The art of talking


If you ask what most influential public figures have in common, the answer usually is the skill of public speaking. This form of art, I believe, is something that is yet to be mastered by most public figures in Ethiopia.
As my job requires me to attend many meetings and conferences, I see a lot of professionals speaking about their work and things they are passionate about. Very rarely do I see people speak without holding on to a piece of paper, occasionally looking up to connect with audiences. Most of the time, the people speaking look like they have a gun to their heads and are so nervous that their voices shake and cannot speak clearly.
I am, most of the time, embarrassed when so called experts on something are invited to speak at an event and they cannot even speak from experience but rely on a piece of paper that somebody has written for them that they haven’t even looked at until right before they are invited to speak.
There are several organizations that are established to help those interested in bettering their speaking skills. One that is well known in Addis Ababa is Toastmasters Club. There are several Toastmasters clubs in Addis Ababa where people meet and have a platform to work on their public speaking skills through the help of other club members.
The local Toastmasters are known for hosting the only speaking contest in Addis Ababa called ‘So You Think You Can Speak’ which has become popular among many people. The contest is held every year and is aimed at encouraging the development of public speaking skills.
This year, TM clubs held their contest on August 30th at the AU where many, mostly young people, both from the different TM clubs as well as others participated. The contest was open to anybody that wanted to show their speaking skill and who went through several steps of evaluation. Those who were thought to be the best out of many presented their speeches on different topics on the day of the actual contest.
The speeches touched upon interesting topics such as how to handle disappointments, how to be persistent, how to be thankful and how to become effective in life, among others. I found the speakers to be very good and really passionate about what they are speaking about.
Unfortunately, in the end, it seemed as though the whole event took a wrong turn to nonsenseville. This is because the event that was aimed at promoting the art of public speaking failed miserably at two things.
One was that all though, as the name ‘So You Think You Could Speak’ already indicates, it was a speaking competition, the organizers expected the speakers to evaluate a special speech presented by one of the organizers. It does not take a genius to understand that it was really very unfair to those who do not belong to toastmasters clubs and it was a very big advantage to those who did belong, because at Toastmasters, evaluating speeches is one of the things members are trained in literally every other week.
The other point the competition failed at was the end result. The person that won the competition and hence became the ‘Best Speaker of the Year’ was not one that was, let’s just say, the best. The speeches were judged on three basic things; content holding 50 percent, delivery holding 30 percent and language holding 20 percent of the score. The person with the title ‘Best Speaker of the Year’ was indeed very charming but was not nearly as good as the first and second runner ups when it came to content and language.
The end outcome was so disappointing to many that some were convinced that the only reason the winner was a winner was because he was a member of one of the TM clubs. To add insult to injury, a significant number of the judges at the competition were members of TM clubs which means it is very easy for them not to be objective and to be lenient towards their own.
The competition and the organizers came with a great and noble idea in hosting such a competition because we all know there is a real need for better public speakers in the country. But, the criteria for evaluating speeches should be fair and proper. Or else it should strictly remain a competition for TM club members leaving out others, but where is the fun in that?