Presentation Skills – Lessons learnt

“Big men use small words and small men use big words. “- Winston Churchill
This was my first lesson as a public speaker/presenter.

Year 1975. As an Engineering student at MIT Manipal, I was participating in a debate on the JP Movement. ( JP – Jaiprakash Narain– a social crusader). Speaking for the proposition, I used the choicest words culled from the dictionary, had a bombastic flow and was mighty pleased when the audience gave me a thunderous applause. When I sat down, my friend, RSP Varma from Bihar said ” Yaar Chendil, what a great speech, although I couldn’t understand most of it !”
If he had slapped me hard, it wouldn’t have been as painful as this blow. Indeed, this was my first valuable lesson in communication/public speaking/presentation ! I will remain eternally grateful to him for this feedback.

I had simply vomited what I knew, managed to impress my audience but failed miserably as a communicator ! The ability to use simple, appropriate words is much more important than sounding like a pompous ass !

Since then, whenever I’ve been tempted to use high sounding words which mean next to nothing,I’ve settled down for the familiar. I don’t say I’ve been cured of the “big word” disease but every effort to simplify makes my presentation that much clearer. It is a painful task. I need to constantly revise my draft and if I don’t have the discipline, I end up churning out some profound shit.
And it is wisely said -“The best speeches are not written but rewritten”

It is not easy to use simple words. Like this housewife who wanted a pair of geese home delivered. The first note she drafted was- “Please send me two gooses”. She realised it was not correct and rewrote “Please send me two geeses“. She felt this was also not right and finally sent this bit – ” Please send me one goose. And send one more goose !” It is very difficult to be simple and very simple to be difficult.
I’ve read some of Mahatma Gandhi’s works and have never found him using a complicated word.

Here are some nuggets I picked up on simple, clear messages

  • When Toyota went to Europe, their mission was – “BEAT BENZ !”
  • Sign in a wildlife park -“ Trespassers will be eaten !”
  • Sign in the head office of a large IT company in India “Trespassers will be recruited !”

The parting shot comes from one of my favourite speakers and role models, Norman Augustine for his ability to seamlessly weave anecdotes and quotes in his presentations. He once said-

‘Simply stated, it is sagacious to eschew obfuscation !”

2 thoughts on “Presentation Skills – Lessons learnt

  1. I’ve subscribed to your feed and I find it really enjoyable reading your posts. Especially all the speech openers that you share. Would be great if you can post more often 🙂

  2. Chendil, You are right! Clarity and simplicity are critical in presentation content. I had a great presentation coach who said, “If you can’t make it clear, it doesn’t belong in your presentation.”Using huge words to “eschew obfuscation” as you put it is good advice. My advice for using clear language is to shed verbal filler as well. This includes words like “uh” “ah” “um” “like” “well” “you know” and sometimes “basically” or “necessarily” depending on how they are used.Thanks for the post

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