Public speaking need not be the sole domain of the few who have the gift of the gab. There are courses and methods to help you develop the skill.
It is supposed to be what people fear the most. Speaking in public, according to most, is a nightmare. There are some who call it an art. But for all of us, it is a skill that needs to be inculcated. And the good news is, there is a lot of help around.
“Usually, public speaking is referred to political speeches,” says Ravi Ramanathan, of Ramnathans Public Speaking Institutions in Chennai, which has been in the business of helping people master this art for several decades now. “What we deal with is the ability to stand up and express yourself. This develops leadership qualities and boosts confidence levels.”
With acute competition in almost every sphere of life, the ability to communicate what you know effectively becomes a must-know skill.
Surprisingly, there is not too much stress on this nowadays, say educators. “Earlier, public speaking used to be something which every student, while at school or college, liked to perfect,” says Nirmala Prasad, Principal, M.O.P. Vaishnav College for Women. “Nowadays, it is becoming extinct.”
“A lot of students, glued to their books, go for centum in physics and mathematics,” says Nina John, a soft skills trainer and consultant with over two decades of experience in the field. “They don’t pay any attention to public speaking skills till they go for an interview or a group discussion.”
The emphasis on rote learning kills creativity, says Ms. John. “Many students cannot take a sentence from their textbook and put it in their own words.”
The fading habit of reading books also contributes to this inability to communicate, she adds. “The ones who are either reading or watching a wide variety of TV programmes do well. They know so many facts!” But limiting your fare to music channels and reality shows means filling up on trivia, which does not help much.
Once students realise they need to master public speaking skills, fear and self-doubt are usually the first barriers. “Speak to express yourself. Don’t worry about impressing other people,” is the first advice Ms. John gives to her students.
“Will they laugh, will they make fun, such questions are the biggest mental block,” she says. “Just make sure you know your subject. Accent and grammar are just icing on the cake.”
Know your audience
Apart from knowing your subject, it becomes important to know who your audience is. “Talking about nutrition to college students is different from talking about it to corporates,” says Dr. Prasad.
“You need to prepare your speech to suit your audience.” It also helps to be aware of the time limit to communicate effectively.
Dr. Prasad says that she has a mandatory public speaking course for all students in the first year of college. “They have to pick a topic and present it in front of 70-100 people.”
Students are encouraged to give seminars on all their subjects and are evaluated on their presentations all through their course. The transformation is visible in 80 per cent of the students, she adds.
“Timid or introverted students change when they move from the first year to the second.” By the time they enter third year, they can face any audience, she adds.
Typical public speaking courses have theory-cum-practical sessions. “We cover communication, interpersonal skills and personality development,” says Mr. Ramanathan, describing his course.
Practical exercises on extempore speech, prepared speeches, group discussions, and debates are also conducted. Video recording of the speech, mike exposure, voice training exercises, gesture exercises, confidence building and eye-contact exercises are some of the other aspects of public speaking covered. “It is not all done in one class, but in a staggered fashion,” he adds.
Regularly listening to the news on television to understand pronunciation and reading out aloud help, says Ms. John. She is one of the founders of the Toastmasters Club in Chennai, an organisation that helps develop communication and leadership skills. To speak well, listening to others is also important, says Ms. John. Regular practice is also needed, she adds.
But apart from such general guidelines, effective public speaking is best learnt in person. Ms. John says: “There are three things you cannot learn by correspondence — bharatanatyam, swimming and public speaking.”