Listening: The Secret to Great Public Speaking

Yes, I know that sounds counterintuitive. As an executive coach who helps people hone their public speaking and presence skills, public speaking should be about speaking not listening, right? Wrong.

Here’s why.

The audience wants to be part of your presentation. They want this experience to be a conversation between you and them (even if you are the only one speaking aloud). They want to be seen, heard and valued in exchange for their attention. The quality of their attention or lack thereof is one of the ways they “speak” to you.

You listen to the audience not only with your ears. You observe with your eyes and sense through your gut. This “whole body” listening is the essence of mindfulness, the ability to be fully available to the moment without your mind chatter getting in the way. You demonstrate your listening by continually adjusting your delivery according to what you have heard.

Here are two examples from the arts that showcase the power of listening to impact performance.

Tango Dancing

As an amateur tango dancer in my 7th year of lessons, I know that it takes about 20 years to be really skilled in this art. In a social setting, when I have the chance to dance with a professional tango dancer I inevitably fumble my steps. Immediately, I apologize, embarrassed at my lack of skill in comparison. In contrast, what does the pro say? “No apologies. It always takes me a dance or two to understand my partner’s movements so I can adjust.” Isn’t that interesting? The pro doesn’t demand that I come up to his level. Rather, he meets me at my level to have a connection. The result? I am more receptive because I have been seen, heard and valued as I am. I actually dance better in response! Do you see the secret of listening at work here?

Tip: Always level set the conversation with your audience by asking them what they want to know, what their experience is regarding what you are speaking about. Integrate what you learn throughout your presentation as best you can. Be willing to meet any boredom or disinterest with curiosity. Ask these questions; “What’s not working for you right now? What do I need to do to make this more relevant to you?” You will be surprised how responsive in a positive way people can be.


Years ago, as a professional actress, I learned how to create a sense of naturalness in the most unnatural settings. One of the skills of acting is to appear so natural that you fascinate and draw the audience into a private moment which is actually public. This ability requires deep listening to maintain your focus.  Imagine how distracting it is to the unseasoned actor trying to have a profound moment onstage with 1000 penetrating eyes upon you? Or with a camera positioned for a close-up as a budget-conscious producer and temperamental director critically watch every muscle twitch on your face? Naturalness is created by listening intently, either to the other character in your scene or to their imagined dialogue in your head. As you focus on the words, body language and emotions of your counterpart, you filter out distractions, self-consciousness is alleviated and you do your best and most “natural” work.

Tip: Stay focused on the audience. Look at them, not past them which distances you from them. It takes you out of the receptiveness of the present moment and into your own judgment, where you become an unrelatable talking head. When you think of public speaking as a conversation, listening, connecting and even making eye contact becomes more natural.

Listening involves a willingness to adapt, be flexible and honor another as equally important in the conversation. It also involves vulnerability, which means admitting we might not know everything, so we need to pay attention for more information. This can be uncomfortable for many business professionals who have been programmed to believe that their success depends on what they DO know. However, the willingness to suspend judgment and truly listen is the beginning of authentic communication which is at the heart of great public speaking.

Great public speaking is an art. It’s not a method that you learn although there are basics about organizing your ideas in a logical flow and having a powerful PPT deck that is certainly useful. But that’s not what makes you memorable or impactful as a public speaker. Listening and responding to your audience is what makes you relatable. When you are relatable, you are remembered.

#1 rule of public speaking: Listen to be heard.

Jo-Aynne von Born, Executive Coach, Strategist, Workshop Facilitator

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If you are interested in a public speaking workshop or coaching, please contact me to discuss.

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