Speaking last


“People are more afraid of public speaking than they are of snakes,” a seasoned communicator said.

He added:

“It doesn’t make sense. You don’t see someone walking through the desert, suddenly shouting, ‘Watch out! A microphone!’

I do training, personalized executive coaching and a lot of public speaking. Occasionally, I get people to ask me a question I must have heard hundreds of times. “Francis, do you still get nervous when you get to speak in public?”

Of course I still do.

And this is the truth. Getting nervous is good because it keeps me on my toes and makes me sharp and sensitive to the things happening in the room or in the auditorium. What makes me nervous is when I get all so confident, I am no longer nervous. This means I am too cocksure and confident I will be cruising on my competence and winging it such that the presentation will turn out flat, and I will be doing an injustice to the people who are investing their time listening to me. This explains the reason why I show up early. I would listen to the other speakers and read the room. And then do my thing.

Many underestimate the power of listening. This is why stories abound:

The CEO loved to talk and rarely listened. One day, during a team meeting, an employee had an idea and started to share it. The CEO interrupted, “I have a better idea!” The employee replied, “Well, you would if you ever let me finish explaining yours!” Now, here is another one:

A new leader, notorious for never listening, installed a GPS in the office. When asked why, they said, “I heard it gives directions without interrupting, unlike my team.”

The truth is a lot of people like to talk and speak. And they know the importance of listening. But it is always a different case between knowing and doing. Let’s see how we can address this.

You have heard motivational speakers or trainers say in their leadership talks. To be a good and effective leader, you need to:

“Believe in Yourself”

“Assert yourself”

“Speak Up and Be Heard”

“Be Decisive”

“Stand Tall and Command Respect”

“Project Authority with Authenticity”

“Don’t Wait for Permission”

“Express Your Vision Boldly”

These platitudes have some use in their respective context, but it is clear that a crucial element is missing. Let us all learn from a leader the world respects: Nelson Mandela.

Nelson Mandela’s reputation as a remarkable leader stemmed from his conventional leadership skills and, more notably, his exceptional listening ability. This attribute set him apart from his contemporaries.

His superpower of listening had its origins in the core of tribal leadership. As the son of a tribal chief, he absorbed priceless lessons that would significantly shape his leadership approach for the entirety of his life.

Mandela recalled a simple yet profound practice observed during tribal meetings with his father. In these gatherings, elders sat in a circle symbolizing equality and unity, with Mandela’s father, the chief, consistently being the last to speak.

In a world where many clamor for their opinions to be heard, often striving to speak first and loudest in a debate, Mandela’s lesson underscores the potency of restraint and attentive listening.

He once said, “You will be told your whole life that you must learn to listen. I would say that you need to learn to be the last to speak.”

This is a practical and effective practice that helps us develop the ability to listen well. I would love to add that while others are speaking and leaders are listening, take down notes.

Unfortunately, this valuable lesson remains unheeded by many contemporary leaders. Mandela recognized that entering a room, presenting opinions and seeking input is often too late.

Individuals may hesitate to challenge the leader, resulting in the loss of many valuable ideas. Speaking prematurely can inadvertently stifle the voices of others. The genuine skill lies in withholding personal opinions until every voice has had the opportunity to contribute. This approach ensures that everyone feels heard and allows leaders to benefit from the collective wisdom of their team.

This concept mirrors biblical teachings and aligns with the wisdom described in James 3:17, which asserts that “wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere.” Scriptures also advise us to be “slow to speak.”

Somebody says: “Listen with the intent to understand, not to reply. For it is in understanding that bridges are built, and relationships flourish.” I totally agree.


(Francis Kong’s podcast “Inspiring Excellence” is now available on Spotify, Apple, Google, orother podcast streaming platforms).

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