Public speaking has never been a straightforward skill to adopt. Few have learnt it well, fewer have mastered it. It is no easy task to hold a room’s attention, especially in these fidgety, distracted times.
Thus, the varied sorts of compulsive public speakers have necessarily to improve on the job, to find newer ways of putting their points across and to make their speeches count!
In this connected world where speeches of all kinds can be seen and heard on the internet, what is evident is the dearth of originality on offer. Most corporate honchos use hackneyed phrases, and Power-Point presentations can often turn out to be real tests for our patience. Only a handful of those wielding the mike are able to carry off their talks with conviction and panache.
The first stirrings of the urge to stand before a crowd, to enunciate one’s ideas, start showing up early in childhood these days. Little boys and girls speak admirably before hundreds of parents at school functions, and many speak really well. But when we analyse the landscape of ‘grown-up’ speakers available to mankind, very few names really excite us.
Londoners are known to test out their skills at the venerable Hyde Park’s Speaker Corner, perched atop a little platform before an audience of two and a half senior citizens accompanied by a dog. They rattle off speech after speech before these ‘burgeoning’ numbers and willy-nilly sharpen their oratory before long.
Union leaders are prime examples of newbies on the speakers list. A newly formed association of employees will install one of their own as ‘Pradhan’ and he will have to orate from Day One! His speaking skills will probably edge out other contenders for the throne, whatever else may form part of his bouquet of qualities, or the lack of them.
Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “All the great speakers were bad speakers at first.” And, of course, Roscoe Drummond famously said, “The mind is a wonderful thing. It starts working the minute you are born and never stops until you get up to speak in public.”
Thus most people freeze on stage and find it extremely difficult to hold the attention of their audience for any length of time. Very few are blessed with the gift of the gab as well as the ability to put across their points cogently and lucidly.
Politicians, of course, have to speak on stage as an integral part of their job description. And most of them are just shouters. They vilify the opposition with ridiculous regularity and tom-tom their own party’s virtues equally unstoppably. The only ones left wondering why they were made to put up with the whole ordeal are the poor listeners.
Former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee has been among the foremost orators of this era. His pauses are the stuff of legends and he could in his inimitable style bring out effortlessly, smiles and even the goose pimples in his audiences. Emerson obviously concurred with his method for he said ‘The most precious things in speech are the pauses’. Indira Gandhi was equally comfortable in Hindi and English. It did not matter to her whether she was addressing a rally in the hinterland or the UN General Assembly.
Winston Churchill, for his wit and humour and Martin Luther King, for his power and passion, were amongst the most lauded speakers of all time. Even Barack Obama’s eloquent and sincere yet seemingly nonchalant style is an excellent example to follow for budding public speakers.
But rarely heard is the truly inspiring speech these days. Steve Jobs spoke memorably on ‘How to live before you die’ at Stanford in 2005 and Shashi Tharoor on ‘A well educated mind versus a well-formed mind’ at a TEDx platform.
These are only drops in the ocean. There is a crying need for speakers and even pretenders to actually hone their skills and generate some passion within. The aim of a speaker on stage has to be to inspire onlookers, not just inform them.
Dorothy Sarnoff underlines the point thus, “Make sure you have finished speaking before your audience has finished listening!”