Shiralkar: On speaking up

Columnist Parth Shiralkar gives tips on how to improve on public speaking. 

Parth Shiralkar

Fully clothed, about eight or nine things that could happen to me in public are as awkward as being the sole presenter in a large Zoom meeting — the unexpected bursts of speech anxiety are all too familiar for comfort. Whether it’s a tricky job interview you’re trying to navigate or if you’re pitching a new idea to some stubborn colleagues or trying to hold your own in an 8 a.m. Webex — the frustration that comes with blanking out on stage is an experience shared by many.

It’s easy to start out this introspection by going back to ol’ reliable even before getting on stage: “I’m going to mess this speech up. They’ll think me a fool.” We sometimes believe that this issue is an innate problem that has everything to do with something within us. The smooth rhetoric of more confident peers can reinforce this belief — we can end up alienating our own selves, having internalized the fear of speaking up. This can, however, be worked on at length.

Tons of communication experts and coaches rely on age-old recipes to brew up confidence. The Greeks did it from the fourth century B.C. and taught public speaking — or any form of eloquence really — like an art form. Aristotelian rhetoric took shape after the inception of democracy in Athens, leading to the act of speaking up publicly, stating a point and building a case for it logically. The ancient Indian debate manual, the Nyaya Sutra, tackles similar problems by utilizing self-validating truths and finding common ground in a discussion.

My own experiences with public speaking are rife with instances of staring vacantly into the audience’s eyes and the omnipresent faux pas. It does help when I know what I’m even trying to achieve — is this presentation meant to be informative? Inspiring? Intentionally humorous? Persuasive? Can I wing it for a passing grade? Once I know what the goal is, I can hop into the spectators’ shoes and examine the best ways of getting the point across. In some cases, the way of presenting the subject matter can make or break your speech — language experts contend that people listen not because you’re talking, but because the talk caters to their needs and wants.

Oftentimes, the pendulum swings too far and you end up with someone who can’t stop saying things for the sake of saying them. Research suggests that individuals who bring up a rhetoric that has nothing to do with the truth are not engaging in lies — lying is different from talking nonsense. In 2011, a faculty member at Ohio State University published a paper examining “taurascatics,” the study of bullshit — an in-depth analysis of absurd rhetoric. I thought professor James Fredal’s paper was a fantastic review of silly semantics, colorful language notwithstanding.

It would be convenient to conclude this column by encouraging readers to simply fake it till they make it. But this isn’t a conman guidebook yet, and practice is key. One wouldn’t promise a live Discord rendition of Chopin’s nocturnes without having played the pieces at least once before. Similarly, it makes sense to go over your presentation or notes before it all begins. A quick walk through can help pinpoint dead passages and the usage of filler words. Public speaking is hard — especially when the faces staring at you are earnest and you don’t feel like picturing them in fun, compromising situations to assuage the stage fright.

Change is hard too. It can be brought about by force or through the successful utility of language. The ancients had the right idea — mastering speech is a cool tool to wield in the strange landscape of modern communication. Even to a virtual audience, a memorable delivery will linger long after the last “goodbye, everyone!” has left the screen dark and empty. Practice your lines, wash your hands and wear a mask.