The local Toast Masters group meets at my office once a month. On the few occasions that I have passed by the sign, I’ve told myself that I should join the group to improve my speaking skills. My job does not require me to speak frequently in front of large groups of people save for the rare technical presentation at work. Even though I’ve done a few of these over the years, each time I face the audience, I can feel the butterflies in my stomach, my throat goes dry and I have to take a sip of water.
That feeling made its presence felt for the first time when I was in 5th grade. I had bravely volunteered to participate in a public speaking competition at school. A couple of students would be selected from each class and they would then compete against each other in the school auditorium in front of the primary school (4th, 5th and 6th grades). The topic for the qualiifer was on hobbies and I decided to speak on stamp collecting. I wrote up a speech, my brother helped me polish it and I prepared meticulously, memorizing the entire speech.
When it was my turn to speak, I walked up confidently to the front of the room and turned around to face my classmates. A strange sensation engulfed me. Those familiar 45 odd faces looked like strangers. As I tried to collect my thoughts, I found that they had deserted me. My throat felt dry, my face felt flushed and my heart was pounding. As I started to speak, I could barely recognize my own voice. I had prepared well, so I remembered the speech but at the moment, I just wanted to flee back to the comforting anonymity of my desk. I just sped through my speech and ran back to my desk. Predictably, I was not selected. Later, the teacher read my speech and suggested that I help my classmate Ashok, who had been selected, to write his speech.
I studiously avoided the competition in sixth grade but when I entered 7th grade, we had a weekly elocution class. Our entire school was divided into 4 houses and I was in St Patricks (green). There were roughly 11 or 12 in each house in a class. Each week, we were given a topic and selected students had to speak in front of the class. The topics varied, sometimes they were debates where one had to speak in favor or against the topic and at other times we spoke on a single topic.
Eighth grade was when I started enjoying these classes. Mr. Charles Noronha taught the English as well as Elocution classes and besides the regular topics, we had a section titled “The World’s Great Speeches.” I’m not sure if it was included in the ICSE (Indian Certificate of Secondary Education) syllabus or if this was a school initiative. The speeches were typed on loose sheets of paper and we were given photocopies. These included speeches from literature. The ones that stand out in my mind are Mark Anthony’s and Brutus’s speeches from Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar”, Jawaharlal Nehru’s “Tryst with Destiny”, Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream”, Abraham Lincoln’s “Gettysburg Address”, JFK’S Inaugural Address and “Impeachment of Warren Hastings” by Edmund Burke.
These were all interesting speeches and as we studied each speech, we also learned the context in which it was delivered. It would have been even more interesting if we could have listened to recordings or enactments of these speeches, but these were pre-internet days. The speeches had an impact on me though. Jawaharlal Nehru, the first prime minister of India, is now a punching bag of the supporters of the ruling political party but there is no denying his literary or oratorical skills. His “Tryst with Destiny” at the historic moment of India’s independence and his “Light has gone out of our lives” after Mahatma Gandhi’s assassination were both delivered extemporaneously.
While these speeches were studied in the environs of a classroom, their impact was not lost on me. A passionate speech delivered by an impassioned orator could move audiences, for good or evil. Just as Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” continues to prick our collective conscience, Mussolini’s “Call to Arms” must have been rousing to the youth of Italy and inspired them to join his Fascist forces. I enjoyed these speeches much more than our history lessons. History, an interesting subject, is sadly condemned to be taught in a dry manner with a focus on dates and conquests shorn of any human element.
There were interesting and comical incidents when we learned these speeches. Charlie (as Mr. Noronha was called by the students) would ask each student to read a paragraph of the speech. We would then pause, analyze the paragraph and another student would then proceed with the next paragraph. All went well until we started “Impeachment of Warren Hastings” by Edmund Burke. Of special consequence in Indian History, this was a failed attempt to impeach Warren Hastings, the first Governor-General of Bengal. He was accused of personal corruption and at stake was the role the East India Company played in ruling India.
Edmund Burke, who delivered the speech in the British parliament used the word “prosecute” several times. Our classmate, J, started off fluently, however, the class was startled when it heard “prostitute” and then we howled in laughter. Charlie turned red and asked J to reread the sentence. “Prostitute,” said J again and realized his mistake. “Try again man,” said Charlie, impatiently. Poor J, for the life of him, he could not say “prosecute”, he would get hung up at “pros”. Now, this is no slur on J’s character, at that time, “pros” or “prostitute” was a common swear word that he probably used liberally. He continued reading the paragraph, vainly grappling with the word and eventually substituting “prosecute” with “pros”.
Besides learning famous speeches, we also had to make short speeches introducing a famous personality. We were given tips on how to introduce the person, how to speak about their accomplishments and how to keep the introductions short and sweet, always remembering that we were just the prelude to the main act. We had to research the individual so we could talk about their accomplishments. I introduced Sandeep Patil, India’s dashing batsman. Most students introduced sportsmen: cricket players, tennis players and footballers. My classmate S went against the grain. He introduced our Math teacher, Mr. Varadhan.
Mr. Varadhan, unfortunately, had earned the silly moniker “VaVa” and sadly, we made life difficult for him. S strode up confidently and stepped on the teacher’s platform and started off with “Today, I am here to introduce, a famous teacher.” He paused for dramatic effect and with a flourish said “VaVa!” The class perked up, this promised to be interesting and a couple of guys hooted. S grinned as he surveyed the class. Suddenly his demeanor changed. His face blanched and with a look of panic he stuttered “Va…Va…..means….the great one.” The class was stunned, nobody expected this volte-face. As we glanced towards the door it all became apparent. Standing outside the door and peering in through the grill was the imposing figure of Fr Shenoy, our principal. A popular principal, very affectionate and caring, he, however, had a stormy temper and brooked no-nonsense. S escaped his wrath that day, but I admired his quick thinking and change in strategy!
There were other minor instances of mirth when a student would absent-mindedly pick his nose while on the stage or call out to a friend walking outside the classroom. I gained enough confidence to be the standby speaker on short notice if somebody from my house was absent. The elocution classes ended in eighth grade. In my final year of High School when the speaker for my house, St Patricks, dropped out due to illness, I agreed to fill in on a couple of days’ notice. I hastily wrote a speech, had it reviewed by our housemaster and then spoke in front of the school in our auditorium. I was under no pressure, I did not expect to win, I was expected to make sure that my house was represented.
We had some excellent speakers in school. Rohan, a senior was an able announcer on sports day. Rahul, now a distinguished professor at MIT, was an excellent orator. He was the emcee during our hockey tournament presentation and when the losing students of St Germains booed and shouted, he silenced them by referring to them as an unruly mob. My batch had stalwarts too. The late Arif, short in stature but with a powerful voice. Sharadh, who was able to summon fake tears as he delivered Mark Anthony’s eulogy to Caesar. He along with Ashok, Ben and Shankar represented the school in inter-school debate competitions. The two that continue to resonate today are Shankar and Prakash. Shankar is the host of the popular podcast “The Hidden Brain” and an NPR correspondent. Prakash has provided his rich baritone for several commercials and documentaries.
Besides students, we had a couple of priests who were excellent orators. Two that come to mind are Fr DaCosta and Fr Shenoy. Fr DaCosta had a commanding voice and impeccable diction. Fr Shenoy, the principal, would address the primary school students on Friday afternoons. We had weekly tests on Friday afternoons. After the test, the 4th, 5th and 6th graders would troop into the school concert hall. Fr Shenoy would then hold sway for forty minutes. He would regale us with stories of head hunters in Nagaland, the procrastinating crow who always crowed “tomorrrrrow” and many other stories. All of these had a moral behind them. He was an imposing figure and he had a great style of speaking that captivated us. I do remember him extolling the virtues of public speaking and giving us the example of Demosthenes, the Greek orator who overcame a speech impediment by speaking with a mouth full of pebbles and shouting above the roar of the waves.
When I listen to an interesting TED talk today, I try to discern what impressed me the most about the talk. Good content holds my interest for sure, but the manner in which the speaker delivers the talk also matters, the variations in his or her tone, suitably injected pauses and their interactions with the audience. Self-belief and confidence are key and there is an interesting story to back this up. If you have read “The Count of Monte Cristo” by Alexander Dumas, you have no doubt come across the character of Abbe Faria, the Italian priest who becomes a good friend of the hero Edmond Dantes when the latter is incarcerated in the same prison as the former.
The character of Abbe Faria was based on Jose Custodio de Faria, a Catholic monk from Goa. A brilliant priest, he was asked to deliver a sermon at the Queen’s chapel in Lisbon at a young age. When he stood at the pulpit and looked at the gathered nobility, he was unable to speak. His father, sitting below the pulpit, whispered to him in Konkani “Hi sogli baji; katar re baji ” (they are all vegetables, cut the vegetables). That sentence shook him out of his nervousness and bolstered his confidence, enabling him to deliver the sermon. This incident also sparked his curiosity leading him to become a pioneer in the study of hypnotism.
It has been several years since my last elocution class and I have forgotten all the tips that Charlie gave us in school. On the last two occasions when I have spoken to the new hires in my company, a couple of young engineers have nodded off! I would like to blame that on the carbs they had for lunch but I am a realist and know that I have to work on my delivery, I suspect I tend to drone. Some people are able to vary the tone of their voice, injecting emotions and drawing in their audience, I’m unable to do so. I should have paid more attention to Charlie’s classes! The familiar flutter in my stomach is always present when I face an audience. I have my trusty bottle of water to take a sip and mercifully the flutters subside once I start speaking. I am certainly not the best orator out there but I am able to complete my talk without rushing through it and fleeing to the back of the room. I take that as progress.