The Importance of Being a Good Listener

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If you want to be a good speaker, you need to be a good listener. The number one rule of public speaking is to “know your audience.” Let’s take a look at what that means.

You can’t personally know your audience, of course. But you can study them from afar. Say you’re going to speak at a conference. Don’t give a canned speech. Customize it! With a little effort, you can shape your talk into one that will be memorable and impactful.

First, research the conference. Find out the theme, how the conference tracks are structured, who the other speakers are. This will give you a feel for the overriding concerns of the audience – why they are gathering, what they hope to learn, and why they are spending their time and money on this particular conference.

Don’t forget to research the sponsors. Sponsors pay money to reach a certain audience, so the sponsors that are attracted to a conference can also tell you a lot about the audience.

See if you can gain access to the attendee list. This will be most helpful, but many organizers simply don’t release that detailed information. If they don’t, speak to them about the audience in genera. Most organizers are happy to entertain this conversation. They can provide more specific details about the attendees and what they hope to get from the conference experience.

Once you are armed with that general information, dig into the details of the audience a bit further. Here are three areas worth exploring in detail:

1. The industry. The industry that your audience works in is perhaps the most important aspect. Learning about the industry will give you insight into the broader concerns of the group. Knowing some of the current events, the major players, and a little bit of jargon will go a long way.

2. The seniority level. Are you speaking to executives or individual contributors? Executives will appreciate high-level ideas and inspiration for change. Individual contributors will look to you for specific tactical solutions and “take aways” they can apply right away.

3. Major concerns. People like speakers that can help them to solve problems. Spending time understanding the particular challenges they face will help you greatly in your talk.

Once this research is conducted, it’s time to do some listening “on the ground.” Get to the conference early – as early as you can. Mingle with the audience and engage them in conversation. Learn as much specific information as you can about at least a few of the attendees. Sure, it’s too late at this point to rework your talk, but it’s not too late to fine tune it a bit. Adding just a little bit of jargon or a timely reference can really win the audience over.

Listen to the audience. Listen to the organizers. Then, shape your message and deliver a great talk.


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