Sunday, February 17, 2013

TedxGCT 2013 - My speech on "Unchartered Waters"

Speech delivered at TedxGCT on 16th February 2013

“You don’t have to be GREAT to START, but you’ve to START to be GREAT” a powerful quote from Zig Ziglar. 6 years ago, I couldn’t have imagined standing in front of a large audience like this and deliver a speech in English. From someone who had difficulty in communicating in English to someone who can deliver a speech to a large audience, the transformation was mind blowing.

Organizers, respected dignitaries and my dear students …

Today, I’m going to share with you some interesting events from my life that helped me to become a better speaker.

First attempt to improve my communication skills

Let me take you to the year 1996, the place was GCT, Coimbatore … one of the class rooms in the ground floor of the main building... It was a Friday evening. I was a youngster, then. Yes! I had lots of hair at that time. I dropped into a meeting of Literary & Debate Society (also called as LDS). That was my first attempt to develop my communication skills. I saw a bunch of students from various classes and years. I knew some of them, but most of them were strangers to me. I occupied a seat in a remote corner of the room. The meeting started. Suddenly, one of my seniors called me to the stage to be part of a group discussion. I got very nervous... I didn't want to say "No!" I felt that "Others may think badly of me". I went to the stage and sat with a group of other students. The topic that was given to us for group discussion was "Brain Drain". Those days, a number of Indians were leaving to USA at that time for work/studies. So, that was the popular topic at that time. First of all, I didn't know "What Brain Drain" means... Second of all, I was not adroit at handling impromptu-speaking situations like that.

Imagine that you are a student and you get a question in the exam for which you don’t know the answer. What would you do? You'll start writing what you know... So, I assumed that "Brain Drain" means, "Brain losing its memory capacity" and I started talking about "You should eat healthy food for you to have good memory capacity" and everyone in the hall started laughing.

I was shocked. I started sweating... I didn't know what mistake I did... however, I knew that I'm not making sense to the audience... My lips were sealed... The flow of words from my mouth completely stopped. I didn't utter any word after that. That was my first and last visit to Literary & Debate Society in our college. My dreams of becoming a better speaker, shattered into pieces, like a jar that was dropped on the floor.

How did my lack of communication skills affect me?

Time went by… It was my final year - the year of graduation. Companies visit colleges to recruit people during the final year of the course. Like most of you, I had a dream company in my mind, to work for, after completing my studies. Some of my close friends were also interested to get a job from this company.
We were eagerly waiting for this company to show up for campus recruitment. We had always dreamed about getting a job in this company, going to BANGALORE, renting a house and starting our new life. The company is WIPRO TECHNOLOGIES. 

It was July 1997, the college had just re-opened after the holidays. Wipro had come to our campus on that day. My friends & I were eagerly waiting for this day for almost 3 years. We were so excited to hear that WIPRO is in our campus. We worked hard and prepared well, to get into WIPRO. We were given the written tests, first. Then, we were shortlisted for the technical interviews. My friends & I were very happy because all of us were shortlisted for the interviews.

I was asked to first attend the HR Interview. I walked into the interview hall. The HR manager was a senior guy in his mid 40s. During the interviews, he asked me “What do you think of Wipro?". I immediately answered ... "Wipro has less number of more competent people".... while my intention was to say "Wipro has less people... but all of them had more competence".

For another question about team work, I said "I know how to extract work from people... even if they are not motivated"... while my intention was to say "I know how to motivate people to get the job done ". When the interview results were announced, I came to know that I was not selected. I was completely disappointed and dejected. Imagine how it would feel like, when you don't get your dream job ... The one for which you've been dreaming for 3 years.

My communication skills costed my dream job. While all of my friends got selected in Wipro, I was left out. My dream of joining Wipro burned into ashes.

What forced me to improve my communication skills?

Fortunately, I attended the off campus interviews at HCL Technologies and got a job. I worked for HCL for nearly 4 years and moved to Silicon Valley, in USA. Valley is a place filled with people who dream big… who venture into exciting things… people who pursue their entrepreneurial dreams. Looking at those entrepreneurs, I started dreaming about starting my own company and becoming the Chief Executive Officer (CEO).

I thought I should prepare myself for becoming a CEO. One of our college seniors advised, “Saro… If you continue to do what you do, you’ll continue to get what you get”. If you really want to be the CEO of a company, you should consider doing an MBA and groom yourself. In about 2 years, I completed my part time MBA. However, I still felt that I’m missing something. I was obsessed with the thought of becoming a CEO. I started following and carefully observing a number of CEOs from big corporations. All of them had one skill in common. They were all great communicators. That is when I realized… “If you want to be a CEO… you’ll have to talk like a CEO… you should know how to inspire and motivate your team like a CEO”. In fact, I was ashamed to call myself an MBA, without having the ability to talk fluently in English.  I saw communication as a HUGE MOUNTAIN that is blocking me from reaching my dreams.

Drenching the feet in Unchartered Waters

I started looking at ways of improving my communication skills.

My close friend introduced me to Toastmasters… a non-profit organization that helps people develop their communication skills. I joined Toastmasters… in September 2006.

That is when I started drenching my feet into the unchartered waters. I learned 2 key lessons in my journey to become a better speaker:

1.      Habits Come in Series
·         Speaking is a skill that is similar to cycling or swimming. You cannot learn swimming by reading a book or by standing near the shores. You’ll have to jump into the water to learn swimming. Similarly, you can improve your speaking skills only by speaking. Toastmasters provided me a platform to practice my speaking skills and get feedback on my performance.
·         The toastmasters club that I joined had a number of Americans. During the initial days,
1.      I was finding it difficult to come up with content for delivering speeches
2.      It was hard for me to follow the English spoken by American speakers
3.      It was hard for me to write speech scripts using good English grammar
·         I started getting help from my fellow club members and mentors. They told me “You’ve been used to speaking in Tamil for so long… your ears, your tongue and your brain are accustomed to Tamil. You’ll have to train them now to get accustomed to the English language”.
·         They gave me a number of practical tips to improve my language skills.
1.      I started reading English newspapers loudly to train my tongue.
2.      I started reading one new word everyday… to improve my vocabulary. In fact, it is funny… Earlier when I want to appreciate someone or something I used to say “It is good…” or if it is much better… I’ll say “It is very very good”. Today, I can use words like “outstanding, amazing, extraordinary, incredible, brilliant” … to appreciate people. It definitely makes a difference.
3.      I developed the habit of reading books, to find content for my speeches.
4.      I started writing a blog to improve my writing skills
5.      I started listening to Podcasts and Audio Books to improve my listening skills.
Before joining toastmasters, I used to waste a lot of time in browsing Internet, chit-chatting and in watching movies. After joining toastmasters, I became more disciplined and started using my time well. In about 2 years, I noticed that I’m surrounded by a number of good habits like reading books, writing blogs, reading newspapers etc., It all started with the 1 habit that I brought into my life… joining toastmasters.
You bring in “one good habit into your life”… it will bring in a number of other good habits”. You bring in “one bad habit into your life… it will bring in a number of other bad habits”.

Habits always come in series.

2.      Small things make perfection, but perfection is not a small thing
·         I got regular feedback from my fellow club members on how to become an expert speaker. They helped me to focus on the nuances of communication. To give you a sample of the techniques that I was taught… There is a lot of difference between saying “I had a great vacation” and “I had a great vacation”. I constantly incorporated feedback from my club members and practiced regularly.
·         In about two years, I started seeing the transformation in myself due to repeated practice. Earlier, I used to think in Tamil, translate that into English and then convey my thoughts. My rigorous training, helped me to start thinking in English right at the first time.
·         All the small things that I focused on produced results – how to write a speech script, how to organize the speech, how to use the stage, how to establish eye contact…
·         You won’t believe … I became the “Winner of the Speaking Contest” that was held in our club in 2009. “Small things make perfection, but perfection isn’t a small thing”. I was very happy when I won the speech contest at my club. That night, when I went home with a trophy in my hand… I got reminded of my experience in Literary & Debate Society. I told myself “Saro! You are not stopping this until you become a DTM…”
·    I continued my journey towards excellence in communication & leadership. Along the way, I helped mentor a few members to achieve their dreams of becoming a better speaker.
·        In the year 2012, I was given the prestigious Distinguished Toastmaster Award. For every 1000 members who aspire to become a DTM and join toastmasters, only 3 get it.

Today, I’m even close to achieving my dream of becoming a CEO. “When you really want something, the whole universe conspires in helping you to achieve it”… says the Alchemist. Looking back in my life, I can understand the truth behind this quote.

Dear friends, if you are dreaming about something in your life… if you are passionate of achieving something in your life… Get started, NOW! Remember… “You don’t have to be GREAT to START. But, you’ve to START, to be GREAT”.