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What to say and when to shut up: Lessons from an Oscar winner!

December 23, 2014 16:45 IST

Lupita Nyong'o's speech at the 2014 Academy Awards is a classic example of a brilliant speech says Rakesh Godhwani, author of What to Say and When to Shut Up! And this is what you can learn from it!

How do you get everyone's attention and make an effective speech?

Rakesh Godhwani, author of What to Say and When to Shut Up has a few pointers.

We bring you excerpts from his latest book:

Lupita Nyong'o shot to worldwide fame for a variety of reasons.

One of those was her bold performance that won her the Oscar in the movie 12 Years a Slave.

But there was a more important reason.

She won the hearts of every person who has faced racism in some form or the other by her inspiring words.

The day she won the Oscar, her speech called 'Essence Black Women in Hollywood' went viral on social media.

The current views on that video as I write these words are above 3 lakh.

And this is just one of the videos.

There would be many more versions of the video and collectively, they would have reached millions of viewers throughout the world.

So let me take this video and use it as an example of how the dynamics of a good speech work:

1. The importance of understanding your audience

Let's first see the perspective of the audience.

They are the real reason why this speech has become popular.

Without an audience, there can be no leader. And a good speaker understands this dynamic very clearly.

They know that the speech is their message 'FOR' an audience.

Let me give you an example to make this easier to understand.

Imagine that you invite your boss who has arrived from the US for dinner.

You and your wife have taken great care to make your home look warm, comfortable, and welcoming. Lights and candles are lit.

A variety of Indian dishes are prepared for the guest like palak paneer, bhelpuri, parathas, raita, salads, and gulaab jamuns.

The boss comes home and as he sits on the table, he says, 'I forgot to tell you that I am vegan'. You and your wife smile and don't quite get what that means.

You offer him palak paneer and he refuses because vegans do not eat any animal products.

Paneer, or cottage cheese, is made from milk which comes from a cow (or a goat).

You offer parathas which he again refuses as they are fried in ghee which comes from animals.

You then realize that raita can't be offered either.

You sheepishly ask him, 'Would you like to have some bhelpuri -- it's an Indian snack'.

Your boss says, 'Sure'. And you are relieved.

The boss takes a spoonful and suddenly says, 'I am sorry I can't eat that. It has peanuts. And I am allergic to peanuts.'

You are heartbroken and feel embarrassed. Your wife gives you an I-am-going-to-kill-him-and-bury-you look.

The boss is very apologetic too and says, 'I am sorry, I should have informed you earlier.

But I assumed that you spoke to my secretary and she would have informed you of all this.'

You hadn't and are quite crestfallen.

So that evening, your boss ate the salad which thankfully did not have any animal product in it.

If you would have asked the boss about his dietary preferences in advance, this could've been avoided.

Just as a chef makes food 'FOR' an audience, similarly, a speaker prepares his message 'FOR' the audience.

Your overall message may remain the same, but you can change your words and tone to suit the audience.

The audience can come from a variety of backgrounds and cultures and may have their own views on a topic.

It's your job to understand, appreciate, and tune your message accordingly.

The audience is also very easily distracted.

Every three seconds, a text or a notification appears on their phone screens.

They also may have biases against the topic or you as a speaker.

Many times, they might not even know who you are and may have a persistent 'why should I care or listen to you' banging in their heads as you are speaking.

And most importantly, they want to know the answer to 'What do you want from me' as quickly as possible. A good speaker asks the following questions to understand his audiences:

a. What is the background of my audiences (age, culture, sex, location, educational qualification, work experience etc)

b. What are their belief systems, values, likes, and dislikes

c. What are their views on the topic I am speaking about

d. What would they like to know from me

e. What can I offer them

f. What do I want them to do at the end of my speech (message)

2. The importance of preparation:

Lupita read from a piece of paper.

I am pretty sure that she didn't write that speech the night before the Academy Awards.

I think a lot of preparation went into it, though she categorically denied it in the opening lines.

Coming from a prestigious school (Lupita went to the Yale School of Drama) also provides a sound foundation and exposure, and years of practice do come in handy at times like these.

This is the second important dynamic of a good speaker -- they prepare and practise.

Some of the world's best leaders still practise meticulously before they speak in front of an audience.

Churchill was often heard practicing in the bathroom and Obama would revise and re-revise the speech transcript many times over before an event.

Let me explain what I mean by preparation by the 10,000-hour rule as an example. (Gladwell, 2009). It takes hours and hours of practice for a pilot to get certification for flying a passenger aircraft.

The whole idea of this practice is to help the pilot master the craft of flying a plane, take decisions in split seconds, and perform his job better at that moment when he is flying that plane.

The adage 'practice makes perfect' applies to speaking as well.

There is ample research to demonstrate that if a person goes through a step-by-step method of doing something, learning is faster and, very soon, it becomes a behaviour.

Think of the first time you tried to ride a bicycle.

Our parents or elders taught us how to balance ourselves on the bicycle; we fell a few times but learnt how to pedal and balance together.

With time, we could cycle with ease and now it comes almost naturally to us.

A pilot also has a similar experience.

With time, and by repeated practice sessions in the flight simulator, he learns to fly a mega-ton jumbo jet. Nelson's legendary words after he defeated Napoleon were, 'The battle of Waterloo was won in the fields of Eden.'

He meant that before he and his army entered the Waterloo battlefields, they did a lot of practice in the fields of Eden. These practice sessions helped them perform better on that day.

Preparation readies our mind and our body to do a task better.

NASA trains its astronauts for years before they can even qualify for a space flight.

I always wondered why it would take so many years of preparation for sitting in a sealed rocket and going on a space flight.

The answer was given by my childhood icon, Wing Commander Rakesh Sharma, in a talk that I attended.

He said that the human brain is trained to walk on earth because of how it perceives gravity through our legs.

But in space, or on the moon, there is no gravity and hence no feedback of movement.

So the brain has no way to understand how to walk or move.

And that is the training they go through.

Without that training, it will be impossible for astronauts to move or do anything.

And if you have seen the Oscar-winning movie Gravity, you will realize how difficult it is to manage one's body in space.

A simple push can send you reeling and if you are not trained to handle such a situation, you might not survive.

Sumo wrestlers in Japan go through intense years of preparations including diet plans and a complete shift in lifestyle to perform like a sumo wrestler someday.

Ask any performer -- a dancer, a singer, an instrument player, an acrobat, or anyone who has to perform in front of a large audience.

I bet you that they spend hours and hours practising their craft before they go on stage.

So why don't we all consider ourselves as performers too?

Our craft is that of conveying a message and making our audience act in a certain way.

Churchill once said, 'If I have to speak for 5 minutes, I need a week of preparation.

But if you want me to speak for 1 hour, I am ready now.'

This means that shorter the performance, longer is the time investment required to prepare and perform.

A good thumb rule that I follow is 10-10-10. I start preparing at least 10 days before my event, do at least 10 revisions of my speech, and speak at least 10 times in front of the mirror for my practice.

I sometimes also record myself using the webcam and review myself. It works wonders.

In my earlier days, I used to ask my wife to sit through and evaluate my speeches critically. Your spouse would be a great critic for your practice sessions.

3. The importance of a style

Lupita wore an expensive designer gown that made her look elegant.

She stood straight, smiled, and sometimes even broke down as she spoke.

On the day of the Academy Awards, she wore a tiara and looked every bit a princess.

Her blue flowing gown was the talk of the media.

She was stylish and the world took notice.

Taking my argument that I made in the last section, that a speaker is like an artist performing in front of an audience a little further, each performer has his own natural or acquired style of speaking and conveying a message.

If I were to look at some of the TED talks -- which are a great repository for all of us to watch and learn from—many of the speakers demonstrate the following styles:

a. They all are confident and comfortable -- or at least they seem to be. They might be quite nervous inside but as a viewer of that talk, I find them confident. Confidence is demonstrated in the way they stand, talk, and conduct themselves.

b. They are heard clearly -- voice (tone, pitch, modulation) is a very important element of one's style. You need not worry about pronunciation if you have a clear voice that can be heard and understood by everyone.

c. They look into the eyes of the audience and the camera—every member in the audience loves it when a speaker looks straight at them. That's the best way to connect and appreciate your audience.

d. The face, body, and hands are very well coordinated with the words. They change facial expressions according to the message, use hands to explain a concept better, and use their body postures to convey confidence. Some move around, some stand rooted to the same place. Some use their hands like Zubin Mehta and some do not. Some smile and convey a range of meaning through their faces and some have no expressions at all.

e. Dressing style and presence -- Remember the quote 'first impression is the last impression'. Sadly, it's true and plays a vital role in front of audiences. The way we dress and look pretty much decides our impressions on the audiences. They have every right to judge us and we cannot control it. Good speakers and leaders plan their appearance very well. The pose, the smile, and the colours—everything is coordinated and planned for maximum impact on their audiences.

4. The right words and crafting the message

How did Lupita choose those beautiful words that became such a sensation?

Now, I confess, I don't have the answer on how Lupita did it.

I don't know her from Adam.

But after spending a few years poring over various speeches like this, I can definitely say that there is a method to writing these words.

And this is what I will focus on from now no in this book.

Lupita began by telling the audience that she will read out a letter she received from a young girl.

She read out lines from that letter as a story to her audience.

She mentioned how that little girl, who felt she was not beautiful because of her skin colour, felt inspired by Lupita.

She then connected that with her own childhood where she felt that her dark skin was a curse from God and how she prayed every night to God to make it whiter so she could feel beautiful. She then highlighted how detrimental it could be for a young girl to not feel beautiful and how a person's skin colour plays a role in that.

She chose very careful words that conveyed a cry from her heart and drew the audience in.

She then inspired them with a strong message to feel 'beautiful inside'.

I am sure that many viewers could have related to this speech because we are conditioned to think that white is beautiful.

FMCG companies who sell 'whitening' creams use this trump card a lot. In India, we have bigger problems.

In arranged marriages, the groom's family desires a 'fair' girl and girls with dark complexions may not find good suitors.

The western world too is far from tolerant when it comes to racial issues. But Lupita stayed away from the controversy of black v/s white.

She chose to say only those words that were measured on her own definition of beauty and steered the speech towards an inspirational message for everyone who felt like her.

The event was for Black Women in Hollywood and the audience lapped up every word. (Essence, 2014).

As she spoke, the audience nodded along, smiled, and cried.

The next day, it was all over the social media.

I called a couple of my friends who had posted this message and asked them what they liked about the speech. Here are some of the things they said

a. They felt Lupita spoke from the heart and was sincere.

b. Since she was black, they felt that the topic was appropriate for her to speak on. Her Oscar award also helped to make her credibility stand out.

c. They felt connected to her story because they feel similarly about the topic of fairness as a parameter of judging beauty.

d. They cried or felt moved by her words.

e. At the end of the speech, they felt elated and believed that to feel beautiful, one doesn't really need to be fair-skinned. It endorsed their own view and re-affirmed their definition of beauty.

f. Throughout the speech, they felt as if Lupita was speaking directly to them.

g. There was a clear objective that they understood very early. The entire speech and the examples she gave related to this objective.

h. They were never distracted by anything else as they watched this video. One of my friends also said that she heard nothing else except the speech, and then afterwards saw a couple of calls that she missed while watching.

Excerpted with permission of Random House India from the book What to Say and When to Shut Up by Rakesh Godhwani Rs 299.

Photograph: Lucy Nicholson/Reuters