Public speaking 101, By Wole Olaoye

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Reading Time: 5 mins read

Please ensure that your brain is in gear before activating your mouth. That is the honest advice I will freely give to all public officers today to save them from everlasting embarrassment guaranteed by the damning reality that the Internet never forgets. What you say today will easily be recalled at the click of a mouse 20 years from now to the embarrassment of your grandchildren.

Nigerians have been on social media overdrive in the last few weeks, bemoaning one gaffe after the other made by public officials who ought to know better. Compared to their crocodilian counterparts of the First Republic, some of these contemporary publicity grabbers are mere agama lizards. The rot didn’t start today. But I think that it is about time we tried to halt the trend. 

Thankfully, the incumbent Minister of Information has, so far,  shown that he understands what his job entails and is determined to do it without honing dissimulation to a fine art or amassing enemies for the government. Mohammed Idris has stayed on the message, demonstrating that his earlier vocational exertion as a newspaper publisher was time and money well spent.

Unlike Idris, however, some people in the public space have comported themselves in such a way as to set the social media on fire. And, since they move from gaffe to gaffe, from howler to howler, from boo-boo to boo-boo, they inspire a steady stream of lampooning diatribes and skits on social media. 

Verbal Diarrhoea  

Of all the afflictions with which the gods of Misspeak can bedevil a man, logorrhoea, or verbal diarrhoea, is the heavyweight champion. Since the beginning of time, wise men have made invocations to Providence to set a guard at the portals of their mouth lest they self-destruct by advertising their vacuity with that selfsame orifice in the lower part of their otherwise comely face.

Logorrhoea, is a communication disorder which manifests as a tendency to extreme loquacity and  repetitiveness, which can cause incoherency. In a private citizen, it could be a source of entertainment, but in a public official, it is a danger signal that a square peg has squeezed itself into a round hole.

All religions warn man to beware what comes out of his mouth. They say it in different ways, but the message is unmistakable: Out of the abundance of the heart, the mouth speaketh! More people have been led to the gallows by the garbage that issued forth from their mouths than the lethal weapons of war dreaded by all and sundry.

Even if the various major religions didn’t say so, common sense ought to make us realise that the tongue is a double-edged sword. Elsewhere in the world, when you are appointed to public office, one of the first things you do is to engage a professional groomer or public relations expert who puts you through the mill, from personal projection to public perception. This is a professional sphere which our politicians ignore to their peril. It is therefore not surprising that whenever some of them open their mouths, a lot of garbage spews forth.

Emotional Intelligence

It is so unfortunate that the public space in Nigeria has become such an all comers affair that certified bags of gas are routinely recycled from one realm of governance to another in such a way that a former gubernatorial tornado is converted to a ministerial volcano while another ‘omniscient’ ex-governor is elevated beyond his level of emotional intelligence to turn every public speaking opportunity to an occasion of complete disconnectedness and exhibition of bad judgement. 

Emotional Intelligence (EI) is the ability to manage both your own emotions and understand the emotions of people around you. There are five key elements to this quality: self-awareness, self-regulation, motivation, empathy, and social skills.

You attend an important private event at which some government VIPs are among the guests and you are saddled with the burden of listening to a totally vacuous man who had left his mind behind at home or wherever else he had ventured from. Whether his speech is accommodated in the programme or not, he insists on hugging the microphone, and he does so until the audience is so offended that it is only good breeding that is stopping them from using the device as a battering rod to beat some sense into his head.

Instead of cursing the darkness,  I am prepared to light a candle. And, as my humble contribution to national development, I am happy to share the following ‘Public Speaking 101’ lessons with our esteemed public officers.

One of the most common types of public speaking is informative speaking which is integrated into many different occupations. Before opening your mouth, please decide what the purpose of your speech is. If it is informative, then pack the necessary info in a logical and systematic format to enable the audience to follow step by step, but don’t jumble various goals together in a rambling staccato. The audience will quickly decode that you’re just another empty barrel of wind about to explode.

If your intention is to persuade, reassure or motivate others to change their beliefs, take an action, or reconsider a decision, then concentrate on doing that instead of trying to speak like an entertainer or making a political speech at a funeral thereby advertising your lack of good breeding.

As someone in the public eye, please note that no speech is insignificant. Just one ‘minor’ speech can end your political or professional career.  Being able to think through problems and analyse the potential costs and benefits of solutions is an essential part of critical thinking and of public speaking aimed at persuading others.

Every government programme has a purpose. If you must weigh in at a public event, be sure of your facts and stay on the message. One of the areas in which our public officials have been found to be deficient is in messaging. When you tell them that correct messaging gets half of the job done, they think you’re trying to sell them an ‘otapiapia’. And God help you when you advise them to seek the help of a public relations professional— they think you’re trying to midwife a contract!

Thought Leader 

The truth is that if you want people to follow you, you have to communicate effectively and clearly. Even if you are not yet in the official leadership position of your dreams, effective public speaking can help you become a “thought leader.”

In summary, you will do well  to remember the following:

Don’t just ‘happen’ at an official occasion. Practice and prepare! Know your audience. Your speech is about them, not you. Arrange your material in the most effective manner to attain your purpose. Watch for feedback and adapt as you go along. Be yourself. Let your positive personality come through. Inject a funny anecdote in your presentation, if necessary. Don’t read unless you have to. But have a prepared outline. Body language carries most of the message. Good delivery does not call attention to itself, but instead conveys the speaker’s ideas clearly and without distraction. Grab attention at the beginning, and close with a dynamic end.

If you are not interested in grasping the rudiments of public speaking and adhering to its pillars, you have no business being in public office. It was for the benefit of people like you that Abraham Lincoln said, “Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak and to remove all doubt”.

Gumi’s World 

Has anyone been taking note of Sheik Gumi’s tacit support for some terror suspects as demonstrated in stories and video clips in circulation on social media? I am the first to admit that the man knows many things ordinary mortals like us don’t know — and the authorities seem circumspect in reining him in. Strange.

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