4 March, 2024

How to Speak so People Listen: Be Compelling, Persuasive, Powerful

By Mike Clayton

Communication is, without any doubt, a big part of Project Management. And a big part of that is spoken communication. Your ability to speak clearly, to have people pay attention, and to be understood is vital. So, in this article, we’ll focus on the skill of effective speaking.

I have taken a lot of this article from my book, How to Speak so People Listen. But it is a free-standing article. So, while I hope you’ll want to look at it and maybe buy it, you don’t need to!

How to Speak so People Listen by Mike Clayton

The Challenge of Effective Speaking

Much of our speech is disposable; we are heard but not listened to.

The consequences of this for our communities and our workplaces are alarming. They range from messages mislaid to conversations misunderstood. And from meetings wasted to abject fear of public speaking. As the importance of your speaking increases, so does the pressure on you not just to be heard, but to have people listen to you.

As a Project Manager, the value of effective speaking is hard to over-estimate. It’s a necessary part of:

  • Governance
    Briefing, reporting, seeking robust decisions
  • Leadership
    Allocating and delegating work, coaching and mentoring, offering feedback
  • Stakeholder Engagement
    Informing, consulting, influencing
  • Supplier and Contract Management
    Specifying, negotiating, relationship-building, and handling conflict

My list could go on…

The Content of this Article

Effective Speaking: How to Speak so People Listen

In the fifteen years since I developed my first training program for business presenters; ‘Compelling, Persuasive and Powerful Presentation’, I have been working hard to understand how speakers can engage listeners in all contexts. These range from conversations, and meetings, to platform speeches and presentations. I want to understand how you can speak, so people really want to listen to you.

In this article, I will share some of the most valuable models I have observed and articulated. So, here’s what we’ll cover:

Understand the Six Levels of Speaking

The more research I did, the more I realized that speaking so people listen is a pretty tame ambition. It’s just a first step. If you want to really effective speaking, there are six levels to take on.

  1. How to speak so people listen
    Level 1 demands that your speaking be compelling so that people want to listen – and to keep listening. You have to grab and hold people’s attention.
  2. How to speak so people understand
    Level 2 requires you to make the information easy to absorb, by structuring it in a way that compels people to listen from one part to the next, all of the time feeling that they ‘get’ what you are saying.
  3. How to speak so people understand, as you intend them to
    To make your speaking persuasive, Level 3 requires that people don’t just ‘get’ what you are saying; but that they ‘get it right’.  You must explain your ideas carefully and accurately, using simple, clear language.
  4. How to speak so people agree with you
    Ultimately, persuasive speaking needs to create agreement too, so Level 4 speaking demands that you justify what you are saying, so that you persuade your audience to your point of view.
  5. How to speak so people remember what you want them to
    Powerful speaking sticks in people’s minds, so Level 5 speaking is memorable, using techniques that etch your words and ideas into the memories of your audience.
  6. How to speak so people think or do what want them to
    The power of level six is about change.  When you speak at this level, you are using psychological and emotional cues to change the way your listeners think and act.
Effective Speaking - The Six Levels of Speaking

How we Listen

To be able to speak effectively, you must first understand how people listen. Our senses and thought processes filter the information we receive. They distort the content, so that your perception of the world is not a precise match to reality.

NLP practitioners speak in terms of the three filters of distortion, deletion, and generalization.  As we unconsciously apply these filters, we create an image of the world that differs from what is out there. And, when we listen to others speak, what we hear is an equally distorted representation of what was in their mind.

Effective Speaking - How we Listen

Listening and the Six Levels of Speaking

In the image above, you can see how the listening process sits at Level 1 of our six levels of listening. The formation of an impression of what you say is at Level 2.  And the test of your speaking at Level 3 is how my impression matches that which you were trying to convey.

Now, can I align what you have said to my own understanding of the world? If I can, you will have persuaded me, which is Level 4.  

And if you want to speak at levels 5 and 6, you must speak powerfully, so that your message sticks, and has an impact on the choices I will make about what to think, what to believe and how to act.

So, effective speaking needs to be compelling, persuasive, and powerful.

Compelling, Persuasive and Powerful Speaking

Let’s look at the Compelling, Persuasive and Powerful framework and examine examples of the tools that speakers have available for each of the three challenges.

Effective Speaking: Make it Compelling

Compelling speech engages your listener and compels them to keep listening.  It does so:

  1. First, by grabbing their attention, and
  2. Second, by adopting a structure that is simple, and so clear that it makes it easy for us to follow…
  3. And also, by creating enough surprise or interest to stop us from getting bored.  

Consequently, we want to hear more – addressing level 1 – and we understand it easily, addressing level 2.

Structuring your Speaking

There are a number of powerful ways to structure your speaking. And there is much that we can learn from the great story-tellers.

Keeping it simple is one of these things. It is for a good reason that many stories follow a simple structure that starts gently, introducing characters and situations; creates peril or tension; and then resolves the tension in a pleasing way. This beginning-middle-end three-act structure can serve you very well, whether you are speaking one-to-one, in a meeting, or in front of a vast audience.  What matters is that your speaking follows a strong structure.

Structured response frameworks

Structured response frameworks are tools that attract a lot of interest both when I am coaching individuals and when I am speaking to large groups. These are ways that you can make a powerful impact when contributing to a meeting or conversation. They are helpful when you want to make a point, off the cuff, or if you need to respond clearly and decisively to a question. A structured response framework gives you a simple way to create a compelling response that organizes your thoughts and makes your speech incisive and credible.  My Speaker’s Toolkit has eight examples of such frameworks.  The box contains one of them.

BID: A Structured Response Framework

Notice how this example contains the three act structured discussed in the text.

  • Background
    Summarise the situation and what is salient about it.
  • Issues
    What is the problem and why does it matter.
  • Decision
    Describe what you will do (or would do) to address the issue or the decision you need.

“Since the winter, we have been left with a lot of excess stock in our warehouse.  This is making it hard to manage goods inwards efficiently and has reduced our working capital.  I propose we agree to sell off last season’s stock at a big discount to free up space and generate cash.”

More on Structured Response Frameworks

For more on structure response frameworks – including links to a free downloadable resource with all eight, check out the video, Attending Meetings – Structured Response Formats, on our sister YouTube channel, Management Courses.

Management Courses - Attending Meetings - Structured Response Formats

The description below the video has the link you need for the free download.

Effective Speaking: Make it Persuasive

The next requirement of effective speaking is that it must persuade your listeners to your point of view. Or, it must at least cause them to accept that your perspective is reasonable and valid.  

Persuasive speech uses a range of tools to argue your case so that your audience will understand you, as you intend them to.  Your goal is for them to agree with you: they may not.  At the very least, you want them to believe that what you say has integrity. Persuasive speech addresses levels 3 and 4.

An understanding of persuasive speaking must start with Aristotle. He was the fiercely logical Greek thinker, who had enough insight to realize that fierce logic is rarely enough to create a persuasive argument.  He identified three components of persuasive speech which, to give them their Greek names, are ethos, logos, and pathos. In modern-day language, we have:

Ethos – Character

How do we know that we can trust the speaker?  It is their character that tells us this. And persuasive speakers know that you need to establish this right at the start of your speaking. The ethos component answers the question: ‘why should I listen to you?’  

Ethos appeals to instinct – to our gut.

Logos – Reason

The heart of your persuasive speech needs to establish a reasoned argument that puts your evidence in a logical way.  This should be where Project managers have already developed your skills. We know that this alone may not be enough to persuade. But, without logos, your persuasion becomes manipulation.  

Logos appeals to reason – to our head.

Pathos – Emotion

‘Pathetic’ may be a derogatory term today, but pathos simply means an appeal to our feelings and values. And so pathos is what gives your argument its emotional power and moves your listeners to want to act.  Use your words and stories to conjure emotion.  

Pathos appeals emotions – to our heart.

Combining Ethos, Pathos, and Logos

When you build an argument carefully, using all three approaches, you will be effective.  It is still possible that not everyone will be persuaded, of course, but many will.  Indeed, would we want to be able to use a technique that could persuade anyone of anything?  That would be a worrying development, stripping us of our free will.

The people you persuade are those you convince of your authority to speak on the subject – with your character; who are convinced by the evidence you present and how you interpret it for them – with your reasoning; and who are moved by your appeal to their values, their sympathy and the passions.

By the way, I have presented ethos, logos, and pathos in the order that most often provides effective speaking.

  1. Without ethos, people won’t listen to your logical argument.
  2. Once they are ready, they can absorb the reasons you provide them with.
  3. But reason does not make people change their minds. That requires an emotional component.

If people act only out of emotion, then what is the value of reason?

It’s a good question, but the answer is simple. People like to justify their emotional choices. And therefore reasons make it easy for them to do so. To justify their choices to others. And to justify them to themselves!

Effective Speaking: Make it Powerful

Powerful speech works with our emotions and psychology to deliver your message in ways that change your audience. You may want to change what they think, what they will remember, and how they will act.  When you speak with power, you have an impact on your listeners, and address levels 5 and 6.

If you want to influence the way people think and act, you need to understand how words affect people’s understanding of their world.  The model I use places the superficial language we use at the very surface level of a series of layers of ever deeper interpretations of reality.

Effective Speaking - The Levels of Understanding

The Levels of Understanding

In the image above, we can see that our understanding of the world ranges from the surface level to the inner-most level.

The Outermost Level

A literal interpretation of superficial language, along with all of its attendant:

  • courtesies
  • formalities
  • euphemisms
  • and other obscuring conventions.

The Innermost Level

At the heart of the model is my inner-most representation of the world; my own personal story of who I am and what motivates me.

The Levels Together

The power to get results arises from the six levels of understanding working together:

Speaking Power
= Interest + Insight + Influence + Impact + Impulsion + Inspiration

  • Interest: Nothing really trumps the power of self-interest to drive behaviour, but to get through the superficial level of understanding; you must first pique my interest.
  • Insight: Next, you can use the power of insight to help me reconfigure the way I represent reality.
  • Influence: To alter how I interpret the world, deploy the power of influence.
  • Impact: We have already seen that the emotions that stories and language can carry can have a profound impact on your emotional level.
  • Impulsion: At the motivational level, power comes from your ability to tap into my beliefs and values to impel me to make changes.
  • Inspiration: If you can deploy the power of inspiration successfully, you can inspire me to change who I am.

Effective One-to-One Speaking: Communicating with One-another

One thing challenges many Project Managers as much as speaking effectively in public – maybe more!. This is handling what I call ‘complicated conversations’.  

These conversations have important consequences, yet are dominated by fear, complexity, emotional baggage, and polarized perceptions. To start to unravel the tools for making complicated conversations work, we need to see how communication works.

Effective Speaking - Drawing together Our Levels of Understanding

Outer Circle Speaking

When we communicate with each other, it is constrained by our different interpretations of different parts of reality. This is made far worse when we speak from the more superficial, outermost levels of our own understanding.  

This is what I call ‘outer circle speaking’. Here, we often find ourselves hiding our true message – what we truly observe, think and feel – behind a mask of social conventions.  These protect us from what we fear: exposure of our true thoughts and feelings.  

Not only does it mislead our listeners and fail to communicate the truth, but it has a second effect: it undermines our credibility.  


This is because, superimposed on top of the message that we are putting out deliberately is a whole set of other messages that are leaking out of us, below our conscious awareness.  These ‘meta-messages’ communicate something of our true feelings, and the disparity between them and our deliberate outer circle speaking.

People notice these differences. They can see it in your:

  • gesture
  • posture
  • facial expressions
  • voice tone
  • pace of speech
  • shifts in pitch and volume
  • …and even through our unconscious choices of words.  

They then interpret this mismatch as inauthenticity – at best. At worst, they will read these clues as signs of duplicity, lying, and a lack of integrity. They won’t trust you!

Inner Circle Speaking

People aren’t interested in listening to the social conventions of speech. They want to listen to you… the real you: your:

  • passions
  • feelings
  • convictions

When your speech is not clouded by conflicting meta-messages that confuse people, they will listen hard.  They will also believe you, because you will come across as confident and congruent. That is effective speaking.

When you say what you are really thinking, and strip away the meta-messages to expose your true self, this is ‘inner circle speaking’.  This is the route to making complicated conversations successful and engaging listeners one hundred percent.  

Profoundly Effective Speaking: Deep Dialogue

The basis of all powerful one-to-one communication is what I refer to as ‘deep dialogue’.  This is therefore an essential pre-requisite for effective speaking and holding complicated conversations.  

We hold a deep dialogue when two people are prepared to engage in Inner Circle Speaking and intense attention – in which they open their inner circles up to receive as well as give.

Deep dialogue is my term for a conversation where information flows absolutely freely.  Both parties have the courage to examine what is said, and to test and challenge it. They must be prepared to review – even overturn – their own interpretations of that information.  This exchange must not be impeded by euphemisms or unclear language, or by censoring inconvenient truths.   

Deep dialogue is characterized by two things:

  1. Effective speaking
  2. Attentive listening

Deep Dialogue vs Shallow Dialogue

Effective Speaking - Deep Dialogue and Shallow Dialogue

The image above illustrates the difference between a deep dialogue that seeks to merge two stories through inner circle speaking, and a shallow dialogue that is shrouded by outer circle speaking and censoring of information.

Effective Speaking is Speaking so People Listen

Effective speaking – so people listen – is a skill set. And it’s one that is extremely valuable for a Project Manager. It also plays a huge part in roles like leadership, supervision, sales, marketing, customer service, and procurement.  

All too often, communication skills training, articles, and books focus on one specialized aspect, such as presenting, public speaking, meetings, conflict, or persuasion. Yet, most of our day-to-day communication is simpler than these important circumstances.

It is only when we start to see the wider landscape of spoken communication that some of the most powerful insights start to emerge. And from these, you deploy new and better tools to support you in effective speaking. These are the tools that will help you to speak so people listen.

What are Your Thoughts about How to Speak so People Listen?

We’d love to hear your thoughts about effective speaking, as a Project Manager.

How to Speak so People Listen by Mike Clayton

To Learn More…

Please do take a look at my best-selling book, How to Speak so People Listen, available in print and Kindle versions.

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Mike Clayton

About the Author...

Dr Mike Clayton is one of the most successful and in-demand project management trainers in the UK. He is author of 14 best-selling books, including four about project management. He is also a prolific blogger and contributor to ProjectManager.com and Project, the journal of the Association for Project Management. Between 1990 and 2002, Mike was a successful project manager, leading large project teams and delivering complex projects. In 2016, Mike launched OnlinePMCourses.
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