What an MD of a 100cr+ business empire taught me about public speaking

Do you know how to use these in your speech?
Do you know how to use these in your speech?

Some lessons in life take many years to realize. This is one of them. I was blessed by someone with a great insight, it stayed with me but I did not really appreciate it at that time. Only through many years of experiences, one day the lesson came back to me and I realised what I had learnt on a random afternoon of 2007, at the lobby of Hotel Hindustan International in Kolkata.

Before I dive into the story, I need to give you a bit of background. Until December of 2005, I spent a year doing little but preparing for law entrance exams (there was no CLAT at that time) and learning English. I cracked NUJS entrance in 2005 itself through the waiting list, and did not take it up for several reasons. One was that I knew very little English and didn’t feel that I was well prepared to take on the challenge. I rather gave myself one year to improve my English and join law school at the top rather than as a struggling candidate.

Throughout the year, I also made sure that I left no stone unturned for my preparation. I wanted to be prepared for every eventuality, I could not afford anything to derail my plans. This was naturally one of the most elaborate strategic preparations I had ever done in my life. I spent hours discovering and implementing sophisticated techniques to learn, practice, retain lessons and found the quickest, most efficient ways to do so. In terms of my ability to learn, this phase was life changing. Studying will never be difficult again because of the systems I started deploying.

My hard work paid off in 2006, I scored the 2nd highest in the NUJS national entrance test and took up admission. That was the end of my law entrance prep. I however, missed the thrill of preparing for the law entrance. What happens to all the notes I made, the techniques I discovered and refined through continuous experiments and applied successfully? How will I ever use it again?

So when an opportunity came through to teach kids for law entrance (this is very common now – but back in 2007 not too many law students were doing it), write modules for courses and create a CLAT curriculum for IMS Learning Pvt Ltd, one of India’s giant in the entrance exam business at that time – I grabbed that opportunity. Soon, we were doing quite well – in fact setting industry standards others were being forced to play catch up to.

Kamlesh Sajnani was the Managing Director of IMS, which was doing 100+ crores in revenue at that time. When IMS Kokata had its first batch get into various law schools, IMS arranged for a reception for the students at Hotel Hindustan International along with a press meet. I was invited too. When I turned up, Rajneesh Singh, the Product Head for Law Entrances and my mentor, asked me to speak about my experience with the students.

While I was quite good at writing in English by this time, speaking wasn’t quite the forte. I managed to get into a flow somehow whenever I was in a classroom, but this was quite another thing. I was superlatively nervous as I went up the aisle. I spoke what I could think of as relevant – which is mostly how teaching the students have been an eye opening and empowering experience for me. I stuttered, I stopped at a few places. The tone of my voice must have given away that I was very nervous. I was even trembling – although I am not sure if the trembling was visible. Anyway, I finished, people clapped and I went back to my seat.

I was mortified to come to a great event like this and screwing up. I stood in a corner plaintively sipping on Mirinda. Later, Mr. Sajnani walked up to me and congratulated me on my speech. I was taken aback – is he kidding? I was definitely the worst speaker in the room. Mr. Sajnani read my expression and told me something. I don’t recall the exact words so many years later – but this is what was the substance. “There are enough people who can come prepared and deliver a perfectly polished speech. There are too few people who can speak from their heart. You spoke from your heart, you used your instincts to decide what to say when – and people can see everything you are saying is genuine. They will connect with you much better. Keep it this way, don’t mover over to the polished side.”

To be honest, I heard him carefully but it did not make any sense to me at that time. It took me many more years to learn that the best public speakers do not speak to impress people, but to communicate and influence. It is important to deliver a perfect to structure, polished speech in a moot or debate, but in real life – a little rusticity can make your communication more effective, authentic, and even charming. Preparation often comes in the way of talking about what we really should be talking about – and in the way we should talk – heart to heart, person to person. We should talk about the things we really want to talk about, things that we think of as we fall asleep and thoughts that do not let us sleep. We never need any preparation to talk about those things.

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