I recently heard a friend speak at a school related event. He spoke with authenticity, carefully providing some meaningful advice on life and personal growth, to a room of young students, with parents and teachers listening in as well. He spoke in a low register, with a quiet, assured voice. He paused before making key statements, allowing the silence to permeate the room and guide understanding. He spoke in the comfort of his own unique personality and paid careful attention to the words he chose. He spoke from the heart. His speech related to graduating elementary school, growing from children into aspiring young adults and being grateful for family. He described some of his personal moments and feelings about parenthood, about what is feels like to hold your little newborn baby in your arms and, about the dedication of a parent to try everything possible just to see their child giggle. He spoke to the students about integrity, about doing good and showing gratitude to their parents and family. The room was silent. He had a captive audience. I, along with many other students, parents, and teachers held our breath, some even holding back tears. He spoke authentically, intently, powerfully. We were undoubtedly moved by his words.
Speech has the power to influence, to move, to catalyze into action, for better or for worse. The spoken words of such figures as Dr. Martin Luther King, Mahatma Gandhi, John F. Kennedy, Socrates, Winston Churchill and many other great leaders of the past, have had the power to influence societies and people’s thoughts for generations. Check out this site, which lists their picks for the 35 greatest speeches in history. In our day-to-day life, the words of the people we surround ourselves with and the words we hear in the media, can uplift us or bring us down, can open our minds to new, inspiring ideas or can taint us with unproductive, upsetting thoughts. I used to love public speaking throughout my childhood and youth (and still do) and participated in many public speaking competitions and speaking events (i.e., MC’ing ceremonies and the like). Now, as a teacher I also speak in front of large groups of impressionable young people everyday and on occasion, to groups of adults as well. I realize now, more than ever, what a privilege it is to be given the opportunity to speak in front of a listening audience–to be trusted and respected to share my ideas and be heard by others. In fact, whether speaking in front of a large or small audience, or even one-on-one with anyone, every opportunity to speak and have a willing listener on the other end is a gift. I am grateful for these moments and will try my best to say ‘thank-you for listening’ more often now. 🙂
I once read that “Speech is the edge of thinking” (my apologies, but I don’t have the reference for this phrase). This incredible sentence has stuck with me for years as it puts into perspective the importance of something (speech) that we may otherwise easily take for granted. Our speech is one of our main tools for conveying our thoughts and portraying who we are–it provides a window into part of our inner world; the truth of us. However, before becoming a influential speaker, we must be an even better listener.
I often quote Epictetus to my students: “We have two ears and one mouth so that we can listen twice as much as we speak.” I emphasize that listening is doubly as important as speaking and when we do speak, we must choose our words wisely, speak with honesty, an open mind, authenticity and with compassion. This is something that is no easy feat for the majority of us (children or adults) in our ‘me-centered’ society, where power, competition and the desire to be understood carries an inherent, ongoing sense of urgency in the day-to-day modern culture. Listening and speaking with conscious intention must be practiced and improved upon continually–there is no point at which one is done working on this. Admittedly, this is a big area of growth for me, and something I am continually trying to hone. Stephen R. Covey writes in ‘The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People” (2004 edition, pg. 10):
…don’t you find that, while others are speaking to you, instead of really listening to understand, you are often busy preparing your response? The real beginning of influence comes as others sense you are being influenced by them –when they feel understood by you–that you have listened deeply and sincerely, and that you are open. But most people are too vulnerable emotionally to listen deeply–to suspend their agenda long enough to focus on understanding before they communicate their own ideas.
I absolutely love this perspective and it resonates well with me, particularly the last sentence. Dr. Covey cautions against four common listening responses that people use when they are listening autobiographically; that is, with their own agenda in mind: evaluating, probing, advising and interpreting. Once we have truly listened with an unbiased, unfiltered, open mind, and understood and learned from others’ perspectives, we will then be ready to communicate our own ideas with authenticity and intention. This is the point at which we have the potential to proliferate so much goodness in this world and influence greater social and environmental responsibility, critical thought, compassion and more things that many of you reading this site hope to spread. There are many different forms of communication (verbal, written), but our spoken word is one of our most powerful assets. Value it, take care of it, sharpen it, and use it for good.
I highly recommend watching this TED talk by Julian Treasure on ‘How to speak so that people want to listen’. It goes into more specific details about how exactly one can refine the way they speak, using relevant verbal speaking techniques as well as many of the character traits (compassion, authenticity etc.) and overarching goals for the world, as described in my post.