Wednesday, July 23, 2008

How to not win friends and not influence people by Public Speaking or Why Rahul Gandhi should hire a ventriquolist!

         I try to not to be too offensive to specific individuals in my musings in this blog(fine! The Katrina Awards are an exception) but every once in a while there is the occasion that really gets on my nerves and necessitates a "focussed" personal assault :). I refer, of course, to aRahul Gandhi's speech in parliament yesterday. It was a most mortifying experience and to someone who has a had a brief career in public speaker, a speech full of badly missed opportunities and calculations.

        I suppose it is nothing surprising to find a bad speaker in Parliament. However the context is important. Here was a vote most important to India's future, where parties fielded their most experienced speakers to express their views. Mr.Gandhi got a chance solely because he is the son the Congress President(and the son of the former PM and the grandson ...). He was one of the youngest speakers, especially from a major party. Considering the so many hymns sung to the youth of India, there was a brilliant opportunity to speak for this huge demographic of the Indian population. It is not that he lacks education or a skill in language either. His CV lists some of the most prominent educational institutions.

        To begin with, it was a most uninspiring speech, delivered in the most deadpan tone possible. The interval between words was monotonously long. Mr.Gandhi was obviously disconcerted by the interruptions which were not even directed at him and he kept re-starting his sentences every time he was interrupted. His location was most unsuitable for some one whose speech would be so closely examined and worse of all, he looked most baffled. There were occasional flashes of irritation and amusement but most of the time he looked heavily under pressure and so maintained a very grim face.

        Each one of the mentioned points is in itself not a problem but together they badly tilt the scales against any speaker. What finally cooked Rahul Gandhi's goose was his subject and the way he chose to approach it. His limitations would have been bearable if he had chosen a technical approach to the debate. He however chose to personalize it. He declared he was speaking as an Indian and not as a politician. He tried to bring in the pain of other Indians to the debate. He specifically brought in Sasikala and Kalavati, two women whom he had visited. He then tried to appear bi-partisan, continuing his earlier narrative of speaking as an Indian, by praising A.B.Vajpayee. He tried to paint the picture of the new Indian century urging the MPs to think how India could change the world rather than vice versa.

         When a speaker personalizes an issue, he/she takes a considerable risk. The risk is that the gravity of the issue becomes inseparable from the speaker's credibility. The speaker must be credible enough and sound credible enough to convince the audience of the highs and lows of the experience he/she describes. It is not necessary that the audience buy the speaker's message in full, it is enough that the speaker opens up the audience. This requires experience and skill honed by long years of practice. Else the speaker sounds like a bored teacher reading out a story. The tone descends to condescension both for the subjects of the story and the audience. That is exactly what happened yesterday.

        Again, a good speaker's greatest ally is not his/her talent but the context. Even the most insipid speaker can be carried by the wave of the situation. On the other hand even the most well-intentioned speaker will turn out to be a damp squib if he/she mistakes the mood of audience and the context of the speech. Rahul Gandhi's speech would have worked well if he were addressing, say, corporate employees who would have marveled at the initiative displayed by him. But there he was, talking Kalavatis and Sasikalas to people who had spent a lifetime among them, who had worked their way up by working(at least in name) among people like them. No wonder there were snide comments while he was speaking! A confidence vote is a battle-field, platonic appeals won't even be audible. The context requires a specific amount of combativeness, you are defending your own government after all, not delivering a "Distinguished Lecture". Bi-partisanship is not (as Barack Obama would seem to suggest) a magic potion to solve all ills. A skilled politician/manager realizes that and utilizes the odd sectarian message at required intervals to perk up his own people, to enthuse them and to prepare them for the battle ahead.

        The Congress and the UPA did not require much from Rahul Gandhi. A simple but effective speech, delivered in a firm,precise and decisive manner. The emphasis on power was a great idea and it should have been presented as a macro-message, a statement on the behalf of the youth for instance or any other over-arching statements conveying determination and great pride in his government, even his disappointment or confusion on the way things were happening. This speech would have inspired his fellow MPs and even enabled him to claim moral high ground by not attacking anybody. But disappointingly all the Government got from the MP from Amethi was a bland narration of personal anecdotes! What a waste and what a Shame!!


Anonymous said...

Excuse while I pick myself up off the floor and regain composure. (
Move over Dale Carnegie!)

C'mon Prasanth, give the guy a break! But yes, a man is not necessarily known by the educational institutions on his CV.

Noticed how he enunciated Kalavati?

If you had to pick between Dr. Singh and the young scion ...?

Prasanth said...

It is absolutely true that a man is not known by his educations institutions alone, but our subject's list of institutions(Doon School, Stephens, Harvard, Cambridge) could not have but ensured a basic capability in exercise of the English Language. OF course that need not endow him with a skill in speaking but still...
And as for the Hobson's choice--I would actually go for the PM. At least he is clear about who he is..a technocrat and an "accidental politician". Nobody expects him to make a rousing,inspiring speech..if he can do that, it is a plus. On the other hand Rahul Gandhi is the heir apparent, he is aiming at being a people's

anwesha said...

eye candies seem to do well with public these days
so as much as we fret over the brilliance of true eloquence, the rahul gandhis of the world will rake in the moolah
his speech has garnered a lot of attention, and the youngsters seem to be awfully fond of him (ahem, his face)

Prasanth said...

so all we can do is blog :(

Anonymous said...

@ Anwesha:
Eye candy. Hmmm. I guess tastes differ with generations, but I think Rajiv was a lot more charming and a better speaker than Rahul ever will be. Rahul takes after his mother I guess, who generates about as much charm and warmth as um ... the Sphinx?!

Lord Brinjal said...

Very nicely written blog Mr Prasanth.

I was waiting to see rahul gandhi speak as im sure were sooo many others.. but when he started off i was like OMG, noways what is he doing - political harakiri!!

Everybody accuses sonia gandhi of just reading speeches that have been written by others, well nobody can say that about rahul g though.

He himself wrote that piece, no doubts about that.!

But you know what really got to me, it was all the congress men and women (renuka chowdhry - yikes) applauding and thumping the table like this was the best speech in the world!

i mean you can begin to forgive rahul - not everybody is blessed with a sharp view or an ability to orate! But how can we the people of a sovereign nation forgive the members of the ruling party when they behave like such arse lickers? (forgive the word but no polite word describes in a more apt manner)

Prasanth said...

@amokescreen is true that the junior might take his charm from his mother but his politics is very heavily based on his father' style. Calls for a new era, India's place in the new century and all of this delivered while conveying the impression of being one a bit above the national morass.
Issue is-he can't do that with the way he sounds or comes across!

@lord binjal
Welcome aboard.
Right about the speech. Apparently he wrote it while watching the previous day's debate. He was probably shaking his head at the selfishness of "common" politicians and decided to write his landmark speech.

Lord Brinjal said...

haha! 'landmark speech! that was funny. But what i found really surprising is the sheer number of blogs / people think what a spectacular speech mr gandhi gave!!

are they like serious!! good God im amazed, i mean everyone has a right to their own opinion but this is too much.

Anonymous said...

what he needs are better speech writers. I'm surprised those women weren't named Lajwanti and Basanti. Poor thing takes after his father in the speech department and needs all the help he can get.

Prasanth said...

@lord brinjal
i guess it is one the vagaries of our system. We cannot resist a heir. Love him/her or hate him/her, we just cannot ignore them. Look at this blog for instance ;)

Well speech writers are just the beginning. What he needs is a massive makeover. Identifying certain obscure but relevant enough issues, specifically targeting the youth. He has to be on the campaign trail all the time 24x7 and muster enough credibility. Well the list goes on....:)