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Friday, June 15, 2012

How Not To Be An All-Island Best Speaker

Warning: this is going to be a full on rant!

Last weekend I went for the final round of the All Island Best Speaker competition held at the Galadari. Someone I knew had taken part and had made it to the final 5, so a few of my friends went to show him our support.

The Toastmaster's club runs quite a tight ship, I must say, and I was pleasantly surprised to see that the programme started exactly on time. I literally can't remember a single time I've been to a function in Sri Lanka that ever started on time, so this was very refreshing. Our 'host' for the evening was clearly a member of the Toastmaster's club, and he spoke extremely well, throwing a few jokes in to his 'banter' before introducing us to the competition and the rules.

Basically the competition would consist of two rounds. The first round would be a prepared speech, which was meant to be 7 minutes in duration, while the second round would be an impromptu speech of at least 2 minutes, on a topic given to the contestants twenty minutes before they were to speak. As we waited for the first contestant to step to the stage, I glanced around at the crowd of 300 and couldn't help feeling like this was a much bigger deal than I initially thought it would be. Everyone was extremely well dressed, ladies in fancy dresses and the men in suits. I felt distinctly and hopelessly out of place in my neon-coloured Foo Fighters t-shirt and jeans.

First up was my friend, and he did a fantastic job of it, in my opinion. His chosen topic was about his life, and while it could have so easily turned into something boring or insincere, his speech was filled with colour and expression, yet somehow also conveyed the earnestness and honesty of someone who was speaking from a place of experience.

I can't say the same for the rest of the competition.

First of all, let me just say this: it turned out that my friend was the only competitor above the age of 25. He was also the only male, and thought technically that shouldn't have factored in to the competition, I somehow feel it did.

Contestant no.2 was a young teacher, who brought a 'prop' to the stage in the form of a single chair. As soon as she started speaking, I felt like I was transported back in time to the inter-school drama competitions. For this was not a speech, this was almost a soliloquy. Her entire speech was an exhibition in drama, as she pranced around the stage, making comical expressions at the audience when she made a joke, and basically acted out a one-woman play for us. She spoke about the 'cost of living', and tried to somehow connect her experience at the supermarket to how much we value life, while throwing in a story about an autistic child (the chair prop was for her to 'illustrate' how she sat on a bench to speak to this poor unfortunate soul). I couldn't wait for it to be over, but little did I know that the fun was just beginning.

Contestant no.3 spoke about "Man's best friend", and she too began in the shrill, theatrical voice used by her predecessor. However, with this one it was all about the hands; they went everywhere! From her face to show surprise to her waist to her sides, flapping about to show the urgency of her situation - it was just mesmerizing, and not in a good way. Her speech was terrible, somehow equating her fear of dogs, and how she ran away from one, to her fear of life, and how she avoided challenges. It was about as genuine as a Gucci bag bought in Pettah.

Contestant no.4 fared slightly better, but again her theatrical depiction of a rather mundane driving accident just did not work for me. Once again, her attempt at equating her fear of driving as some form of example regarding fear of challenges in life were just unconvincing. You hit a lamp post and it gave you an epiphany? Give me a break.

Contestant no.5 was a lot more lively, and her topic was something that easily tickled the slightly older audience - a "love affair" with her cell phone. Seven minutes of 'cute' jokes regarding her 'young and passionate affair' with her cell phone and how it disconnected her from the real world were the perfect topic to engage the somewhat elderly audience, who no doubt still think mobile phones are the devil.

By the end of the first round I was thoroughly disappointed. Here I was hoping for some really stellar oration, but instead we were sent to Dramatist's Anonymous. Perhaps my definition of a 'speech' is different from what the Toastmaster's organisation believes it to be, because in my definition, there has to be some tangible point to be given across, and that should be the focus of the speech. Instead, by the evenings end, it was clear to me that the panel and indeed the audience in general gave points for the most endearing, theatrical and dramatic performer. When the second round came around, the contestants had to give a 2 minute speech on "Love and War". My friend absolutely crashed and burned here, and I wasn't surprised; he is much more comfortable giving longer speeches where he can drive his point home. However, the remaining four did their best to make his speech look good, floundering around and doing their best to distract the judges once again with grand theatrics, stomping around the stage and trying to squeeze cheap laughter out of the audience with bizarre facial expressions.

There's a very strange misconception about what 'good English' should sound like, and it seems to have been instilled in us from our drama teachers and English teachers, who in turn have been influenced by the BBC. For some reason, we have this idea that to speak 'good' English, we have to speak with a British accent, and this was very evident during the programme; all four of the girls spoke in an identical accent! I have never been in the same room with four people that spoke that way, and it made me question why people had a problem with my Indian accent. Hey, I'm half-Indian and I lived and studied there; when were you working in the Queen's kitchen?

Bottom line: communication in this day and age is still key, despite the growth of digital media. Being able to stand in a room and deliver what you have to say is vital to success in any arena, and if we want to be successful individuals, we can't let ourselves believe that the theatrics exhibited at the All Island Best Speakers contest are necessary for that. Also, our accent and our pronunciation shouldn't need to be amputated for us to speak in a public forum. As long as we pronounce the words correctly, I don't see why we need to emulate our ancient conquerors.


T said...

Harsh! It's not as easy as it looks!

Namali Premawardhana said...

LOL! wish i took your warning seriously :P

Gehan said...

T - I know, it really is hard to do so, but at the same time I expect something more when these are supposedly the top 5 speakers in the country!

Namali - what warning? I warn you about stuff all the time, you never listen.

Angel said...

So who won? (Or am I missing the obvious?)

Gehan said...

Angel - Haha it was Contestant No.5; the adorable "love affair with a cellphone" clearly worked for her

Chanaka Palliyaguru said...

Love the phrase - "genuine as a Gucci bag bought in Pettah."

Jack Point said...

Ha ha. Its possible to teach presentation but the quality of the content is going to depend on the mind of the speaker.

The company I used to work for had a toastmaster's club headed by a completely batty woman, something I could never quite reconcile her presence in such a club with her ordinary thinking processes at work.

I think I know what the problem is now...

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