Chapter 2: Listening Skills

Public speaking only works if there are listeners. Studying public speaking should make you a better listener because you see the value of the listener to the communication process and because you are more aware of what you do in a speech.

Listening is not the same action as hearing. Hearing is a physical process in which sound waves hit your ear drums and send a message to your brain. Listening implies an active process where you are specifically making an effort to understand, process, and retain information.

When you read, you can go back and read a passage over and over until you understand it. This is more difficult in listening. If the message is recorded, you can play it over, but if the situation is a speech, once may be all you get. Many studies have been conducted to find out how long we remember oral messages and often the level of memory from oral communication is not very high (Bostrom & Bryant, 1980).

Comprehensive listening is listening focused on understanding and remembering important information from a public speaking message. There are other types of listening, based on the context and purpose. The first is empathetic listening, for understanding the feelings and motivations of another person, usually with a goal to helping the person deal with a personal problem.

Another type of listening is appreciative, which takes place while listening to music, poetry, or literature or watching a play or movie. To be good at this kind of listening, studying the art form to learn the patterns and devices is helpful.

And yet another type is critical listening, in which the audience member is evaluating the validity of the arguments and information and deciding whether the speaker is persuasive and whether the message should be accepted.

Your Audience and Listening

With this understanding of how listening differs from other forms of message reception, we can think of public speaking as “linear in time.” It does not allow you to loop back, as in reading. For that reason, a speaker must make listening easier for the audience. The main way speakers achieve this is through planned redundancy. Planned redundancy refers to purposeful ways of repeating and rephrasing parts of the speech to help the audience listen and retain the content.

The speaker uses a relevant introduction to emphasize the interest and importance of the subject, uses a preview of the main points to forecast the plan of the speech, uses connective statements between points to remind the audience of the plan and re-emphasize the content, and then uses an overall summary in the conclusion to help the audience remember or do something with the information. You might not be able to cover a great deal of information in a speech, but you can make the information meaningful through planned redundancy, as well as through examples, stories, support, and appeals.

A speaker can also help the audience’s listening abilities by using visual aids, stories and examples, audience interaction or movement at key points in the speech, and specific attention-getting techniques.

In short, listening is hard work, but you can meet your audience halfway by using certain strategies and material to make listening easier for them. At the same time, an audience member has a responsibility to pay attention and listen well.

Barriers to Listening

Since hearing is a physiological response to auditory stimuli, you hear whether you want to or not. However, listening is intentional and hard work. Several hundred years ago, we lived in an a primarily oral culture—by that is meant most people took in information through listening. That is why you will often hear stories of great speakers who orated for two or three hours, captivating the audience the whole time. The world has shifted to a digital culture—with a segue through print culture—that has a much reduced attention span.

Some people are not strong learners. In that case, listening may not be a personal strength. However, that does not make listening unimportant or something we should not try to improve upon. Therefore, the first barrier to listening is our lack of capacity for it or a mindset that we do not listen well, whether from societal expectation or personal psychological preferences.

Another barrier to listening is the noisiness and constant distractions of our lives, something that you might not even be aware of if you have always lived in the world of Internet, cell phones, iPods, tablets, and 24/7 news channels. We are dependent on and constantly wired to the Internet. Focus is difficult. Not only do electronic distractions hurt our listening, but life concerns can distract us, as well. An ill family member, a huge exam next period, your car in the shop, deciding on next semester’s classes—the list is endless. Hunger and fatigue hurt listening ability, as well. (So go to bed on time and have a nutritious breakfast!)

A third barrier to listening not often considered is that our minds can usually process much faster than a speaker can speak clearly. We may be able to listen, when really trying, to 200 words per minute, but few English speakers can articulate that many words clearly; an average rate for normal speech is approximately 150, but that number goes down for people speaking to large groups or through a camera. That leaves a great deal of time when the mind needs to pull itself back into focus. During those gaps, you might find it more enjoyable to think of lunch, the person you are dating (or want to be dating), or your vacation plans.

Another barrier is distraction from the people around you. Perhaps the scent of their perfume or cologne is unpleasant to you. Perhaps they cannot put their cell phones down or perhaps they are whispering to each other and impeding your ability to hear the speaker clearly. Finally, the physical environment may make listening to a public speaker difficult.

Additionally, confirmation bias is a barrier to listening. This term means “a tendency to search for or interpret information in a way that confirms one’s preconceptions” (Nickerson, 1998). Although the concept has been around a long time, we are more aware of confirmation bias today. It leads us to listen to news outlets and Internet sources that confirm what we believe already rather than being challenged to new ways of thinking by reading or listening to other sources of information. It can cause us to discount, reject, or re-interpret information to fit our preconceptions. Related to this barrier is simply prejudging a speaker from opening remarks, dismissing their topic or position at the outset due to perceived disagreement, or turning them off due to appearance or nonverbal behaviour. This is not to discount that the importance of the introduction and delivery of a speech, only to say that prejudgment is a counterproductive behaviour.

These are all the possible obstacles to listening, but there might also be reasons that are particular to you, the listener. Often we go into listening situations unready or unprepared. We are tired and mentally and physically unready to listen well. We do not sit in a comfortable position to listen. We do not bring proper tools to listen, specifically to take notes. There is actually research to indicate that we listen better and learn/retain more when we take notes with a pen and paper than when we type them on a computer or tablet (Mueller & Oppenheimer, 2014). Add to this, the ample research that shows how distracting open laptops are to other students. This research has led some professors to bar laptops from their classrooms (Patterson & Patterson, 2017; Carter, Greenberg, & Walker, 2017; Awwad & Awwad, 2013; Sana, Weston, & Cepeda, 2013).

What Can Be Done to Improve Listening?

Obviously, recognizing the cause of your poor listening is the first step to becoming a better listener. Here are some steps, in summary:

  • Believe that good listening in specific situations and improving your own listening behaviour are important.
  • Avoid confirmation bias by readily acknowledging that you might disagree and that the automatic “turn off” tendency is a possibility. In other words, tell yourself to keep an open mind.
  • Be prepared to listen. Put away mobile devices. Have a pen and paper ready. Situate yourself physically to listen (not slouching or slumping).
  • When taking notes, keep yourself mentally engaged by writing questions that arise, especially if your instructor does not take questions until a break and you might forget. This behaviour will fill in the gaps when your mind could wander and create more of an interaction with the speaker. However, taking notes does not mean “transcribing” the speech or lecture. Whether in class or in a different listening situation, do not even attempt to write down everything the speaker says. One, it’s not possible and, two, you will disengage your critical thinking and get too involved in transcribing, rather than thinking. Instead, start with looking for overall purpose and structure, then for pertinent examples of each main point. Repetition or planned redundancy by a speaker usually indicates you should write something down.
  • For your own sake and that of your co-listeners, avoid temptations to talk to those sitting next to you. It is far more distracting to both the speaker and your co-listeners than you might think. Write down the questions for asking later. Our use of cellular devices in an audience can also be more of a distraction to others than we realize. There is a good reason the movie theatres play those announcements about turning your phone off before the feature!


This chapter was adapted from Exploring Public Speaking, 4th Edition by Barbara Tucker and Matthew LeHew, which is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.


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