You are seated in the audience at a conference. The speaker is engaging. The topic highly interests you, and yet, you find yourself thinking about your to do list, or what you want to eat for lunch, or what you should have said in response to an earlier comment. What gives?
Here’s the problem. The rates at which we listen and at which we speak are not equal. Not even close. So much of the effort it takes to actively listen comes from this lag time. According to the University of Missouri, “most of us speak at the rate of about 125 words per minute. However, we have the mental capacity to understand someone speaking at 400 words per minute . . . This difference between speaking speed and thought speed means that when we listen to the average speaker, we’re using only 25 percent of our mental capacity. We still have 75 percent to do something else with. So, our minds will wander.”
On Wednesday, we talked about some ways to become a better listener during typical, everyday conversations. Today, we’ll continue our series on listening by covering how to become a better listener in the specific contexts of presentations or meetings. Many of these strategies will help to overcome that lag time between the rate at which we speak and the rate at which we can comprehend.
Pay Attention to Nonverbal Communication
Dr. Albert Mehrabian studied nonverbal communication and found that nearly 93% of communication occurs outside of the content of the message. The 93% accounted for things like vocal pitch, facial expression, and posture. But the exact percentage isn’t important. What is important is knowing that a lot of what we understand comes from things other than words. To help you listen more actively, pay attention to the nonverbal communication of the speaker. What does the tone of her voice tell you? What is his body language communicating? When you pay attention to nonverbal communication, you not only keep your brain busier, you get a more complete understanding of the message being sent through various channels.
A study published in TIME found that those who listen while writing or doodling can remember up to 29% more of what they heard. We can use the practice of writing to fill in some of the gaps between the speed of talking and listening. Taking notes will allow you to follow the outline of what is being presented, as well as give you something to refer back to at a later time. If you choose to doodle rather than take notes, just keep in mind that some people might think you are doodling because you aren’t paying attention. If you are in a situation in which your doodling might be misperceived or distracting, it would be a better option to take notes or use one of the other tips.
Feedback is the information that the audience sends to the speaker. It can be anything from bored looks to head nods to smiles. When you send feedback to the speaker, it gives him useful information. It also engages you in the conversation. For instance, if the speaker says something that confuses you, you might give him a confused look. This, in turn, allows the speaker to stop and repeat or clarify what was said. Speakers appreciate audience members who are engaged and responding. They draw energy from the eye contact and feedback they receive which makes the presentation better for everyone involved. In addition, if you are an audience member who offers positive feedback, the speaker will probably have a more positive perception of you. That positive connection built on feedback becomes especially important in a business setting.
Listening is hard, active work. But great things happen when we learn to listen with more effort and intentionality. The next time you catch your mind drifting during a meeting, try paying attention to nonverbal communication, taking notes, or engaging in the presentation by way of feedback. And if you simply can’t stop thinking about lunch, try drawing that sandwich you are craving while you listen. When your coworker asks about the Italian Beef sandwich in the margin, assure him that you are using science to improve your listening skills.
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