Public Speaking Made Easy

Former TV anchor Mihir Mankad offers advice to make your next speech effective—and maybe even fun

Mihir Mankad knows how to perform under pressure. The son and grandson of star athletes (his mother was the first woman to represent India at Wimbledon and his father and grandfather played on the national cricket team), he grew up playing tennis, and excelled. A member of India’s junior national team and Stanford’s NCAA national championship varsity team, he even considered going pro. But he instead pursued an MBA and a career in consulting, before breaking into television anchoring in India. Just six months later, he was asked to anchor live broadcasts of the 2008 Olympics, with daily audiences of more than 30 million people.

“They gave me seven to eight hours of live anchoring each day,” said Mankad, whose TV appearances up to that point had all been pre-scripted. “It was quite a challenge, but I figured this was a break for me, and my life didn’t depend on it, so I was more relaxed than other ‘career’ anchors.” That ability to relax and enjoy himself helped him juggle facts about the more than 11,000 athletes, 300 events, and forty sports that make up the Olympic Games. From a childhood love of elocution classes and debate competitions—as well as from the ups and downs of his tennis career—he had learned something he now tells students: “Don’t make it too serious. If you’re not having fun, you’re likely still not doing it right.”

Mankad went on to anchor broadcasts of the 2010 Delhi Commonwealth Games and the 2011 Cricket World Cup, which also drew tens of millions of viewers, as well as prime-time business news broadcasts for top Indian cable news channel NDTV. In another career swerve, he devoted a couple of years to leading the Clinton Foundation’s India office, providing life-saving medicine and services to more than 30,000 children with HIV, and then earned a master’s degree in public administration at Harvard.

Since 2013, Mankad has merged his interests in media and management as a professor of the practice at The Fletcher School, where he teaches wildly popular communication courses for graduate students, coaches faculty for media appearances, and offers executive education to diplomats and central bank officials from around the globe. His courses cover a range of scenarios, such as impromptu speaking, elevator pitching, debates, and media management. Students are hungry to learn these skills to help them succeed, whether in diplomacy, policy, or business careers. Ahead, the award-winning professor and deputy director of Fletcher’s Edward R. Murrow Center for a Digital World offers his advice on acing public speaking without breaking a sweat.

  1. Prepare hard, then relax. “There are no shortcuts,” Mankad said. For a four-minute speech, he recommends that his students devote at least ten hours to preparation, to craft a speech “that will make your grandchildren proud.” Practice in front of groups as much as you can to get feedback and improve your presentation. But in the last day or so, set aside your worries about doing it right and try simply to enjoy yourself.
  2. Work with time. The speed of speech is between two and a half and three words per second, and you cannot cheat it. In five minutes, you can therefore deliver about 800 words. But most people don’t have a good sense of this, so they may ramble too long or end too soon. Be realistic about the time you have and plan accordingly.
  3. Balance logic, emotion, and credibility. These three modes of rhetorical appeal (logos, pathos, and ethos) were first defined by Aristotle, and what worked for the philosopher in ancient Greece still holds true today, Mankad said. If you’re all logic but no emotion, you may come across as stiff. Yet too little logical appeal can make a talk seem shallow. Credibility is often overlooked, but if you focus too much on proving your expertise, you may seem self-centered. Try to offer all three elements.
  4. Use sound bites. Audiences don’t remember as much as you think they do, especially if a speech is long or there are many speakers. So find ways to sum up your ideas in simple, memorable phrases that will stick. Such sound bites can “wake up” your listeners to the key headlines in your presentation.
  5. Make early eye contact. When you walk onstage, quietly take a few moments to look at the audience before speaking. Connect with friendly faces and remember they’re not the enemy. You may fear an epic fail, but “most of the time the audience is empathizing with you, not judging you.” In fact, Mankad said, most listeners are just happy to have someone making any sense up on stage.
  6. Recover from mistakes. Flubbing a line isn’t the end of the world. Being vulnerable can actually endear you to your audience, as long as you pick yourself up and keep going. Which brings us back to the key theme that defines Mankad and his teaching: Once your preparation is behind you, focus on enjoying the process and performance.
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