Helping Your Audience Listen More

Read Feedback Cues

Feedback is the verbal and non-verbal responses from an audience which help the speaker modify and regulate what s/he is saying.

Learning Objectives

Apply your observations of feedback from your audience to modify your speech

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Verbal feedback --during the speech you may solicit feedback from the audience by asking a simple question to get feedback from the audience.
  • Non-verbal feedback--When you are in front of the audience, non-verbal behavior can be an important cue to what the audience understands, the level of attentiveness, excitement or agreement, or confusion or disagreement.
  • Audience Response System-- capture feedback from a large or remote audience by using an audience response system to ask questions and then display the answers. Audience members can respond using a wireless keypad such as a clicker, SMS, or text using a smartphone.
  • You can use the responses as personal feedback to modify your message or you can share them with the audience by displaying the tabulated responses on a web page or projected as part of a PowerPoint presentation.

Key Terms

  • feedback: The receivers' verbal and nonverbal responses to a message, such as a nod for understanding (nonverbal), a raised eyebrow for being confused (nonverbal), or asking a question to clarify the message (verbal).

Read Feedback Cues

Feedback is the response from the listeners

Feedback is the response that listeners provide to the sender of the message. Feedback is a cue to the speaker to modify or regulate what is being said. Feedback can take the form of verbal or non-verbal responses to an in-person speech, or verbal responses which are electronically captured for large or remote audiences.

An illustration of a speaker and a small audience that shows the communication model. The speaker (source) delivers (channel) the speech (message) to the audience and receives feedback.

Receiving Feedback: It is important for the speaker to receive feedback from the audience.

In-Person Verbal and Non-Verbal Feedback

Verbal Feedback

During the speech you may solicit feedback from the audience by asking a simple question. Audience members may respond verbally or they may nod or raise their hands. Additionally, audience members may ask a question or let you know if they do not understand. You may also receive direct positive or negative feedback from members of the audience who agree or disagree with what you are saying. Listen for the verbal feedback and acknowledge it.

Non-Verbal Feedback

When you are in front of the audience, non-verbal behavior can be an important cue to what the audience understands, the level of attentiveness, excitement or agreement, or confusion or disagreement. The non-verbal feedback may be intentional vocalizations, such as groans or encouragement (such as clapping). However, much of the non-verbal feedback may be unconscious physical body language, which can provide feedback for you. Here are some examples of body language that you may notice displayed consciously or subconsciously by members of the audience:

  • Boredom: boredom is indicated by the head tilting to one side, or by the eyes looking straight at the speaker but becoming slightly unfocused.
  • Disbelief: this is often indicated by averted gaze or by touching the ear or scratching the chin. When a person is not being convinced by what someone is saying, the attention invariably wanders and the eyes will stare away for an extended period.
  • Attentive eye contact: Are audience members looking directly at you attentively or are they looking around? Consistent eye contact can indicate that a person is interested and thinking positively about the speaker's subject. However, if a person is fiddling with something, even while directly looking at you, it could indicate that the attention is elsewhere.
  • Body position and posture: Audience members will generally face the speaker while listening intently; if the audience members are not interested they may shift the body position to the side rather than toward the speaker.

If you maintain eye contact with your audience while speaking, you can observe the cues and adapt your message. What is your audience telling you? All the non-verbal feedback needs to be processed with knowledge of the cultural context of the speaker and the audience. Remember that people from different cultures do interpret body language in different ways. For example, eye contact can be misleading because cultural norms about it vary widely. Direct eye contact may show attentiveness to the North American speaker but be considered a confrontation in another culture. And, certain hand gestures that are perfectly acceptable to one group may be disrespectful to another audience.

Feedback Electronically Captured from Large or Remote Audiences

You can also capture the responses from the audience by using an audience response system that you can view privately as you speak or display to the audience. You can solicit feedback directly by asking multiple choice, true-false, or numerical questions from audience members who respond using a wireless keypad such as a clicker, SMS, or text using a smartphone. The feedback from the audience is then sent back to your computer and processed by the audience response software. For a large or remote audience, you can plan to include different questions or polls to capture feedback from your audience and adapt your message accordingly. It is necessary to structure the questions to get the feedback you want. For example, if a large percentage of your audience answers a question with a certain wrong answer, you will know that you need to explain that concept differently. Conversely, if a large percentage of the audience agrees with an opinion, you can use that feedback to adapt your message.

Timing of Feedback

Assessment, or the tactics speakers and audience members use to facilitate learning, is often divided into initial, formative, and summative categories.

  • Initial assessment, also referred to as pre-assessment or diagnostic assessment, is conducted prior to instruction or intervention to establish a baseline from which an individual's growth can be measured.
  • Formative assessment is generally carried out throughout a course or project. Formative assessment, also referred to as "educative assessment," is used to aid learning. For example, in an educational setting, formative assessment might be a teacher (or peer) or the learner, providing feedback on a student's work and would not necessarily be used for grading purposes. Formative assessments can take the form of diagnostic, standardized tests.
  • Summative assessment is generally carried out at the end of a course, project or speech. In an educational setting, summative assessments are typically used to assign students a course grade. Whereas following a speech or presentation, summative assessment can be provided in the form of positive feedback, applause or a standing ovation.

Hold the Audience's Attention

To hold the audience's attention, consider their readiness to perceive, the selection of stimuli, and how to maintain current awareness.

Learning Objectives

Employ strategies for maintaining audience focus

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • If the speaker can establish readiness by getting the audience 's attention during the first 25-30 seconds of the speech, he or she can then direct and focus that attention to the important parts of the message.
  • The speaker can direct the attention of the audience to what is important by using changes in rate and volume, body movement, and gesture to emphasize what is important.
  • It is important to read the non-verbal clues of the audience to understand if they have shifted their attention somewhere else.
  • If the audience's attention is shifting from the speech, challenge the audience with an inquiry to stimulating thinking.
  • There are many strategies to employ to hold the attention of the audience, but the most important is the ability to establish and maintain a genuine connection with the people in the audience.

Key Terms

  • Perception: Conscious understanding of something; acuity.
  • awareness: The state or ability to perceive, to feel, or to be conscious of events, objects, or sensory patterns. In this level of consciousness, sense data can be confirmed by an observer without necessarily implying understanding.

To hold the attention of the audience, a public speaker should consider three important aspects of the process of perception: readiness to perceive, selection of certain stimuli for focus of attention, and state of current awareness.

Readiness to Perceive

The speaker is responsible for setting the stage. The speaker does this with the opening introduction in the the first 25 to 30 sections. If the speaker can secure the attention of the audience at the very beginning of the speech, he or she can then direct and focus that attention to the important parts of the message, as follows:

  • Make sure that the room is free of noise and other distractions, to ensure that the audience is focused on the speech, rather than what is happening in the room.
  • Speakers are often introduced by a host. This brief introduction is important because it helps to establish the speaker's credentials and prepares the audience members so their attention is properly directed.
  • Remember that the first important function of the introduction is to "capture the attention of the audience" and them immediately direct attention to the speech's main message.

Selection of Certain Stimuli for Focus

While delivering the speech, the speaker wants the audience to concentrate on his or her message, and directs their attention to what is important through the use of voice, body, and gesture. This is done by emphasizing the important points by changing the rate, volume, or pitch of the voice. Using vocal variety purposely helps the audience know what is important and directs their attention to those elements. In addition, the speaker's body and gestures can direct attention to important aspects of the message (for example, by pointing to, walking to, or touching a visual aid or diagram). Additional examples include the following:

  • To understand where he or she wants the audience to direct their attention, the speaker can consider a quick internal summary of an idea.
  • Use signposts, such as "Now get this..." or "Here is the important point, which I want you to remember. "
  • When using a visual aid, use additional audio cues or color changes to highlight specific areas.

State of Current Awareness

Speakers must read the non-verbal clues of the audience to understand if they have shifted their focus somewhere else. If the audience members are glancing at their watches, texting, or glancing at other people in the audience, the speaker should recognize the current state and redirect the attention back to the speech's message. To change the current state of the audience's awareness and re-gain their attention, try the following:

  • Challenge the audience with an inquiry to stimulating thinking. Ask for a show of hands to vote or to give answers, use clickers or an audience response system to get a response and then share the result, or ask a relevant question to stimulate thought.
  • Engage in narrative as a change of pace from message delivery. Create a narrative that is relevant to the topic and is dramatic for the audience, and use a surprise ending to direct the audience attention to the message.
  • Provide concrete examples of a concept or main point that is directly relevant and engaging for the audience. Make a comparison to something that has recently happened in the community or nationally.
  • Stimulate the audience's imagination or take them on a fantasy journey that stimulates the different senses. The more the senses are stimulated, the more the current focus is on the speech's message.

There are many strategies that the speaker can employee to hold the attention of the audience, but the most important is the ability to establish and maintain a genuine connection with the people in your audience. Speakers don't need to use a choke-hold to keep the audience's attention.

A picture of Randy Orton taking down

Choke-hold: Speakers don't need to use a choke -hold to keep the audience's attention.

Maximize Understanding

To maximize understanding, use general rhetorical strategies and other approaches that build upon the audience's prior experiences.

Learning Objectives

Give examples of ways to help your audience understand your ideas

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • We depend on the use of words applied in various rhetorical strategies to exchange understandings.
  • You can apply prior knowledge of the audience to choose the right vocabulary, to make comparisons with things familiar to them, to show the origin of things, to group things into categories meaningful to them, and to number the steps or events in the order that they occur.
  • To increase understanding during a speech, you can take the perspective of the audience to restate ideas, to ask the audience questions, and to paraphrase what you have just said using different examples and choice of words.

Key Terms

  • comparison: An evaluation of the similarities and differences of one or more things relative to each other.
  • understanding: The mental (sometimes emotional) process of comprehension, or the assimilation of knowledge, which is subjective by its nature.
  • classification: The act of forming into a class or classes; a distribution into groups, as classes, orders, families, etc., according to some common relations or attributes.

The Elements of Understanding

Understanding involves comprehending or knowing about an object, idea, concept, or process. In essence, you want the audience to comprehend and share the same understanding. It would be a very simple process if you could just exchange memory modules for your audience to upload, but we are not there yet. Today, you will use words to explain your thoughts. Here we are concerned with how you might use different rhetorical strategies to maximize what the audience understands.

Applying Prior Knowledge about the Audience

Apply what you already know about the demographics, background, and life experiences of the audience. Ask yourself, "What does my audience already understand or know? " You can apply the knowledge to maximize understanding.

  • Language choice and vocabulary: You'll want to begin your explanation at the right level; ask yourself, "What vocabulary will my audience understand and what do I need to explain before I can explain other concepts? "
  • Compare and contrast based upon shared knowledge: When you are showing how two things are alike, create connections with what the audience already knows. In order to maximize understanding, you'll want to compare those things that are already familiar against the new and unfamiliar things. Then, you can demonstrate how they are the same or different.
  • Visualize transformation by cause and origin: Where did something come from and how did it get to its present state or condition? Help the audience picture the change from one state or condition to another.
  • Classification and grouping alike things to form a concept: First, you'll want to cite examples that are familiar to the audience and put them into the same classification. Then you can put other less familiar objects or ideas into the same class or grouping while using the same label. You can even help the audience generalize to create a classification. For example, let's say you see a fir, a willow, and a linden. By comparing these objects, you notice that they are different from one another in respect to the trunk, branches, leaves, and the like; a further comparison, however, reveals what they have in common: the trunk, branches, and leaves themselves, which form the abstraction from their size, shape, and so forth. Thus, you gain a concept of a tree.
  • Sequence and origin: Here you help the audience understand the process or sequence of events in time. You can clearly list and number the steps or events in the order in which they occur. In addition to using sequencing words, you can also use simple mnemonics, like the knuckle mnemonic, which helps the listeners sequence things such as how many days are in each month.

Applying General Strategies

  • Perspective-taking: Practice perspective-taking so you can frame and reframe your examples in a way that the audience members will understand. You'll want to see how the members of the audience organize the world cognitively in order to reframe your concepts so that the audience understands them. If your initial explanation is not effective with a particular audience, you may reframe and refocus on different aspects of what you are explaining.
  • Repetition: Build upon prior understanding of concepts by repeating and using internal summaries. This ensures the audience does not miss an important idea that is critical to understanding the whole message.
  • Questioning: Question your audience to see if they understand what you are saying, and adjust your explanation in order to clarify misunderstandings.
  • Paraphrase: Paraphrase what you said for the audience and restate the ideas using different examples. Different audience members may not understand one idea but may understand another that relates more directly to their prior knowledge.

Simply put, you'll want to learn how the audience conceptualizes the world and then use that knowledge to maximize understanding. Use your skills of restating, questioning, perspective-taking, and paraphrasing to help clarify and reinforce understanding as you speak.

Build Credibility

Aristotle established three methods of proof to build credibility: initial, derived, and terminal.

Learning Objectives

Give examples of ways to build credibility before, during, and after your speech

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Credibility is not a characteristic of the source or speaker but an attitude in the mind of the listener(s). You may have high credibility with one group of listeners and low credibility with another.
  • Building initial credibility—your initial credibility is your personal brand. The audience may know you prior to the speech. If not, have someone introduce you or provide relevant background as a self- introduction.
  • Building derived credibility—When you speak confidently and assertively you inspire others with your energy and words. To build credibility you want to look at everything you do in the speech such as appearance, delivery, word choice, and in general how you handle yourself.
  • Building derived credibility—You establish common ground with the audience by sharing aspects of your background that are similar to the audience, by using supporting examples or experiences that you and the audience have in common, and by creating a bond with the audience.
  • Terminal credibility—You can build credibility for your next speech by establishing a rapport with the audience so they walk away with a more positive view of you than when you started.

Key Terms

  • credibility: The objective and subjective components of the believability of a source or message.
  • Aristotle: An ancient Greek philosopher (382–322 BC), student of Plato, and teacher of Alexander the Great.
  • ethos: A rhetorical appeal to an audience based on the speaker/writer's credibility.

Build Credibility

Building Credibility through Character and Competence

Aristotle, the classical Greek philosopher and rhetorician, established three methods of proof— logos, ethos, and pathos.

Logos is the logical development of the message, pathos is the emotional appeals employed by the speaker, and ethos is the moral character of the speaker as perceived by the audience. Our focus on credibility relates to ethos, the ethical character and competence of the speaker. To build credibility you want to focus on three stages: (1) Initial credibility is what the audience knows and their opinion prior to the speech, (2) Derived (during) credibility is how the audience perceives you while delivering the speech, and (3) Terminal is the lasting impression that the audience has of you as they leave the speech.


Bust of Aristotle: Marble, Roman copy after a Greek bronze original by Lysippos from 330 BC; the alabaster mantle is a modern addition.

Building Initial Credibility

Here we look at who you are as a person; what the audience knows about your expertise and whether the audience thinks you are trustworthy. You may think about initial credibility as your personal branding: who you are and what you audience knows about you. Your reputation may precede you but if it does not, you may rely on an introduction prior to the speech. Often a host or moderator will introduce you and provide relevant information about your background. If there is no moderator to provide an introduction, you may include a brief self-introduction about yourself as it relates to the topic and your motivation for speaking. Building initial credibility helps prepare the audience for what is to come during the speech.

Building Derived Credibility

This is where you want to look at how the audience perceives you during the speech. You derive credibility during the speech by what you do. Your credibility with the audience derives from how the audience responds to what you wear, the words you use, your delivery, and in general the way you handle yourself during the speech. If you use strong supporting evidence and explain it to the audience, you will enhance your perceived competence. If you communicate sincerely and honestly with the audience, you will enhance the perception of your character. If you speak confidently and assertively, while demonstrating a genuine concern for the audience, you will increase your credibility with the audience.

Another important aspect of credibility during the speech is your ability to establish common ground with the audience. You can establish common ground by sharing aspects of your background that are similar to the audience. You may also establish common ground through the selection of examples that you and the audience share in experience.

Establish common ground by creating a bond with the audience that will help the audience identify with you. For example, "I am like you, I share your concerns. " The audience is more likely to trust a speaker that they feel they know and who knows them.

Terminal Credibility

As a speaker, you want to build a rapport with the audience so they leave with as good or a better impression of you than when you began your speech. Rapport occurs when two or more people feel that they are in sync or on the same wavelength because they feel similarly or relate well to each other. In a sense, what you send out—the audience sends back. For example, they may realize they share similar values, beliefs, knowledge, or behaviors around sports or politics as you deliver your speech and regard you more favorably than before you started your speech. You can build credibility for your next speech by establishing rapport with the audience. If you are honest and ethical with your audience and share your values and beliefs, you establish a rapport that will carry over beyond the speech.

Ask yourself, "Will my audience trust me ?" We are not really talking about a characteristic of the source or speaker, but an attitude in the mind of the listeners. You may have high credibility with one listener or group of listeners and low credibility with another.

Make Messages Easy to Remember

Encoding (or registration), storage, and recollection comprise the three main stages in the formation and retrieval of memory.

Learning Objectives

Demonstrate methods for helping your audience remember your message

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Creating mental images of objects, people, and things is one of the oldest memory tools presented in classic rhetoric.
  • Creating an organizational scheme and positioning ideas, objects, or processes into a specific order makes it easier for audiences to remember and reinforce through the scheme.
  • Breaking up long lists or series into smaller and manageable groupings of four to five items helps audiences recall the items.
  • Associating your new idea with ideas that are similar and/or familiar to the audience ensures that the associations are meaningful and memorable.
  • Repeating important ideas helps the audience remember and include internal summaries.
  • Creating a short poem, special word, or link system such as a story helps audiences visualize a connection between previously unconnected objects, ideas, or events.

Key Terms

  • mnemonic: Anything (especially something in verbal form) used to help remember something.
  • memory: The ability of an organism to record information about things or events with the facility of recalling them later at will.
  • singularity: A proposed point in the technological future at which artificial intelligences become capable of augmenting and improving themselves, leading to an explosive growth in intelligence.

Make Messages Easy to Remember

Memory refers to the process by which information is encoded, stored, and retrieved. From an information processing perspective, there are three main stages in the formation and retrieval of memory:

  • Encoding or registration: allows information that is from the outside world to reach our senses in the form of chemical or physical stimuli
  • Storage: creates a permanent record of the encoded information
  • Retrieval, recall or recollection: calls back the stored information in response to some cue for use in a process or activity

If you could simply transfer your memory modules to the brains of your audience, speaking would be obsolete. Cyborg memory transfer is not feasible yet, and we have not reached singularity with the audience, but we can develop our ideas and deliver them in such a way as to facilitate the transfer of information.

A picture that shows a selection of electronic memory cards.

Remembering Information: Like electronic memory cards, humans employ storage methods to permanently record thoughts and memories.

Principles for supporting memory

  • Visual and Spatial orientation (Method of Loci) - This is one of the oldest memory aids presented in classical rhetoric. It allows items to be remembered through the mnemonic system, which includes mentally associat ing them with specific physical locations. For instance, you can create a mental image of a building or a city for your audience and then associate different ideas or themes with each spatial area. You can then walk the audience through the area as you discuss each theme in the associated location.
  • Ordering - You can create an organizational scheme or pattern, and then position ideas, objects, or processes using the scheme for the listeners. If you consistently follow the scheme or pattern throughout the speech, it is easier to remember and reinforces the ordering, whether it is a natural order or one which you created for the speech. For example, think about money. You have a scheme of value for one cent up to one dollar. You can put all the pennies, nickles, dimes, and quarters into their respective place in the order. It then becomes easier to count and remember how many of each you have.
  • Limiting sets - You can break up long series into manageable smaller sets. When chunking, you want to group similar items together. Since the newest research suggests that short-term memory capacity is 4-5 items, you want to break up long lists into meaningful and smaller groupings.
  • Association- You make associations between new ideas, concepts, or similar ideas. You want to make sure the association you create is actually meaningful to the members of the audience and will fit into their mental framework. For example, it is easier for an English speaker to remember names in English or other European languages, where names are associated with everyday meanings (e.g. "Brown") and with numerous known people who have that name, than it is for them to remember names in Chinese, where no such associations are known. The same concept applies in reverse for a Chinese speaker. Similarly, it is much easier to remember places, objects, or rooms in a building by name than by number, because names have higher association value than numbers.
  • Affect - You can also create a strong emotional connection for the audience by mentally 'painting' a vivid picture for the audience. You might describe an image of something that is extremely beautiful or ugly in the minds of your audience. The concept that is salient, bizarre, shocking, or simply unusual will be more easily remembered.
  • Repetition - You may repeat important ideas to help the audience remember, and include internal summaries so that you repeat again what you want the audience to remember.
  • Mnemonic - Mnemonics are often verbal, such as very short poems or special words used to help with memorization (e.g., lists). For example, if you want the audience to remember the list (dog, envelope, thirteen, yarn, window), you could create a link system, such as a story about a "dog stuck in an envelope, mailed to an unlucky black cat playing with yarn by the window. " Alternatively, you could use visualization to imagine a dog inside a giant envelope, then visualize an unlucky black cat (or whatever reminds the user of 'thirteen') eating a huge envelope.

While we wait for communication technology and artificial intelligence to enable direct memory transfer, we can make good use of these time tested principles to make messages easier to remember.

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