Category: Public speaking

On Public Speaking

On Public Speaking

According to most studies, people’s number one fear is public speaking. Number two is death. Death is number two. Does that sound right? This means to the average person, if you go to a funeral, you’re better off in the casket than doing the eulogy. —  Jerry Seinfeld

Doing a PhD is a unique experience. One of the many things that it teaches you is public speaking. During my PhD, I gave many seminars, taught a science course for Bachelor’s degree and in the end there was the dreaded viva voce. I even won a tiny award for best speaker in a conference. During post-doctoral research, this trend continued with project meetings, conference talks and so on. In all these type of talks, the audience always quizzes you on the minutest of details and you get better and better at dealing with tricky questions. The upshot of all this is today I can give a talk to any audience, provided I am not asked to speak on, say, ‘Agriculture In The Sui Dynasty In Sixth Century China’.

As I grew more experienced in public speaking, I also started watching more and more talks to find out which speakers are more effective and why. I realised that there are two main types of speeches : content-based and style-based. This division is not written in stone but you can distinguish most speeches as one or the other. Few can be both. Main feature of content-based talks is that there is solid content that the speaker wants to communicate. It’s the results that matter more than the way they are communicated. So when Elon Musk announces latest SpaceX results, concentration of the audience is on the content. That Musk is also an excellent speaker is an added bonus. In content-based talks, the speaker does not have to convince the audience using his style. A video of a successful launch and landing of a space rocket speaks volumes. Same is true of scientific seminars and TED talks. Talks of authors, scientists or most CEO’s are always content-based.

There are some speeches that are both content-based and style-based. Speaking at a debate is one example. There are no definite answers, emotions matter as much or sometimes more than the content. For a lawyer, there is a whole lot of content – precedents, laws and exceptions – but there is also the need to convince the judge and/or the jury. The one who does it convincingly wins the case. Unfortunately, lawyer speeches are not allowed to be filmed. In lieu of actual speeches, I watch courtroom dramas – Kevin Costner in JFK, Henry Fonda in 12 Angry Men, James Stuart in Anatomy Of A Murder or Sunny Deol in Damini.

This brings us to the last category – style-based speeches. People who use it the most are politicians. Here facts matter very little or not at all. Of course, giving speeches is just one aspect of a politician’s image and at times, it does not matter. We have seen any number of successful politicians who are horrible speakers. My interest is in politicians who are very good speakers. At this point, it does not matter what they say. I am concerned with how they say it.

Here is a list of my favourite speakers.

Nani Palkhivala was one of India’s most famous lawyers. He is well known for his involvement in cases about fundamental rights in the constitution. These were : the case of Kesavananda Bharati v. State of Kerala  and the case of I. C. Golaknath v. State Of Punjab which was also known as “the case that saved the Indian Democracy”, in which the Supreme Court ruled that parliament could not curtail any of the fundamental rights in the constitution. Here’s what Justice M. C. Chagla says about Palkhivala, “He has an unrivalled command over the language which he uses with mastery and skill and which he combines with vast knowledge of law and great powers of advocacy ¹.” In this rare audio clip (25 mins) of 1971, Palkhivala argues brilliantly on the importance of fundamental rights in the constitution.

Atal Bihari Vajpayee : Of all the Indian Prime Ministers, Vajpayee is the most articulate speaker. His use of pure Hindi language made his speeches very effective and his use of poetry was like an added charm. He was not as effective in English but that’s normal. I have never seen a speaker equally effective in more than one language. Sadly, public speaking does not seem to be a forte of most current Indian politicians, they just make do with reading the speeches in a loud voice.

Bill Clinton : One of the most persuasive speakers I have ever seen. He is completely natural. He rarely needs to look at the teleprompter. I enjoyed his speech at the last DNC convention when he endorsed Barack Obama. He also had a catchy phrase : “Arithmetic” that he repeated over and over. That was a fact-based speech as well. In contrast, his speech at the 2016 DNC convention was emotional, targeted towards the women voters.

Barack Obama : Without a doubt, Obama is the most effective speaker today. He has a good, deep voice which he modulates very well, an infectious smile often used to disarm and he can be authoritative if need be – like when ticking off a reporter. Like Clinton, he rarely reads his speech from the teleprompter. It’s been great fun to watch him at the White House Correspondents Dinner. At this year’s DNC convention, he came up with a brilliant catch phrase, “Don’t boo, vote!” I would love to know if that was planned or impromptu.

Gulzar is in my list because of his language and diction. I am all for the evolution of language and I have no problem with people speaking Hinglish, though I could never bring myself to do it. Nevertheless, there is something to be said about language spoken in its most natural, purest² form. No one speaks Hindi/Urdu as beautifully as Gulzar and he has a great voice to supplement it. He is a poet and a lyricist among other things so the words that he chooses are perfect. His speeches show his formidable erudition – ranging from ancient Sufi poets to modern ones like T. S. Eliot. Added to this, he has a great sense of humour. All this makes his speeches sheer pleasure to watch.

I have not included  some great speeches by actors here because I feel they fall more in the category of performances. For instance, opening speeches at the Oscars by Steve Martin or Chris Rock are most enjoyable.


1. Roses In December : An Autobiography by M. C. Chagla, 2012, Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan.

2. This does not mean that you don’t use words from other languages. Gulzar is well known for his use of English words in Hindi songs. This has more to do with using the language to its fullest capability and using the right words and phrases. Few can do this better than Gulzar.