, listening is more than just letting the other person talk. You need to be active, engaged and responsive, too. Keep these five modes in mind as you set out to listen to your audience:
• Ask questions: Cultivate genuine curiosity. When you are curious about your audience, you’ll ask interesting questions that they’ll want to answer. Listen to what they have to say and ask another question about that. Of course, this won’t be an infinite process, but you might be amazed at where one incisive question and one or two follow-up questions will take you.
• Use body language: If you are meeting in-person, make sure that you communicate your active listening with the right body language. Try not to cross your arms, make sure to keep up eye contact, and don’t look around the room or over the speaker’s shoulder. Definitely don’t look at your phone. Ideally, any devices will be turned off so you aren’t distracted by ringing or buzzing.
• Take notes: When you write something down, you signal that you consider it important enough to remember — and you remember it. Notes can be invaluable when you have a follow-up meeting and want to be able to refer back to specific numbers or other details.
• Accept dissent: A big part of listening is giving up control. Once you turn over the floor, you need to be able to accept that the other person may have a completely different perspective than you do. You might have fundamental disagreements, but by listening well, you might find some common ground. At the very least, you’ll show that you can treat other viewpoints with respect and empathy.
• React: If you are in the middle of a presentation, be prepared to adjust what you are going to say to what you are hearing. You won’t always be able to eliminate information, but you can acknowledge the hurdles that you’ve just learned about. The more comfortable and confident you are with your message, the more easily you’ll be able to adjust on the fly.
When you master the art of listening, what you’ll get back is information, which will help you compose a message that will feel personal, well-crafted and persuasive. You’ll forge a connection with your audience, which will make them feel comfortable with you and more receptive to your ideas now and in the future. And you’ll become known as someone who listens well and respects your audience.
The most amazing thing about respect is that it compounds upon itself. If you show respect, you’ll get respect. You’ll be perceived as a leader, and others in your organization will model their actions after yours. They’ll show respect and get more respect in turn. And, soon, you may see an entire organization that revolves around respect — and that’s a healthy and happy place to be.