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Toastmasters and the art of effective speech delivery

I was recently invited to be the guest speaker at a Toastmasters event, and perhaps not surprisingly it was on the subject of public speaking. For those not familiar with Toastmasters Clubs — of which there are 16,800 in 142 countries around the world, with around 250,000 members — they develop them as communicators and leaders, and in doing so build their confidence.

Their meetings flow through structured agendas, comprising both prepared and impromptu speeches, with evaluations and feedback along the way.

The Tabletopics Master launched the proceedings by throwing a series of questions for members to answer through making brief unprepared speeches. The first question was “With whom would you like to trade lives for a day?” and the chosen one performed brilliantly, telling us why he’d swap with Lewis Hamilton. (I would have gone for Roger Federer.)

Later, as I opened my presentation I stated that as it was for Bernard Shaw, my inspiration came from the blank piece of paper before me — plus the deadline of this evening. I looked back over my history of public speaking, from my first ever performance during my Barmitzvah confirmation — whose opening line, I recall, was “I was born on the slopes of Mt Carmel”.

It was on entering the computer industry as a graduate trainee with ICL in 1967 that I was taught how to make business presentations. Here I was introduced to producing slides for overhead projectors, where my father too was an expert and from whom I also learned much. My maiden assignment? To generate interest in our spreadsheet software, PROSPER — Profit Rating, Simulation and Evaluation of Risk.

In 1972 I joined ICL’s Senior Executive Programme, where I ran IT strategy workshops, and this is where I learned to be a facilitator rather than a lecturer, posing questions to the “participants” rather than awaiting questions from an “audience”.

I arrived in Kenya in 1977 to take on my first real leadership position, as general manager of ICL’s Kenya subsidiary, and this gave me many chances to speak in public. I joined Rotary soon after, and here too opportunities for public speaking abounded. Many more arose, in other leadership roles.

I next talked about my time with the joint leadership programme between the Aga Khan University Graduate School of Media and Communications and the Harvard Kennedy School, where I ran sessions on “The Voice of Leadership” — communicating about strategy, sharing visions and values, stimulating innovation, and managing conflicts and crises.

For this I assembled a case study from contributions at a President’s Round Table with Kenya Private Sector Alliance at the State House, highlighting those who performed well and those who did not, and listing the common do’s and don’ts.

I sensed that many of the weak ones had little idea that they were indeed so. Here I quoted Shaw again, saying “the single biggest problem in communications is the illusion that it has taken place”, which led me to recommend good preparation — including rehearsing, with others critiquing and coaching; and seeking as many opportunities as possible to speak in public.

Malcolm Gladwell told us we must invest 10,000 hours before considering ourselves an expert in any field. It’s why I advise aspiring leaders to join organisations like Toastmasters and Rotary, and also professional and business organisations, so they can accelerate the accumulation of such hours.

My desire for the Toastmaster members was that they should look forward to their speaking engagements with excitement rather than anxiety. And yet with sufficient anxiety, to prevent complacency and hence under-preparing. I advocated incorporating storytelling — like I included at the beginning of my talk — and recommended communicating with a light touch, away from the heavy formality that’s all too common here in Kenya.

When delivering a speech, we must not only engage with our script, but also with our audience. Except that in today’s virtual events reading the audience is much harder, never mind if their videos are switched off. So at least we must maintain eye contact with the camera — something that is all too uncommon.

How do you know if you have performed well, made an impact? By seeking feedback. To be asked to return and speak again is a good sign of having left a positive impression, and also to be invited by others who have heard you elsewhere or heard about your speaking.

I concluded by supposing that while some of the listeners had joined Toastmasters so as to go “from good to great”, others would have been among those who would rather be in the coffin than delivering the eulogy. Either way, I said, they should feel good that they were learning by doing, getting better at getting better.

Social cohesion critical in these perilous times

I’m glad I’m not President Uhuru Kenyatta, nor CSs Mutahi Kagwe and Fred Matiang’i, nor Governor Hassan Joho and others who have the awesome responsibility of communicating with the rest of us in ways that get us to behave responsibly during the Covid-19 crisis. Like leaders everywhere in the world they must act neither too quickly nor too slowly, not too harshly and not too weakly. But what is the right speed? What is the right style?

It would be much easier if our people were as disciplined and well off as those of Singapore or South Korea, Germany or New Zealand. But we are who we are, with over ten million of us packed together in urban slums and living hand to mouth; and with so many others in remote rural and arid areas where there is limited access to the media, never mind the Internet.

The leaders I have mentioned would be doing well in the countries I have listed. But how much harder it is to be effective here, where even the middle class have been finding it hard to do and not do what is being called for.

We must sympathise with the frustrations of our rationally-driven leaders, who see that all they get is pushback and resentment when they tell us to wear masks and stay home and suchlike.

Whether due to intolerably cramped living conditions and poverty, or as a result of cultural norms of community togetherness, much of what we are seeing is a struggle between the stern admonitions of our leaders and the disconnected behaviour of our citizens.

Understandably, the government’s focus has been on organising our under-prepared healthcare system to cater for the sudden onset of the pandemic, while simultaneously worrying about the shattering effects on our economy. The added dilemma is that the greater concern there is for protecting lives, the greater the negative impact on livelihoods.

What we are beginning to see though is that alongside managing these “hard” issues, increased attention must be paid to the complementary “soft” emotional and behavioural ones. So should some leaders be playing “bad cop” while others play “good cop”? Should each leader be skilled enough to combine the two roles into one, knowing when and how to switch?

It is clear that the big stick of assertively managed lockdowns must be wielded, for merely enticing us with the reward of longer term health benefits if we do what we are being told is way beyond the time horizon of most. But if that’s not working, then what?

Surely we need not rely only on top-down tough messages from smart podiums. It is up to many more of us to communicate within our communities, from the family level upwards, each of us finding our own way to make a difference.

Leaders and people of influence from all sectors – religious, private sector, NGOs, academia, trade unions, musicians and other artists, sportspeople and of course the media – must contribute to passing both the tough and the empathetic messages, complementing and reinforcing what we are hearing from the top.

There is as great a need for this kind of “soft” engagement as there is for the distribution of food, Personal Protective Equipment and other essentials to the most vulnerable. Many are already acting with great generosity, in both the hard and the soft areas, and the more the merrier.

Let me briefly draw attention to the Social Cohesion Committee that has recently been formed by the National Cohesion and Integration Commission (NCIC), within whose mandate such an initiative falls naturally.

The NCIC Social Cohesion Committee (of which I am part) is developing new ways, with musicians and others, to pass messages that more people can respond to positively. It is also organising for psychosocial support to be made available to both the most vulnerable – children and others in emotional distress – and to doctors and nurses.

By listening as much as by telling we can begin bringing Kenyans together, so that the poor do not feel this Covid-19 threat merely threatens the urban rich. And it is by complementing the angry headteacher with the empathetic counsellor that we can avoid future social strife.
So please join this movement for social cohesion. Whoever you are, at whatever level.