In a Q&A, the Director of the India Habitat Centre says every communication is about pitching it correctly so that it is received well by the listener on whom you want to make an impact
He has been a television anchor, radio broadcaster, theatre actor and even a music critic. Meet Sunit Tandon, who deftly fits into many moulds such as being the current Director of the India Habitat Centre or President of the Delhi Music Society. In the recent past, he has served as Director of the coveted media college IIMC (Indian Institute of Mass Communication) and CEO of Lok Sabha TV. But public speaking has been a steady companion with Tandon, a skill which got honed further with exposure to theatre and music. Tandon dwells on the finer points of effective communication in an interview with Namrata Kohli. Edited excerpts:
Warren Buffett had said to increase your worth by 50 per cent, you must hone your communication skills—both written and oral. How did you enhance them and where did you start?
This is a very standard belief and a fact. Not only Warren Buffet but people in general have established this over the ages and communication skills have been greatly prized. In ancient Greece and Rome, they used to teach rhetoric as part of the curriculum; which is all about how you communicate with large crowds, how you frame an argument, place it and convince people. It is a subject that has been studied systematically and was taught as part of the curriculum back in the day to school kids and young learners.
To get anywhere in life and to get anything done in life, you need to work with other people and that means communicating–except perhaps writing and painting which are both solitary pursuits. To be successful in any kind of role, whether it’s a leadership role or a subsidiary role, you need to be able to communicate up and down the line and achieve any end. So, communication is absolutely essential and the effectiveness of that communication will enhance your own effectiveness. There are no two ways about it.
I was already interested in activities that involved speaking.
In my case, this just grew organically–I was not seeking to improve my skills. In school, I was made to do elocution and in college, I got interested in theatre. Then I became interested in broadcasting as a natural corollary to speaking in public. Then I had the opportunity to do public speaking on radio, television, and that too on national television. All this helped me. But this was my natural inclination for these activities and I did not set about trying to achieve it as a goal.
What are some of the tips and tricks to improve one’s public speaking?
First of all, know what you want to say. And you must be able to prioritise as to what the most important thing is, and what is less important–what is the shortest, most effective way to communicate and then comes the most effective language. The nuances of pitch, tonality and all of that comes into play.
More important in communication is listening not only in terms of hearing your own voice but also what kind of impact it might be making on others. You must be able to hear and receive before you can communicate. If you are speaking to a live audience, you must be able to sense the live audience mood, as to how much they can take, at what level you have to pitch your conversation to them or whatever you have to say to them. Are they able to take some very sophisticated reasoning? Can they last more than five minutes? These are all calculations which are going on unconsciously in your mind as a communicator. You have to know how much can be received and at what level it can be received. Only then can you pitch whatever you have to say correctly because every communication is about pitching it correctly to be received well by the person who is listening to you, and on whom you want to make an impact. You must have been to many places where people go on and on, they give a long speech until people get bored. Somehow, they don’t seem to sense that everyone is getting bored and they are not taking in anything. That means they lost the plot a long time ago. They have no idea about their audience and they are just speaking for themselves.
Today, whether you’re making a presentation at your workplace or a startup’s elevator pitch or are a guest at some special anniversary or birthday, you can, at any time, be asked to stand on your feet and speak in front of the public intelligently and impressively. How important is it to get coached?
It depends on how much you want to improve and how much you need to hone your skills. Yes, of course any kind of coaching in any sphere of activity is helpful especially if you go to the right kind of people and the right kind of institutions to get that coaching. But it isn’t as if you can’t improve the skills yourself also. If you’re very intelligent and set about practising yourself, you can also do it on your own. But coaching is always required to achieve excellence in most fields. Take the case of sports–even if you are a high-level sportsman, you still need a coach to keep improving. If you want to improve your level in any field, coaching and training have a very important role to play. Else why do actors go to National school of drama? They may be innately very good actors but then they want to hone those skills. In my case, I got opportunities early on and I learnt from my own mistakes, from watching other people-–seeing what other people were doing right and what I was doing wrong. If you are very self-critical, you can improve yourself by observing yourself without any direct coaching.
Let’s talk about theatre and its relationship with speaking skills. You have done some 150 plays with top theatre groups and directed more than 25 plays. Would you say that if someone struggles with shyness or stage fright, acting classes can help them get over the fear of performing before a live audience?
Definitely stage fright is something theatre can help remove if you are interested and dedicated enough to pursue it. When I first went on stage at St Stephens, I found strangely that I had absolutely no stage fright from the first time I stepped on to the stage. This was unlike doing debates or elocution where I still had nervous moments, but in theatre if I have got a part that I have learnt well, moves which are rehearsed, I have been given specific directions to execute and everything is well prepared–-somehow it all seemed so effortless.
Let’s talk about music… if you have a soft voice or have trouble being heard, singing lessons give you the technical tools to overcome that. How does learning how to play or sing help a good speaker?
I only learnt piano in school but didn’t learn singing, so I am not sure. But certainly, if you have a good ear, it will also help you hear your own problems when you are speaking. People have informally asked me to coach them at certain points of time and if I have had the time, I do try to help. I find many people aren’t able to hear themselves clearly. You have to listen to yourself critically if you want to improve. If you do not have the ability to hear what kind of sounds you are making and the difference between that sound and another sound which is what you are being asked to make – to improve yourself then you are going to have a problem. So also, you have to have a good ear if you want to speak well.
In case you play a wind instrument or do active singing, you learn breathing which is critical to both theatre or elocution.
As a speaker, what is the most rewarding and enjoyable part of communication
Enjoyable is if you get your point across and make it effectively. If you send a wrong message, well then, you are not a good communicator. If you are communicating something, you must communicate it clearly, otherwise you really need help. This happens when you are trying to be too clever. What happens is people’s sense of humour is very different and disparate. And when people misunderstand, it means they are undermining the basis of what you are trying to do. Do people misuse communication skills? Gandhi and Hitler both were excellent communicators. I would say, like with any other skill, communication is agnostic. You can communicate good things or bad things or have good or bad intentions. It’s much like technology, it’s a tool and a resource.