How to Speak so That People Want to Listen

Speaker Julian Treasure  |  January 27, 2021


The human voice is the instrument we all play, but very few people have ever had any training in how to use it effectively. This is a complex, versatile and powerful skill, and it is extraordinary that we don’t teach or test it in most schools.
Your voice is your breath projected into the world; it’s the only part of you that you can send forth outside of your own body. Powerful speaking is a key life skill, for several reasons.

I live in Orkney, a set of islands off the north coast of Scotland that are liberally scattered with antiquities from prehistory. Possibly the most famous is Ring of Brodgar, a stone circle dating back to around 3,000 BC. Each of the 60 huge stones that originally formed the ring (27 are still standing) had to be dragged miles to the site before being erected, which must have taken incredible organization and determination, not to mention teamwork, for these Neolithic people. Even with modern equipment this would be a major operation. These people had no power other than their own muscles; they worked of their own volition, unlike the slave laborers who built the pyramids. They must have been very highly motivated.I often wonder who had the idea to create this seminal structure, which some scientists believe inspired all the stone circles in the UK, culminating in Stonehenge. Whoever it was must have been a potent speaker indeed, to inspire thousands to commit so much time and energy over many years to such a huge project. Throughout human history, powerful speakers have inspired people to change their beliefs, create or destroy social systems, adopt personal lifestyles, follow religious or philosophical paths, take up arms and fight, form movements, work in teams — and build monuments. Innumerable great sporting performances have been triggered by an inspirational talk from a coach or captain. If you want to make a difference in the world, you will most likely need to inspire others, and you may need to be a leader. Your voice is the most powerful tool you have for these things.

Possibly the most famous and strongest form of vocal persuasion is hypnosis. You may have seen high-speed onstage hypnotism, where the hypnotist instantly induces trance states and the uses spoken suggestions to have people change their behavior even after the trance ends. Strong suggestions made to the subconscious are not confined to the entertainment industry; hypnosis is now a widely acknowledged and relatively mainstream therapeutic tool, able (subject to an individual’s level of suggestibility) to reduce pain, help stop smoking and clear skin complaints, among other uses. Persuasion in its widest context is critical in life. Many achievements are beyond the scope of one person acting alone, which means we very often need to persuade others to help us or join our team in order to achieve our goals. The voice plays a key role in the process of persuasion — not only what we say, but also how we say it. Some people struggle to have their voice heard, while others seem to carry natural authority. Stature and body language play a role, but the largest part of this authority derives from speaking, in which both content and delivery play their parts. When you gain power and authority in your speaking, you can be more persuasive and achieve more of your goals by enrolling people in your passions.

If you’ve ever had the experience of not being listened to, not being able to make a dent in an argument, being disrespected, feeling invisible in a group, not being taken seriously, being talked over, being continually interrupted, or secretly crying out to be heard, then you know that the inability to express oneself clearly and powerfully is bad for you. It’s debilitating and frustrating to be ignored. It creates stress and anxiety if it continues or repeats in relationships — and it can eventually cause sickness or even violence. I suspect that at least some of the antisocial behavior from young people in urban environments arises from this feeling of frustration: nobody’s listening to me, nobody cares, so why should I? If only we taught our children how to express themselves clearly and powerfully, how much less ill health, stress and violence would we see in the world?

One of the most potent styles of speaking is storytelling. We all love a story: as soon as we hear the words, “Once upon a time…” our inner child wakes up; we metaphorically curl up and look forward to the wonders to come. For as long as language has existed, I’m willing to bet that people have told stories to share their day, keep alive the exploits of legendary heroes, pass on cultural traditions, or simply to soothe their children to sleep. For many millennia, stories have been among the most powerful tools in the essential task of passing knowledge and history on from one generation to the next, or from one group to another. Writing has been available only for around five thousand years, so from the development of complex language (estimated at up to 100,000 years ago) all human knowledge was spread simply by speaking and listening. Throughout those many years, countless groups of humans have sat around fires at night listening with wonder and rapt attention to a local sage or storyteller pass on tales that carried wisdom from the past. In some societies, this powerful oral tradition still exists. Indian classical music has no written form at all: all the complex, lengthy ragas are learned by rote, transmitted from guru to shishya by word of mouth and demonstration. The same applies in many surviving folk music cultures, including that here in Orkney, where it seems almost every child plays an instrument, but not many play from sheet music. Traditional folk music often encapsulates old stories in its lyrics, even if we don’t understand the references now; the same is true of many nursery rhymes. The indigenous peoples of Australia can safely navigate the vast expanses of the outback on ‘song lines’, paths that they follow by reciting the words of songs that list landmarks, waterholes and other way finders. Even in the text-obsessed West, there are still many professional storytellers plying their trade, and storytelling festivals exist in the US, UK, India, Dubai and many other countries. Stories still have power!


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Block Quotes

Non male loquare absenti amico (Speak no evil of an absent friend).”

Titus Maccius Plautus, Trinummus IV, c. 190 BC

This material was written by Julian Treasure, author, How to be Heard: Secrets for Powerful Speaking and Listening. It has been prepared and distributed solely for information purposes. First Clearing has not verified the information and opinions in this document, nor does it make any representations as to their accuracy or completeness.

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