Some time ago, Gunita Bhasin sent me a link to her TEDx talk, given last summer at Southbank International School, asking me for feedback, which I thought was a pretty daring thing to do, since I get called the Simon Cowell of speech coaching by some who have worked with me.  Let me get the suspense over with immediately:  Ms Bhasin is a poised, confident speaker and she does a good job with the talk. 

With that out of the way, let’s take it apart.  She begins with some interactive moves that work well for her audience, which I’m guessing is mostly students.  She asks them to shut their eyes and remember when they were (young) children.  Before that, she begins with a question – and avoids the classic mistake of a nervous speaker, not waiting for an answer.  Even if it’s only a rhetorical question, as this one was, you need to leave a pause after asking so that the audience feels like it has room to answer – or maybe even begins to think perhaps they’re supposed to answer. 

The interactivity is a good start. 

Then she does something that shows she really has been working on her craft.  She moves deliberately after the opening interaction to a different part of the stage, to start her next section.  Moving in this deliberate way is an excellent form of speaking stagecraft because it signals to the audience – like a paragraph break in prose – that a new subject is being discussed.  That’s helpful for the audience following along as best it can.

Now, to be sure, she makes the move a little too deliberate, and she waits until she gets to her new spot before starting – just a bit too long.  As a result, the move looks stagey.  She should have started talking after she began moving but before she got to her destination.  (Simon Cowell moment #1)

She’s also mainly gesturing with her left hand, in a fist, in a way that doesn’t match the mood of her opening comments.  What’s happening is that she’s holding the clicker in her other hand, and so unconsciously is freezing that hand in place.  But it’s normal for people to gesture symmetrically for the most part.  We only gesture asymmetrically when we’re really upset, clearly admonishing someone else, or deranged.  Hence, since Gunita is none of those things, the gesture is slightly askew from her message. (Simon Cowell moment #2.)

My dad always liked to tell the story of scaring away a Himalayan brown bear that was attacking him on a trek in that part of the world by shaking both fists at it and shouting “hullaballoo!” which was the first thing that came to his mind.  He never appreciated it when I told him that his body language would have been more effective if he’d shaken only one fist at a time at the bear.  He pointed out, fairly enough, that two fists worked and that he was alive to tell the tale. 

For the rest of us, when we’re not scaring away bears, gesturing symmetrically is the bees’ knees.  Gunita goes on to deliver a great message about following your passion.  It’s hardly a novel message, but she makes it work by talking frankly of the many setbacks she experienced along the way, how she almost lost heart and gave up, and how she changed tactics several times in order to keep persevering. 

The content feels real, her startup is providing a useful service, and her delivery is strong.  Her image of “Two steps forward, one step back,” is a variant of the old saying of “One step forward, two steps back,” which Lenin used in a 1904 address to the nascent Bolshevik movement.  So I can only give her kudos for being more optimistic than Comrade Lenin.  And the whole speech is worth watching for the great moment at 10:21, when she makes an announcement that brings a spontaneous round of applause from the audience and a genuine smile to her face. 

Ms Bhasin closes her speech by coming back to the idea of following one’s dreams, encouraging her audience not to give up in the face of certain obstacles and setbacks.  It’s a good talk and the beginning of a promising career as a public speaker. 

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