Trainer Talk: Listen, Learn, and Then Speak

To truly be a master of this profession, we need to both listen and talk—and recognize when it’s time to listen and when it’s time to speak up.

By Bob Pike

Which is more important to the training and performance professional: speaking or listening? Please…right now…before you read on…think of your answer in this moment…then write it down. Have you done that? I hope so. You’ll gain more from this article if you did.

When I’ve asked this in presentations, approximately 25 percent of the people immediately respond, “Speaking!” Another 25 percent just as quickly respond, “Listening!” Another 25 percent quickly say, “It depends!” And then the last 25 percent just don’t answer at all. Maybe it’s because they’re still processing or maybe it’s because they’d rather not answer than guess wrong.

So, which group did you fall into? From my perspective, the answer is speaking, listening, and it depends. I asked an “either/or” question, but the answer is really both/and. Prior to a class or an instructional design project, the most important thing I can do is ask questions and listen. This is the awesome power of the listening ear. It’s my job if I really want to be professional and to understand my clients better than they understand themselves. To talk not only to them but to their competitors, their customers, their employees, their managers —anyone who can shed light and provide fresh perspective on the issues and challenges my clients are facing.

This enables me to later speak with confidence about my recommendations, approaches, and processes—the benefits to be gained and the losses to be avoided. It enables me to have a “pain conversation” with them that allows them to quantify the cost or consequence of living with things the way they are or investing in solutions that will solve the problems and eliminate the pain. The solution is now an investment with a return—not a cost.

Some people are good at doing the talking, while others are great at listening. But to truly be a master of this profession, we need to be able to do both—and just as important, know when it’s time to listen and when it’s time to speak up.

I just finished teaching a high-impact business presentations class. One of the concepts that surfaced was that many presenters have style but no substance. They can make you laugh and cry, raise you up and slam you down, but when the presentation is over, you wonder, “So what? What was the point? What was the purpose? What does all of this mean to me?” And all too often, there is no answer.

Then there are presenters with substance. They know their content. And they demonstrate it clearly—over and over and over again. But the way they deliver their content makes it difficult for the content to gain traction with their audiences. Eyes glaze over…heads nod off…

Both of these types of presenters miss out because they didn’t listen in advance of their presentations. They don’t realize—as my friend, Marjorie Brody, so eloquently put it—that “presenting is an audience-centered sport.” It is not about me as the presenter. It is about you as my audience. Whether you’re in the room or on the Internet doesn’t make any difference. It’s about you. Am I empowering you, equipping you, inspiring you? Am I adding value and making a difference?

So before you think about who you need to speak to, think about who you might need to spend some time listening to. It could be work related, but it just as easily could be a son or daughter, a spouse, or a mother or dad. The awesome power of the listening ear will give amazing power to your voice when you use it.

Have a question you’d like Bob to answer? E-mail him at

Bob Pike is known as the “trainer’s trainer.” He is the author of more than 30 books, including “Creative Training Techniques Handbook.” You can follow him on Twitter and Facebook using bobpikectt.

Lorri Freifeld
Lorri Freifeld is the editor/publisher of Training magazine. She writes on a number of topics, including talent management, training technology, and leadership development. She spearheads two awards programs: the Training APEX Awards and Emerging Training Leaders. A writer/editor for the last 30 years, she has held editing positions at a variety of publications and holds a Master’s degree in journalism from New York University.