Subject: ARTICLE: The Power Of Speaking Well
It's hard to find good communicators in India. Why are we so deficient in
this very essential skill?
The Power Of Speaking Well
Many members of the Young Presidents Organisation recall a particularly
scintillating speaker called J Zink who was invited to talk to them on the
subject of public speaking. Before he began his talk, he warned them that in
the next hour he would make them all laugh and cry and then laugh again.
You'd think that after giving away the plot, he wouldn't be able to pull it
off. But in fact he did. He made the audience laugh and cry and laugh again.
Like a snake charmer, he had them mesmerised - using his words and voice to
lead them exactly where he wanted them to go. So many years later, those who
attended that talk still recall the impact he had on them.
sure of hearing a really good speaker is like dining on a gourmet
meal. There's newness, anecdotal flavour and plenty of that rare ingredient
- wit - which has been described as "what oft was thought but never so well
expressed". Once you've dined on such verbal caviar, the aftertaste lingers,
often for years. Those who have heard them, still talk about the speeches of
Margaret Thatcher, Helmut Schmidt, Henry Kissinger, Hillary Clinton who some
years ago in Davos had an audience of world leaders spellbound for over an
hour. And of course, her husband Bill who talked his way out of a sexual
scandal that could have...
brought down the American presidency.
And yet, a bunch of us - including seasoned businessmen - -sitting over a
table for two hours discussing world class speakers could not come up with a
dozen names from India. A country of one billion people and we couldn't
think of a dozen outstanding orators.
Finding a powerful speaker in India - one who has power, passion and
presence - is as difficult as finding an honest man in politics. They do
exist, but boy, do you have to look hard! There was T N Seshan who spoke
passionately on elections - and then disappeared. Farooq Abdullah who once
made grown men cry when talking about Kashmir - but couldn't manage the feat
again. Mani Shankar Aiyar who always manages to make you laugh - except you
remember the jokes more than the content. Prime Minister Vajpayee who did
have great oratory power once but these days looks so expressionless, that
someone likened him to "a wax model in Madame Tussauds - hard to say which
one has more life in it". The one unanimous name that kept coming up was
that of the late jurist Nani P...
alkhivala who was able to command a stadium
full of people with his eloquence. Not a single Indian today has
Palkhivala's speaking stature.
And yet, speaking is one of the most essential life skills there is - even
if you never become a president who has to talk his way out of a scandal
with a cigar. Speaking is how we make the sale, make the deal, get the job,
get the raise, get the kids to listen. It's how we get VCs to unlock their
wallets and put their money on our projects. Speaking is how we take all
that wisdom and experience in our heads and get the world to say "wow".
Apart from that, effective communicators are also perceived as being more
powerful than their less verbal counterparts. "The way you speak affects
peoples' perceptions of you in meetings, during phone conversations and in
all your daily one-on-one relationships," says Dorothy Leeds who has trained
thousands of top executives in the US. "Being a good presenter makes you
visible and in corporations, money, resources and power flow to the visible
achiever." In the workplace, perception is often destiny. When two equally
talented men present their ideas, the better speaker will usually walk away
with the deal. There's only so much spotlight to go around and if you don't
use good speaking skills to your advantage, someone else will use them to
Think, for instance, of India's software armies marching off to foreign
shores to dazzle with their technical acrobatics. Yet many get only so far
and no further because of an inability to articulate themselves better.
Match their exceptional technical skills with good communication skills and
you increase their jobworthiness ten fold. Other international institutes
recognise how critical this need is. Professor Philip Clay of the
Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) who was in Delhi recently said
that all students joining MIT would be required to train in communication
Why are we Indians so deficient in speaking skills? Rewind back to those
treacherous morning assemblies in school where the most terrifying words to
our young ears was a visiting guest being asked to "say a few words". The
few words always went on and on, as if he were doing us a favour: hey look
guys, more speech for your money! Those speakers were our role models and we
learnt the lessons well: Read from a prepared speech. Fill it with
platitudes. Talk down to the audience. Moralise like hell. Overload with
cliches. Never get to the point. Speak in a monotone throughout. None of us
dared tell the emperor he had no clothes on - and so he left with a fuzzy
glow of self- importance, only to bore other poor kids in some other school.
And when we grew up, most of us, surprise, became -them. Boring speakers who
never learnt any better because we never saw any better.
"The one cardinal rule of good speaking is never be boring," says Leeds.
"That is the secret weapon that should be in every speakers' mind." That-and
knowing when to stop.
Of course, we didn't get much speaking practice in class either unlike the
western academic system where even young children are routinely called upon
to make presentations. Our school system, instead, tells kids to shut up,
stuffs them with theory, gives them a certificate which says: "Passed, bears
good moral character" and then pushes them out into the world, saying: Go,
But how? No one taught us any real life skills like speaking or
communicating or asking smart questions. Nor do we have good training
facilities here should we wish to learn. Those of us who learnt, learned the
hard way. Or learnt abroad. Or learnt too late. Or not at all. Thereby
missing out on dozens of opportunities because we kept bumping into the
"communication glass ceiling".
Unfortunately knowing what to say is rarely enough. Knowing how to say it is
also critical. Communication is being able to successfully drive what is in
your head into your listener's head - without losing it en route. Good
speaking needs heart. But it also needs art.
Simran Bhargava has been a writer and editor for several years. She writes a
weekly column on the business of life. She can be contacted at
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