Do you remember the post I wrote a couple of weeks ago about  how to interact at conferences? Well, I was recently approached by fellow EFL teacher, Cara Leopold  asking if she could write a guest post on the topic of conferences. Her specialist area is listening training. She helps learners like you become better listeners of informal spoken English no matter what accent. I jumped at the idea.

In this post, Cara shows you how important it is to listen, not just during the programmed talks BUT outside during the all-important networking sessions that are essential at conferences.

Take it away, Cara.


Are you off to any conferences soon?

Conference season is in full swing.

Shanthi was at one two weeks ago. I’m going to TESOL France this Sunday (my first time at an English Language Teaching conference). You’ve probably got conferences coming up in your industry as the year comes to an end.

Conferences are not just an opportunity to keep up with industry trends and learn from peers.

The networking possibilities are endless. Especially in the informal moments: during breaks, at the welcome cocktail or closing dinner.  You can really make an impression by:

  • Talking to people in person.
  • Swapping business cards.
  • Finding out about new opportunities.

But understanding and navigating these moments requires a particular set of listening skills.

Do you know why I specialise in teaching listening online?

I have a client who struggled to understand native speakers of English at conferences. Not during the talks and workshops. But afterwards, during informal chats at breaks or in the evening.

She struggled to follow conversations and would translate into her native language (French) as a way to comprehend. The result? She lost her place in the conversation. She gives conference talks about 3 times a year. That’s a lot of potential missed opportunities.

So why is conversational listening so difficult compared to listening to a conference talk?

And how can you understand other speakers, especially natives, during those crucial networking moments?

Conversational Listening vs Conference Listening

Conference Talks

On the surface, these types of talk can seem harder:

  • They’re long, so you have to concentrate for some time, in English.
  • Certain ideas or concepts might be new, so you’ll need time to process them.
  • New ideas means new vocabulary and expressions.
  • You have to concentrate and listen carefully to take notes or prepare any questions you might want to ask.
  • Complex relations between ideas mean it can be hard to make sense of it all.  

But consider this:  

  • The speaker is educating you or persuading you about their point of view. So they speak more slowly and carefully.  
  • They use pauses for effect, which gives you time to gather your thoughts.  
  • You know what the talk is going to be about. So your brain starts anticipating words and expressions you might hear, even before the talk begins.
  • The speaker repeats and reformulates the important points so you can catch them.  
  • Slideshows and other visual material help you follow the main points.
  • You might have a handout or other written information about the speaker or their talk.
  • You don’t have to prepare your reply while they’re talking. You just listen.
  • Signpost language such as “for example” or “to sum up” helps you follow the talk.  
  • If the talk is recorded, you can go back and listen again, perhaps even with subtitles, to clarify any of the finer points.


In conversation, the situation may seem easier:

  • The words are more basic. In fact, the first 2000 most common words represent about 90% of an average conversation. (source:
  • The exchanges are shorter, so you don’t have to concentrate for so long.
  • The ideas aren’t particularly challenging or dense.

But, it quickly gets more complex:

  • You don’t know exactly what the topic is or how it might evolve.
  • You don’t have slides or a handout to help you.
  • Your conversation partner or partners may pause, repeat themselves or make false starts. Because conversations aren’t planned in advance.
  • People speak quickly and less carefully because the situation is informal.
  • You conversation partner might use vague language like “stuff” or circumlocutions (using many words to describe something, where one word is enough).
  • Because the situation is relaxed and informal, they “squash” and “eat” their words
  • You have to quickly understand and then formulate your response.
  • You can’t go back and watch the conversation again to understand – once it’s gone, it’s gone.
  • If you’re in a group situation, you might be able to spend more time just listening. But at some point you’ll be expected to contribute. Or at least show that you’re following. The situation could get embarrassing if you haven’t understood properly.

So you’ll have more problems understanding people in informal conversation.

And not understanding means missing out on opportunities:

  • Job opportunities
  • Collaboration possibilities
  • Finding out about competitors
  • Getting the chance to speak to your customers in a more relaxed context
  • Relaxing and enjoying the breaks in between talks and workshops

You can find out just as much, if not more, during these informal moments compared to the talks.  So why miss out? You can start getting ready for chatting at conferences now. And it doesn’t have to be that complicated.

Choose the right material

Forget extended monologues. TED talks are out. As are documentaries and news reports.

You need to work with material that resembles real-life conversation as closely as possible. That means it’s:

  • Spontaneous – not planned or scripted in advance
  • Informal – the speech is casual and conversational, not careful and formal
  • Interactive – Involves turn-taking between 2 or more participants
  • Authentic – not from a language textbook

Below I share with you my favourite resources. All the YouTube channels mentioned have accurate, closed caption subtitles.

  • Talk shows

Late night entertainment talk shows are great because the interviews are short. And the guests and host talk in a natural and spontaneous way.

The Ellen Show:

Late Night with Seth Meyers:

The Late Show with Stephen Colbert:

The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon:

Saturday Night Live:

  • Interviews

Some of these can be quite long. Focus on the pleasantries exchanged at the start and then listen to the responses to one or two questions.

Talks at Google:

Some of these are talks, rather than interviews. Make sure that you listen to an interview, like this one.

  • Podcasts

You could also listen to podcasts for the same effect. Some shows with interesting guests are:

Beware, some episodes are long. Focus on one or two question-response exchanges and listen as many times as you need, rather than trying to understand the whole episode.

You can use EFL podcasts here too:

Informal chat between Jennifer (American) and Dan (British) for the first half of each episode.

Weekly chat between Chad, Justin and Ethan. Their conversations sound natural, but they explain any difficult words and expressions to help out English learners.

Luke sometimes invites friends, family and other guests on for a chat. They’re not English teachers so the conversation is natural and spontaneous.

Other resources include live video on Facebook and Periscope as well as Vlogs (as long as they’re not too scripted)

How can you use these resources?  

You can do 2 things to get ready for understanding and responding in conversations.


  • Listen a couple of times to a short section (around 10 seconds)
  • Pause the video or podcast and write what you hear
  • Check what you wrote against the interactive video transcript (click on ‘transcript’ under the YouTube video) or the podcast transcript

In conversation, you need to understand and process the information, then formulate your response almost immediately. By taking away the pressure of having to respond to a conversation partner, you can focus on listening and catching all the little details.

This exercise will accurately evaluate your listening abilities when it comes to real life speech. You’ll find out what you understood or not. It’s much more effective than listening quizzes with comprehension questions, which are open to interpretation or guess work.


This time you’re going to pause the video or podcast again, but instead of writing what you’ve just heard, you’re going to predict what the other speaker might say. This works well if the recording is an interview. You can listen to the questions and predict the answers.

Write out or read aloud your response, then listen to the next section of the dialogue. How was your prediction? It doesn’t matter if it’s not factually correct. The idea is to respond appropriately to the previous question.


How do people interact in conversation? Listen out for:

– when people finish their turn

– what they do or say at the end of the turn, what happens to their voice

– what they do or say when they want to interrupt

– what they do or say when they don’t understand

You can then use these interaction strategies and patterns in your own conversations.


In this extract, I say the sentences from last week’s article in a fast, conversational way. This is how someone might say these examples to you when chatting informally after a talk or workshop.

“I think your presentation was great. I loved in particular your points about making an impact on the younger co-workers”.

“Your ideas on how we can narrow the generation gap in business were so thought-provoking. Thank you.”

“I just wanted you to know you did an excellent job managing the discussion”

Next Steps

Your action plan to understand informal conversations at conferences. So you can maximize your networking opportunities:

  • Listen to the right material. Spontaneous, informal, interactive and authentic.
  • Take the stress out of conversational listening and just work on your listening to begin with. Later you can work on formulating responses by pausing and predicting.  
  • Listen not only to try to catch everything (dictations), but also to observe how people interact, take turns and interrupt.
  • Chat to as many people as you can at conferences during breaks. I hope your informal networking goes as well as your talk if you’re giving one.

Is your listening conversation ready?

I created the Leo Listening Level Test  to help learners like you find out if their listening is conversation ready.

It’s not like the tests you did at school.

  • You write what you hear. You don’t just guess A,B or C like in a traditional test.
  • The sentences are all taken from my spontaneous, conversational speech.
  • I give you my personal feedback and let you know exactly where your weak points are.  
  • After you take the test, you get detailed feedback on the difficult points of each question. And tips to help you make further progress in your listening.

Plus, my accent training colleague Elena Mutonono is offering an exclusive bonus for people who purchase the test before Friday November 18th at midnight Paris time. Free access to her LinkedEnglish pronunciation course.  

So for 5€ you get the test + free access to LinkedEnglish (value 20€)

Click here to find out more and purchase the test.


About Cara

retouche-11Cara Leopold is the online listening teacher, helping upper-intermediate to advanced learners finally understand spoken English, particularly the informal, conversational kind, no matter the accents involved.

Get your copy Cara’s self-study e-guide, Understand Conversational English. Get the guide!

Check out Cara’s website here: Leo Listening

Follow Cara on social media: Facebook // Cara’s fast, natural English podcast on Soundcloud // //Instagram

Subscribe to the podcast: iTunes ou Stitcher