12 Dec 2017 17:02 IST

‘To be a good speaker, begin by being a good listener’

Mark Brown, a world champion of public speaking, on how to be an effective communicator

It would help young managers immensely if they listen carefully to what people are saying, before they start talking. “Most of those listening to a conversation are just waiting to start talking,” says Mark Brown, a US-based accomplished public speaker. “Very often, good ideas and solutions can come from your subordinates if you listen to them. Communicate clearly and effectively and try to eliminate nebulous terms,” says Brown.

He should know a thing or two about speaking. In 1995, Brown triumphed in a contest involving 20,000 people from 14 countries to win the Toastmasters World Championship of Public Speaking. Since then, he has been a globetrotter, speaking on a variety of subjects — to over 1.5 million people at last count — across five continents. He was in Chennai recently to speak at Reverberation 2017, the semi-annual conference of District 82 of Toastmasters International.

Elaborating on the importance of being clear in one’s communication, Brown says, “Suppose you say, ‘I need this ASAP’. In some people’s minds, ASAP can mean as soon as possible for me based on my current set of priorities. However, be specific and say, ‘Can I get this by 2 pm tomorrow afternoon’. Specificity leads to clarity.”

Specificity and clarity

Even in today’s day of email and WhatsApp, sometimes, it’s quicker to communicate with a phone call. The person you connect with may have no background of what you are emailing about, so it’s better to talk and set the context. “Is the email or SMS communication clear enough and do your colleagues understand it? Sometimes, poor communication can lead to poor planning and perhaps, a poor product and can cost a lot of money. So, listen carefully, communicate with clarity, mind how you send emails and text messages. What’s best is to have a conversation with somebody,” is Brown’s advice to young managers on effective communication.

While speaking to an audience, Brown says, it’s important to know who the audience is and understand what their perspective is. “Put yourself in their shoes and think how your words can help them reach a certain goal or gain information or entertain them. In addition, one has to be sure that one’s message is valid. They will appreciate that more. Learning to have eye contact, to pause, build a relationship with the audience and have a conversation with them, these are skills that one can learn,” he elaborates.

One can certainly learn and train to be an effective speaker. Brown speaks from experience, having left Jamaica for the US when he was 18. “I could not speak well. My voice would trail off but, over time and through Toastmasters, I gained the confidence to speak clearly and believed that my voice should be heard.”

Addressing audiences

Brown himself prepares carefully to address different audiences. First, learn who the audience is. “I have now spoken for over 20 years. I talk to young people aged 12 to 18, including secondary school students; to prepare, I use references that a 13-year-old can understand and relate to. With a business audience, my material and approach is different. A lot of it has to do with the research. Find out what is important to them (the audience) and customise and tailor your talk to that need. Build a connect with the listeners,” he explains. All good leaders are powerful communicators, he says. They speak well and learn to listen and be aware of what’s going on around them and what the opinions of their subordinates are. “It’s about how my team can accomplish things together,” he adds.

Communication and India

Brown stresses the importance of English as the language of business communication the world over.

In India on his second visit, Brown sees a hunger for excellence in communication. “I have seen people work hard on their communication skills as they realise that, to be a leader, you have to learn to communicate effectively with subordinates, stakeholders and clients. They want to communicate their ideas, vision and goals clearly. There’s a desire for excellence as they know how effective they can be if they communicate well. Many Toastmasters are also members of corporate clubs and they use the skills they learn here in the real world of business,” explains the orator.

Ask him if he’s ever at a loss for words, and Brown says, laughing, “I’m married!” Then says, “Rarely am I at a loss for words, but I do take the words I deliver very seriously. Many people need to consider the power of the pause. Take some time to gather your thoughts before you deliver what you want to say. And then formulate your answer.”