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Barriers to Good Listening

Are you a good listener? Most Americans are poor listeners. Litfin explains that we are an EYE-oriented culture rather than EAR-oriented. Americans prefer visual input, especially young people who have grown up with electronic technology. The people in cultures where there is no written language or high incidences of illiteracy are EAR-oriented. In our culture, we say, “Can I have a copy of that?” or “I need to see it in writing.” We prefer “reading and storage” over “listening well and remembering.”[1] We must work harder on listening when it doesn’t come as naturally. Attention and listening skills are better in cultures that must depend on hearing and memory for information.

Common barriers to good listening include the following:[2]

  1. passive listening – Many people are lazy listeners. Listening is active, involving interaction of the listener and speaker in the process.
  2. interrupting – Many listeners are impatient to wait for the comment to end and eager to speak themselves. Conversation requires give and take; listening, then speaking.
  3. assumptions – People have a tendency to jump to a conclusion before a speaker finishes a thought. Making a wrong assumption is like jumping to a confusion!
  4. self-focus – In this “me–generation,” people are more interested in what they have to say than what others are saying. Listening requires focus on the speaker, not on self.
  5. past intrusion – Previous experiences or past failures may influence a listener. A good listener must be “in the moment” in order to understand the speaker.
  6. distraction – Drifting thoughts and poor attention hinder good listening. Distractions can be internal or external. Listeners must focus on the words being spoken in order to listen completely and correctly.
  7. defensiveness – Listeners may react strongly when they disagree or have another opinion. This verbal response has been described as duelogue vs. dialogue. Duelogue implies two people fighting with words as their weapons.[3]

Identifying one’s personal barriers to good listening is an important move in controlling these hindrances so listening may improve. Knowing personal weaknesses in listening is the first step toward improving listening skills.

Distraction is probably my biggest barrier to good listening. I am highly distracted internally by thoughts of everything I have to do. I am distracted externally by sights and sounds around me. When my husband and I go out to dinner, my natural desire is to face everyone and everything in the restaurant because of my curiosity. But to give Chuck my undivided attention, I must sit facing him–and maybe the wall–to tune out the distractions around me.

The Bible teaches about the importance of listening and warns against hasty speech. In James 1:19, the apostle admonishes: “Everyone must be quick to hear, slow to speak, and slow to anger.” Commentary in the Life Application Bible for this verse includes an exercise for overcoming barriers to good listening. “Put a mental stopwatch on your conversations and keep track of how much you talk and how much you listen. In your conversations, do others feel that their viewpoints and ideas have been valued?”[4] Effective communicators break down personal barriers to listening in order to build up people while focusing on their messages. Have you been able to identify your own barriers to good listening? How can you become a more effective communicator by being a better listener?

            [1] Litfin, Public Speaking, 42.

            [2] Gronbeck et al., Principles of Speech Communication, 36-37.

            [3] “Duelogue,” http://www.examiner.com/article/monologue-dialogue-or-duelogue-how-savvy-are-you (cited 3 March 2013) examiner.com (Clarity Digital Group LLC, 2013).

            [4] Tyndale House, Life Application Bible: New Testament (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House, 1987), 604.

Step Back and Observe

“Vertical and horizontal listening are necessary for Christian speakers.”[1]

While there is no one perfect speaker in the world, there are many excellent speakers. Much can be learned by listening to and observing a wide range of speakers in a variety of contexts. Insights can be gained from the strengths and weaknesses of public speakers, and ideas can be prayerfully incorporated into one’s own speaking style.

Assessment of the public speaking of others should consider several personal characteristics or traits in addition to skills and abilities. Observe the speaker’s character and integrity; sensitivity and awareness; knowledge and information; and desire and passion. These traits are worthy qualities to emulate.

Awareness and informal observations should become a natural mindset of a speaker. Without pen and paper or objective criteria, make mental notes as others speak. Learn to communicate more effectively through observation and examination as well as practice.

Some general guidelines will provide structure for informal observations. Begin noticing the speaker even before the speech starts. Continue observation during the speech and until the speaker is no longer present. Consider observing these aspects of communication, incorporating them into conscious thought.

Before the speech.Observe the setting and platform before the message begins. Is the platform conducive to comfortable positioning and movement by the speaker? Is the lighting adequate for good visibility? Are the podium and props set up properly? Is the screen visible for slides if used, and will the speaker be able to reference them easily? Will the speaker be positioned physically to connect with audience? While some features of setting and stage are beyond a guest speaker’s control, some adjustments and adaptations can be made to improve the speech.

Notice the speaker’s behavior and mannerisms even before she speaks. How does she interact with people before the session begins? How does she participate in the program as a part of the audience? How does she approach the stage and position herself for speaking? How appropriate is her appearance, clothing, and makeup?

During the speech.While the speaker shares the message, try to focus on the speech content and allow the Lord to communicate His thoughts personally. Also, pay attention to the public speaking skills employed during the delivery. It may be helpful to organize observations within the introduction, body, and conclusion parts of the speech. The speaker and listener should be consciously aware of each distinct part.

Listen carefully to the speaker’s opening comments in the introduction. Did she immediately capture the attention of the audience? Did she begin with a challenging question or interesting illustration? Did she relate to the other people or elements of the program? Did she quickly gain rapport with the audience? Did she stimulate interest in the topic? Did she project energy and enthusiasm? Did she use specific words phrases or movements to bridge from the introduction to the body?

As the body of the speech was delivered, did the speaker transition smoothly from the introduction? Did the speaker present clear relevant points? Did she include appropriate supportive material to strengthen her premises? Did she use nonverbal communication naturally? Did she utilize the sound system and media effectively? Did she adhere to the schedule and allot time equally to all points? Did she move smoothly into the concluding remarks?

Was the conclusion truly the conclusion? Did the speaker pause, alter tone, adjust pace, or move to denote the conclusion? Did she summarize main points or introduce new material? Did she call for response or action? Did she close in a vivid memorable way? Did she verbalize “in conclusion” or “in closing?” Did she have a false conclusion? Did she stop before the audience finished listening?

After the speech. Recall the positives and negatives of the speech as well as the strengths and weaknesses of the speaker. Was the speaker effective? Was she well-prepared and thorough? Was the message relevant to your life? Was the audience responsive? Were the major points memorable? Were personal applications realistic? What were two or three strengths of the speaker? What are one or two weaknesses needing work? What one positive comment would you like to share with the speaker?

Whether a wonderfully delivered or poorly constructed message, much can be learned through stepping back and observing!

            [1] Quentin Schultze, An Essential Guide to Public Speaking. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2006),  45-49.