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PRESENTATION

The Best Public Speakers Are Exceptional Listeners

Knowing when not to speak is one of the most valuable speaking skills you can learn. Here's why.

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Companies are finding that people in call centers are not well equipped to work in save centers.

What's the difference, you ask? Save centers help retain customers who are ticked off and want to cancel their contracts and get their money back. To staff up these save centers, companies tend to look for high-performing agents from traditional call centers.

Surprisingly, however, these employees tend to underperform in their new role, mainly because of poor listening skills.

Companies think the problem could be that these agents from regular call centers rely on written scripts. That is, like newscasters, they are accustomed to broadcasting information and not accustomed to listening.

In a study done by McKinsey, one telecom save desk hired candidates with superior listening skills. It found that within three months, these agents had save rates two to three times higher than those of more experienced people from the regular call centers.

The same is true at suicide hotlines. People who run suicide hotlines report that there are two kinds of volunteers who want to help:

1. Those who have been touched by suicide

2. Successful people who want to give back

The latter type are a disaster, because they can't help jumping in and trying to make the distraught person feel better by sprinkling sunshine and unicorns on him or her. The instinct to problem solve can be devastatingly wrong.

The average suicide call lasts 20 minutes, but only if you listen the first 10, which is an excruciating amount of time.

The Persuasive Power of Listening

It is tempting to consider the possibilities of extending this lesson to a broader range of communication activities, including sales, coaching, consulting skills, managing difficult conversations, and leadership training, too.

Listening is persuasive, because it:

  • Makes the other person feel respected and understood
  • Helps the listener understand the feelings and perceptions of the other party
  • Enables the listener to ask better questions
  • Makes the person being listened to want to reciprocate and listen back

What's really going on is what Robert Cialdini calls the Principle of Reciprocity, which says that human beings are hard-wired to give back to those who have given to them. And perhaps the greatest gift people can give one another is the gift of attention, a gift you give primarily by listening.

How to Put It Into Practice

Let's remember that the first rule of public speaking is to know the audience. In order to do that, we must set aside our assumptions about the members of the audience, and take the time to ask them questions and listen before we shape our content.

Before you develop your talk, interview at least three people. I've flubbed a few talks by interviewing only one person, only to realize when I arrived at the meeting that the information the person had given me was misleading and incomplete. Try not to assume anything, because once you've assumed, your curiosity comes to a complete stop.

The second rule of public speaking (and presenting) is to speak to the audience, in the language of the audience, about what is most important to the audience.

And the only way to do that is to listen to the members of the audience, listen to the language they use, and listen to what is most important to them.

Be a better listener. Listen without judgment, with endless curiosity. You'll be a better speaker and get better results, because your speeches and presentations will be more listener-centric--more right-on-the-money.

IMAGE: MJOY.es/Flickr
Last updated: Feb 12, 2014

SIMS WYETH is the president of Sims Wyeth & Co., an executive development firm devoted to the art and science of speaking persuasively. He is also the author of The Essentials of Persuasive Public Speaking, published by W. W. Norton.
@simswyeth




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