Does Spain get a zero in oratory?

The techniques behind successful speechmaking need to be studied and practiced

Experts note that Spaniards make few oral presentations at school

Ana Botella was panned for her speech in English before the International Olympic Committee. / BERNARDO PÉREZ

On July 7, 2005, the day after London won the bid to organize the 2012 Olympic Games, the international media raved about Britain’s brilliant presentation, which ended with a moving speech by the former athlete Sebastian Coe and an ovation from the members of the International Olympic Committee (IOC). “The day Coe won gold” was the headline in The Guardian newspaper. Some analysts even posited that it was this speech that gave London the final edge over Paris, which had been the favorite to win. On that occasion, Madrid was eliminated in the third round of voting, after Moscow and New York.

A little over a week ago, Madrid returned before the IOC in the hopes of hosting the 2020 Games. And the next day, the media and the social networks raved about the Spanish capital’s unimpressive bid, most particularly Mayor Ana Botella’s English-language presentation. While analysts have attributed this latest defeat to other factors, such as Spain’s economic situation and doping scandals, some questions linger. How much did the failed final presentation contribute to the fact that Madrid never even made it to round two of voting? And are Spaniards simply less skilled than other people at public speaking?

“We are neither better nor worse. But we do have a structural deficit caused by the scant importance that our education system grants oratory skills and dialectics; this is particularly well reflected by our political and institutional leaders,” says Antoni Gutiérrez-Rubí, a communications advisor and political consultant. “There might be individuals with more of an innate ability or charisma than others, but nobody is born knowing how to speak in public. That’s something you learn. In France, Britain, Germany and the US, oral examinations are essential, but the Spanish education system has never put any emphasis on oral presentations.”

And, until recently, English was not considered important either, he adds. “As a result, our leaders, who are mostly in their fifties, have been forced to make up for this deficit very quickly, putting in a lot of effort and many hours of training. And those who haven’t done so... well, you can tell. Just look at the rhetorical level of the campaign debates.”

We like to talk, and our culture makes us very sociable and empathetic”

Yet Gutiérrez-Rubí insists that Spaniards are no more challenged than any other nationality when it comes to public speaking. “On the contrary, we have great qualities. We like to talk, and our culture makes us very sociable and empathetic. But being naturally sociable does not prepare you for making a good presentation or debating an idea. You can’t just trust to having a stroke of genius; you have to work at it, just like those Americans who put on genuine shows however minor the presentation they are making.”

The shortcomings in oral expression education are also a matter of concern among university scholars, not just in political circles. “Students arrive here with very poor skills because they’ve never had oral examinations and they’ve never practiced. Most of them are unable to present their ideas, and some couldn’t even make it through a job interview,” notes Adolfo Lucas, a professor of public speaking at several universities and author of the book El poder de la palabra (or, The power of the word).

Lucas is also director of the college debate club Sociedad de Debate de la Universidad Abad Oliva CEU, which he launched during the academic year 2008-2009 to help students hone their skills in expression, argumentation and debate.

“We’re seeing a rise in this type of university club because there is growing awareness of the problem. But since it’s not mandatory, only a few people with a personal interest sign up. It should be part of the core curriculum, or else all students should be forced to make frequent oral presentations,” he argues. “It is just as important to practice public speaking as it is to train yourself to debate. You can always make a good presentation if you really prepare for it, but you will not make a good impression at an event with questions, such as a press conference, if you don’t practice debating.”

Americans put on genuine shows however minor the presentation is”

Practice, practice, practice. This is the only trick suggested by all the advisors and experts in oral communication. “Human beings are not naturally wired to speak in public,” says Antonella Broglia, organizer of TEDx Madrid, a brainstorming conference mirroring the original TEDx in California, which draws some of the world’s most important speakers and entrepreneurs.

“It is an atypical, traumatic event. That is why fear wells up. But if you practice and train a lot, when the time comes to face the audience, your mind will be ready to recognize the situation. It will remember that you’ve done this before, and it will know that you can do it. Maybe you’ll never get quite used to it, and there may always be some fear, but you’ll be able to deal with it without freezing up. In time, like actors say, you may even start enjoying the contact with the audience.”

At TEDx lectures, the main thing is to convey “ideas worth spreading.” Speeches cannot go over 18 minutes. “You have to condense as much as possible. It takes months of training,” notes Broglia. The speaker selection process for the new edition of TEDxMadrid, to be held September 28, began in April.

“The first thing we select is the idea. It’s not enough to be a good speaker; you also need to have something to say. We ask them to explain their idea in half a page, and then we start to debate, to extract the pros and cons. From there, we start developing the speech keeping in mind that you can’t waste any time — you need to get your audience hooked from the start. Then we keep refining the message until we consider it perfect. The last part involves rehearsing. They rehearse several times, and the day before the event, they rehearse on the same stage where they will deliver the actual lecture.”

The ultimate goal of the entire process, says Broglia, to convey a sense of truth, of authenticity. Adolfo Lucas agrees: “It has to sound natural, even if in fact it’s been worked on tremendously.” Non-verbal communication contributes significantly to the message: the gestures, the pauses, the gazes, the clothes. “You can reach the minimum acceptable level quite quickly,” says Lucas. “My oratory students obtain spectacular results in one semester. Getting up to higher levels requires a lot more time.”

But can any person, given enough time, reach that high level of public speaking?

“You can attain professional proficiency. But getting through to your audience at an emotional level is not always possible,” explains Martínez-Rubí. One example: Prince Felipe’s address before the IOC. “Not only was it professional, as all Royal Household speeches are, but it was also moving. First, because of his close personal involvement in sports and the Olympic Games, and secondly because he spent time with the delegation, and that increased motivation levels.”

Authenticity and passion are also required, strange though it may sound, in the world of business. “You need to seduce in order to secure funding,” says Hakan Ener, a professor of entrepreneurial initiative) at IESE business school in Madrid. Now that bank lending has dried up in Spain, he sees renewed interest in learning to seduce investors.

“Most think that it’s enough to have an idea. But it’s not. You need to know how to pitch it. The first thing I ask my students to do is to pitch their idea in a minute, which is how much time an executive usually has to listen without interruption. If they’re not hooked by then, you're lost.”

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