The Secret To Speaking Success

by Stephen Boyd | September 5, 2007

The single greatest secret to success in life is paying attention. Because of multi-tasking and the sheer amount of information we are exposed to, the inability to pay attention is becoming a serious problem. To communicate effectively, one must pay attention.

You may have heard the old story about a lady years ago who called directory assistance to get the number of a record shop to order a record. By mistake she got the number of a wrecker company. When a man answered, she asked, “Do you have “Two Lips and Ten Kisses in Texas?”

“No ma’am,” he said, “but I have five wives and twenty kids in Tennessee.”

“Is that a record?” the woman asked, incredulous.

“I don’t know,” said the mechanic, “but it’s sure above average.” More than one person in that story was not paying attention.

We must pay attention. One way we can do that is by making sure we understand the point of the message beyond the individual words. You can determine this by paraphrasing in your own words or by asking specifically for the person to clarify the point. You are less likely to misunderstand a word or phrase if you follow carefully the main thrust of the message.

Shut out the distractions going through your mind before you start the conversation by concentrating on an inanimate object such as the edge of a door or window or a concrete block in a wall of the room for twenty seconds. This will break the thought process and allow you to concentrate better on the message.

Focus on the face as you listen. The face is the focal part of the body. The face will help you connect to the message. I asked a caricaturist friend what he does to make each face unique and to capture the essence of the person. His response was, “I look at the shape of the face, and then the facial expression.” But what surprised me about his answer was what he said next. “And I do that by engaging the person in conversation. Hearing the person talk helps me focus on his or her uniqueness.”

I talked to the age guesser at the Indiana State Fair’s Midway recently and asked him what he looks for in a person to guess her or his age. His response was, “I just look at the person and go on instinct. I do not look at the people around him or her or anything about his appearance. I just concentrate on the face.” We can apply some of the same philosophy in paying attention.

Look for content in the other person’s message that you can especially identify with. Does the person state something that connects to your job, family, hobby, home state, or favorite sport? Even if nothing he or she says relates to you, just the mental discipline of checking on a connection will motivate you to pay better attention.

Sit so you are in line with the person you are talking to. This might mean sitting up with your knees facing your partners, leaning forward so you can make easy and direct eye contact. Show that you are paying attention by nodding at appropriate times and using facial expression that matches the content of the person’s conversation.

Finally, if you are having a hard time paying attention, admit it and set another time to continue the conversation. This lets the other person know you put a premium on paying attention.

Paying attention may not always keep you from having an accident; attention to the instructions you need to reach your destination may not help you arrive on time. But paying attention can certainly help you with human relations and help you to be an engaging and desirable person with whom people want to communicate.

About the Author

Stephen D. Boyd, Ph.D., CSP, is Professor Emeritus of Speech Communication, College of Informatics, Northern Kentucky University, near Cincinnati. He presents keynotes and seminars to corporations and associations whose people want to speak and listen effectively. See additional articles and resources at To book Steve, call 800-727-6520 or email him through his website.

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