Vincent Ferraro and Kathryn C. Palmer
Mount Holyoke College
South Hadley, MA 01075
Speaking and Arguing: The Rhetoric of Peace and War


We give speeches and make presentations with the assumption that people will listen to us.  It is therefore essential that a speaker understand what listening involves.  The speaker can legitimately expect that an audience will hear the words spoken, but hearing does not necessarily constitute effective listening.   An audience is not actually listening unless it is attentive enough to comprehend fully the meaning of the speaker's words. 

While hearing is not sufficient for full understanding, it is a prerequiste for listening.  For this reason, a speaker must first acknowledge that, listening aside, hearing is itself a complex process.  People actually hear a rather small percentage of what we say.   Hearing every word of a sentence is really not necessary for comprehension--most of the words we use in oral conversation are fillers.  Moreover, the human brain can assimilate about 500 words a minute, but even the fastest speaker can articulate only about 150 words a minute.  Therefore even the most dedicated listerner has a lot of brain capacity that is not being used while listening to a speech.  People use that "excess capacity" in different ways while simultaneously listening to a speech.

  1. Anticipation:  Many listeners will try to anticipate the next part of a speech. This activity is generally one that works to the advantage of the speaker.  In a carefully constructed speech one can try to make sure that the audience reaches the conclusion of a particular point before one actually articulates it.  This result enhances the likelihood of agreement.  A negative aspect of this effort is that an easily anticipated construction will lead to boredom, and the listener will tune out of the speech.  There is a fine line between predictability that eases the task of listening and one that turns it off completely.

  2. Preparation:  Many listeners will use their "excess capacity" to prepare a response to the speaker.  There is often time for questions and answers at the end of speeches, and the audience sometimes looks forward to that opportunity.  Some in the audience will use the Q&A to explore genuine questions related to the substance of the speech; others will use that time to articulate sincere disagreements with the content of the speech; and some mean-spirited individuals often use the Q&A to embarass the speaker.  A speaker must remember that the speech is designed precisely to elicit a response--the audience's decision to use some of their attention to formulate a response is entirely legitimate and evidence of such preparation (note-taking, for example) is a good signal.

  3. Comprehension:  Listeners will often spend considerable time trying to understand what the speaker is saying. As a rule, however, a speaker should try to keep this activity to a minimum.  The clearer the logic of the speech, the less time will be spent on comprehension.  If the speech is confusing or ill-structured, the audience will spend more effort trying to figure out what the speaker is trying to say than actually listening.  These signals (usually scrunched-up faces) pose a significant challenge to a speaker.  Trying to regain the audience's comprehension in the middle of a speech is difficult.  A speaker aware of this problem should slow down the rate at which he or she is speaking, attempt to use simpler language, and immediately serve up some concrete examples of the point being made.   Usually such modifications can allow the audience time to re-engage.

  4. Visual Listening: Much of the hearing that occurs during a speech is visual.  The audience will spend a great deal of time gathering information from the speaker's appearance, demeanor, and gestures.  Indeed, the first items of information communicated during a speech are transmitted before the speaker has uttered even a single word.  Unfairly,  but inevitably, an audience will make rapid assessments of the speaker's credibility on the basis of  initial visual cues.   Most audiences believe this assessment to be peripheral to the speech; studies suggests that it is critical. One estimate is that "words account for only 7 percent of the speaker's effect on an audience.  A massive 55 percent of the speaker's impact comes from the visual, i.e., how he looks, facial expressions, gestures, body language and posture, etc., while 38 percent of this impact comes from voice: does he sound trustworthy, is his voice varied and interesting to listen to?" (Stuart, 1998, p. 4).

  5. Content Filtering:  An audience usually interprets the first points made by a speaker within its own frame of reference, and not the speaker's.  For example, a speaker talking to an audience about a current issue such as abortion should expect most listeners to already have some views about the subject.   Bringing up the subject of abortion, therefore, will stimulate pre-determined views of most listeners.  Listeners will often assume that the speaker already understands their own point of view and mishear the speakers words within that frame of reference.   This phenomenon is perhaps inevitable, but it represents a serious challenge to a speaker.  Selective listening can distort the meanings of the speaker and can lead to confusion. Words or phrases with multiple meanings can add to this confusion.   Establishing control of content can minimize the degree of filtering within an audience, and this end is best accomplished by clear definitions of unfamiliar terms, the use of concrete words, and explicit definitions of politically "loaded" terms.

  6. Environmental Filtering:  Many times listeners are simply distracted by things beyond the control of the speaker such as coughs, temperature, and uncomfortable chairs.  A speaker must also remember that giving a speech is a social activity (and should be celebrated as such) and that an audience will engage in activities even while the speech is being delivered.  Whispering and passing notes crosses a clear dividing line between an attentive and inattentive audience. Falling asleep is perhaps less egregrious since it is usually a solitary act.  If a speaker witnesses a number of such activities, however, then he or she knows that the audience is being lost.

A speaker cannot assess the degree to which an audience is listening unless he or she listens to the audience as well.  By listening to an audience carefully, a speaker can assess the degree to which an audience understands what he or she is saying.   Engagement during a speech is a responsibility of both the audience and the speaker.