How To Improve Your Listening Skills - Verbal To Visual - Doug Neill

How To Improve Your Listening Skills

In order to make sense of the information that comes your way via a speaker on a stage, a teacher in front of the class, or the hosts of your favorite podcast, your listening skills need to be on point.

But you might not know how to go about improving those skills.

In this video and post I’d like to share some ideas about how you can do that.

Break It Down

I think it’s helpful to break the overall skill of listening down into three sub-skills: hearing, understanding, and then filtering and synthesizing.

Let’s take a look at each in turn.

How To Improve Your Listening Skills - Verbal To Visual - Doug Neill


Step number one is to make sure that you are actually hearing what the speaker is saying.

That requires your attention, which means that you need to cut out any distractions, both internal and external.

Be careful of your mind wandering. So long as you’re mindful enough to catch that when it happens, you’ll be able to return your attention to the speaker before losing track of the ideas that are being shared.

You have less control over external distractions, like an audience member talking a few rows back or something interesting going on just to the side of the stage.

But you can control where you sit (move toward the front of the room) and what you choose to give your attention (don’t let your gaze wander).

By doing your best to limit both internal and external distractions, you’ll be able to direct more of your mental energy towards the speaker and the ideas that he or she is sharing.


To hear words is one thing. To understand them is something else entirely.

Comprehension requires focus (a deeper form of attention) and it requires a certain level of background knowledge.

Depending on what room you’re walking into, you may or may not have a sufficient grasp of the subject matter to understand everything that a speaker is sharing with you.

Though I do think it is the speaker’s responsibility to tailor the talk to the specific audience in the room, there is enough variety of background knowledge in any room to make that task difficult.

But if you spend just a bit of time exploring beforehand the topic of the talk, lecture, or podcast episode, you’ll have a better sense of context (how that subjects fits in with what is going on in the world at large) and you’ll learn some details like industry-specific vocabulary.

That will enable you to spend less time trying to determine the meaning or importance of a particular word or idea so that instead you can focus on the story of the entire talk.

Filtering & Synthesizing

These last skills are the most difficult, but also the most powerful and interesting.

Unless you’re memorizing a poem or lyrics to a song, your goal will not be to remember every single word that you hear.

Instead you’ll filter out the ideas that don’t matter so that you can hold onto those that do.

But to do that you need to know why you’re listening to those ideas in the first place.

That’s why defining your intent matters. Think about the purpose behind your desire to listen to these ideas, and then keep that purpose in mind while listening – that will become the lens through which you filter the ideas your hear. (More on using your intent as a filter here).

As you filter the ideas coming your way you can also be synthesizing them – bringing the important ones together in a way that makes sense to you and is in alignment with your purpose for being there.

It’s in the synthesizing phase that we start getting to the core of sketchnoting – capturing the most important ideas in a visual way. Before you can do that on the page you need to have some sort of a mental image in your head.

That takes a fair amount of processing power, but you can develop that power with practice. I suggest you practice by listening to a talk with your eyes closed as you build up a mental picture of what you’re hearing (again, not everything that you’re hearing, just what is most important to you).

That mental processing power is a muscle that you can build. And the more time you spend building it, the easier it will be to then transcribe that mental image into a sketchnote on the page.

Get After It

By improving your listening skills you’ll get more out of the learning experiences that you choose to engage in.

So take these ideas here and start putting them to use.

Good luck.



Want To Dig Deeper?

If you’re new to the idea of sketchnoting and excited to develop more visual thinking tools, I think you’d enjoy our foundational course An Introduction To Visual Note-Taking.

If you’d like to make sketchnoted videos like the one you saw here, we’ve got a course for that too! Check out How To Make Sketchnote Videos.

And if you’re an educator interested in bringing visual note-taking into your classroom, check out Sketchnoting In The Classroom.