Tony Otoa on Public Speaking

In the 42 days of lockdown, Robert Kabushenga (RK) is taking off time to run a daily mentorship program called #40DayMentor hosted on his Twitter spaces. In this episode he hostComrade Otoa  (CO) to talk on Public Speaking.

RK: I want to start by thanking you for agreeing to take on this in more ways than one. The discussion earlier on the timeline was very vibrant. Public speaking is one of those skills that people quietly struggle with yet you must be able to make your case. Let’s get to you now, where does your journey of public speaking begin?

CO: My father Tony Otoa Sr loved politics. Whenever it got to 6 pm, he would tune in to Focus on Africa on BBC and listen. That is where I first picked interest from. He later got into the politics of Jinja in 1994. And everyone just liked him for how he spoke.

When I joined Namasagali College in 1994, the guys who had vibes were those who could speak.  I was a very shy guy. In Namasagali, oral poetry was part of the exams and one had to exercise public speaking before the entire class. I was hardly in class to participate in any of those. I was more of an entrepreneur. I used to go out to buy fish, we used to call it Sankara and chapatti. I would get them and sell them to the students. That got me expelled.  I was transferred to Lake View Secondary School, a very strict school. Then, it was run by a nun called Sr. Mary Luiz who was very strict. Coming from Namasagali to this small school created an opportunity for me to stand out.

I remember, in S2, one of the Muslim leaders from Bugembe came to speak at school and he told me one day I’d make a great speaker. In senior 2, I started debating. In S3, I interfaced with Asuman Basalirwa who was from Butiki at that time.

I then joined Busoga College Mwiri for A level and it was such a big school. There were all these bougie boys and I thought this was going to be a very hard place to navigate. I decided that I was going to get into politics. I joined the debating society and then I decided to become a prefect as well. I joined a friend Chris Tugume with whom we could debate about philosophical ideas. That is where the name Comrade came from. I could not stand for head prefect because I was Catholic. I went for one of those easy slots.

RK: Why didn’t you go for food prefect?

CO: They say never trust a small chef. I was such a small guy. Nonetheless, I decided to form a faction of prefects who could be on my side, a shadow government of sorts. We called it the Bakwriri Community.  I don’t even remember what it meant. We would always buy a bottle of Bond 7 and drink it on Friday evening. We were very critical. The other faction had the good guys. They were the members of the Scripture Union.  

RK: Where does the public speaking journey take you?

CO: I really hate to say this but I orchestrated a strike for a bus we had been paying for but had not yet arrived. I was privileged with a friend Dan Barungi to own mobile phones which we used to coordinate the strike. We coordinated the strike and I got expelled. The head teacher George Semivule was so disappointed.

My father, on our way out of the school, says, I know you are going through a lot but I know something will come through for you. This was a week before mocks. I just sat home and started fishing.

One day, I went to my mother and told her I wanted to commit suicide. She just told me to get my father’s gun and shoot myself.

I was able to be admitted to sit for exams but I was lost. I refused to join the university when the results were out. I was just uninterested. Three years later, I joined Makerere University to study political science but I quit after a semester. I just wanted to find something that could make my father happy.

RK: What about you, what did you want for yourself?

CO: I did not bother with what made me happy at the moment. I decided to become a journalist. At that time, I owned a recorder that I used to walk with. Whenever I would see kavuyoo, I would stop and record it. Then I would run to Monitor FM, I wanted to work with that radio station.  There was a lady called Racheal Mugarura who was in charge of the news, I would take my recordings to her but she always bounced me.

This one Saturday, there was a procession from City Square to Uganda House led by the late Aggrey Awori. Then out of the blue, there were gunshots and chaos in the middle of the city. That year, a journalism student called Jimmy Higenyi gets killed. I ran to Nkrumah Road to get access to Monitor FM at Crown House.  I found Racheal and asked her to listen to it and she liked it. She transcribed the story and read it as breaking news.

Rachael asked me to come back to the station on Monday to write down the whole story. I had never used a computer. I managed to rise to the ranks in journalism and less than a year later, I was a political reporter for Monitor FM and the newspaper. The same year I was voted the youngest press secretary general for the Parliamentary Press Association.

Then Timothy Kalyegira comes in to change the radio station into a music station. I decided to change course. I decided to take on the challenge. He appointed me as a DJ for Friday and Saturday nights. My studio name was Black Daddy Sugar Love aka the coolest Lango South of Karuma the gal dem sugar.

Those were the times when it was CDs or mini disks but it was an interesting time. It was a very good opportunity to grow my public speaking skills. Around the same time, a friend of mine Frank Nyakairu was having a hard time with the government but he was a big political reporter. He allowed me to cover some of his stories from Kisangani Congo which opened up my eyes to politics. But at the same time, I got bored of the trade.

I knew Hillary Bamulinde and he relay inspired me a lot. He would go to the UK and come back with all these cool things. I went to my father and told him of my plans but he was not buying any of that. I had to get guys on Nasser Road to help me secure the needed documents.

I went for the interview and I had just learned the word ‘apparently’. All the questions I was asked, I began with apparently and that’s how I got my visa.

Rukwengye Benjamin (RB): Tony, why do you think public speaking is important for people who want to get into public space? 2) What is the starting point for someone who wants to start on their public speaking?  

CO: Public speaking will always make you stand out wherever you go. Many people have great ideas but they cannot articulate them. If you cannot speak for your idea or product, it must be overwhelmingly good to speak for itself. Public speaking sets you apart from your competition. People are very visual and it helps to attract them to your speech. Public Speaking is important for everyone. It is important to understand that it gives you confidence

RK: Speaking of confidence, some people are worried about being nervous, what would you tell them?

CO: Everyone is nervous. Even the best speakers are nervous. I am nervous whenever I am getting on stage. Let me tell you this Robert, I have spoken at hundreds of conferences and events but I still get nervous.

RK: So how do you deal with it?

CO: Understand that;

  1. It is normal
  2. Deep breathe in
  3. You need to be able to understand what you are speaking about. What I normally do; I normally think of the end.  Your delivery will depend on what you want to achieve at the end.

RK: You talked about people clapping, what about as Sandor Lyle asked; when people are snoring, how do you get them back?

CO: It is really about reading your audience.  

RK: How do you read the audience?

CO: Before going for your speaking engagement, understand your audience. Who are they? When you understand your audience it is very easy to articulate something that is in tune with what they desire. It is like being invited to address primary school kids, they have a very small attention span.

RK: How do you address them?

CO: Through storytelling. Storytelling is the only way you will get people captivated and listening to you till the end.

RK: How about if I have bombastic words, voca and I assure the audience with my big words?

CO: It goes back to understanding your audience. You are not going to bring your kafunda vibe to a big meeting. Your language, etiquette, and how you present yourself are key. 

Great speakers always push for an idea, agenda, and something they can articulate.

You need to personalise the stage. Usually, I talk to a few members of the audience and get their names. You can refer to those people and engage with them.

Sarah Success: When do you know you can earn from your public speaking skills?

CO: I only started earning from speaking engagements about 6 years ago, I could be invited to so many events and I decided to earn from it. I was spending a lot of time on this and I thought what if I earn from it. This is something I was willing to go the extra mile to learn.

I have gone to the lengths to learn from great speakers. At the end of the day, this can as well be my work.  I have a day job but I still have something to fall back to.

Anita Karrisa: There are times you just freeze when you have your points, how do you deal?

CO: It is about practice. I have been invited to speak at many audiences and I have to practice. Own your stage.

RK: Let me also add that the practice you talk about also involves writing what you are going to say in the language in which you are going to say it many times over.

CO: Absolutely. I am not a fan of clubs that have a set idea of how to do a speech. When you learn your flow and work with what works for you, you can have that confidence on the stage and the stage and stammering goes away.

Find your flow. Just practice. If you have kids, practice before them.

Peter Odeke: When you have to face the panel, especially at a job interview? What tips do you have for people who face the panel?

CO: Interviews are very interesting. A lot of times, they are not about where you went to school or how you started and all that. The panel just wants to understand who you are. Be authentic. Be you. Do you. It is okay to be vulnerable. Do not confuse so much confidence with being able to do what you do. Sometimes people talk too much and it is not good. Articulate what you value you are bringing on board. Articulate who you are and what you can do. And what you need to perform that task. If you do that, in my opinion, it sets you apart.

Jem Nalumansi: What is the most embarrassing or worst thing that has happened to you during a public speech?

CO: Having joined Total E&P as a very young guy, I cracked a joke that was not good. The chairman Fred Kabanda called me out. For once it made me think about how I was delivering my speech. Normally, I will go to the stage and pause, and let the audience settle down. Looking back at it, I think I did not read my audience. Your stories should be relevant to the topic.

RK: If you do not know how to deliver sexual jokes and gender-related and ethnic jokes, stay away from them.

Fred K: Which are those aides you can use and which ones should you avoid? How do you balance a virtual audience without an audience?

CO: I am very anti-slides. The audience usually pays attention to what you show them than look at you. Always maximise the opportunity to make yourself the centre of attention when you are presenting.

Geoffrey Mutabazi: When you are an entrepreneur, how do you qualify for speaking engagements?

CO: For public speaking engagements that I believe are for the betterment of the world or a cause, I will easily do pro bono without even wasting my time. We need to understand that using such opportunities is a great opportunity not only to improve your public speaking skills but also your networks.

Agnes Mukoyo: What advice would you give a young person passionate about public speaking but does not have a name for themselves?

CO: We all have a gift. Speak about that thing you are passionate about and people will invite you to speak.  

Allen Asiimwe: Are speakers born? I know speakers can be made, but could you talk about how to make a better speaker?

2) Talk about how to speak in context.

CO: Human beings are naturally emotional. People are not moved by graphs and numbers. Start telling stories that are memorable and make people connect with them. But do not make your story too dramatic. Just make it relevant and precise.

Co: On body language, you can speak so well but if your body language is not in sync, people will not get impacted by your speech. People will read your body language easily. People connect with you. If you hide behind the podium, people will connect with what you say but with you. It is very important to use your body language to demonstrate what you are saying.

Maureen Agena: How do you deal with too much gesturing when talking?

CO: Gesturing is very important but has to be to a certain level because the more gestures you make, the more destructing you are. You have to it well. How you stand on the stage tells a lot about you.

Fiona Ssozi: About language, where do we draw the line in regards to speaking to an audience well knowing English is not our first language?

James Okwera: how do you handle a situation where your time runs out before you can say what you want to say?

Mary Apolot: At what point did you take public speaking professionally?

Asasirra: How do you handle challenges?

Mwijukye: Did he ever go back to school?

Edmund Kamugisha: How do you deal with the negative energy in the room?

Damali Ssali: What are the basic steps to give to someone who wants to join public speaking. 2) Why are there fewer women public speakers?

Joan Gakuweire: To an entrepreneur who has just started, how do they start?

Dr Judith Kabajulizi: What can we do to deliberately inculcate public speaking in more of the young stars?

Pamela Kajumba: On emotions, how is someone able to control emotions while speaking, how are you able to stop that?

Rukwengye: Boundless Minds has a digital platform called the Mentor. We have a platform called where there is a module on public speaking.

There are modules on the platform as well.

RK: Thank you for the time you have shared with us.

CO: Thank you for the opportunity.

Note: On Saturday 31 July 2021 from 10 am to midday, Tony will be running a session on public speaking we shall go through the process of how to make a speech.

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