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Will You Read or Listen?

Male anatomy of human organs in x-ray viewIf you get a handout and read it as the speaker goes on speaking, will you remember anything the speaker has said when you look up again? Is it possible to comprehend the written and the spoken word at the same time?

Most agree that it can be done, but it’s really hard. Try it. This is multitasking on a scale most of us can’t handle.

Why is that? We have no problem listening to someone as we gaze at a picture. Most of us have no problem listening to music as we hold a conversation. But it seems that reading and listening at once is just about impossible.

Neurologists believe that our brain architecture is probably responsible for this. Music is interpreted in the cerebrum. Vision is interpreted over nearly half of the brain. But language has an area all its own. Just above and a little behind your left ear is a special region of the brain called “Wernicke’s area.” Those suffering disease or injury to this area have a hard time understanding anything people say to them—via the written or spoken word, or even via sign language. Although other parts of the brain are apparently involved as well, Wernicke’s area acts like the Grand Central Station of language interpretation. Reading and listening are both sorted out there. So if you try to read during a talk you’ll get an “all circuits are busy” signal, and face a choice—keep listening or shift over to reading mode.

That’s why it’s such a bad idea to give your audience a handout while your talk is underway or to stuff your PowerPoint slides with words. You’re asking your audience to listen and read at the same time. They read much faster than you talk (250 words-per-minute vs. about 125), so they’ll almost always opt to read and be done with the slide before you’ve reached even the third bullet point. In the meantime, you’ve derailed the continuity of your talk.

People have no choice in their brain architecture, so don’t ask them to make one. If you’re delivering a talk, use visuals to emphasize and clarify what you have to say. Then your audience can focus easily and exclusively on you. And that places you in control.