Allison Shapira: Armenians can be incredible public speakers

08.07.2016 | 10:50 Home / News / Interviews /

Banks.am talked to Allison Shapira, Lecturer at Harvard Kennedy School and public speaking expert.

- You recently led public speaking training for CBA staff. Do you think the training served its purpose?

- I know that the bank invests heavily in its staff’s development and training programs, and this is one of them. I can say with certainty that this three and a half day training was effective. We saw progress in such a short amount of time, and the participants definitely improved from one speech to the next. I believe it will be useful for the specialists, and I hope they will continue to use the skills they learned during the program.

- People understand the concept of public speaking differently. How do you define “public speaking”?

- I define public speaking as any time we speak in front of an audience, regardless of its size. Examples of public speaking involve presentations, conferences, as well as speaking in front of colleagues, friends, or family members. Our conversation is an example too.

Public speaking can differ depending on the size of the audience, its national identity, and other circumstances. Nevertheless, there are certain universal skills for any situation, and that is what I introduced to the CBA staff.

I am sure of one thing - everyone needs public speaking skills. It doesn’t matter what country you’re living in, what language you speak, whether you’re a journalist or a statistician. We use those skills at every stage of our professional development, and those skills help us in our personal life as well - to interact with our family and friends.

By mastering public speaking skills, we become more confident in who we are and can then share who we are with others.

- How did you decide to give lectures in Armenia? Do you plan on giving another training here?

- This is my first visit to Armenia. My graduate school was the Harvard Kennedy School, and I had Armenian classmates who invited me to speak, so it was a wonderful opportunity.  

There are no definite plans; however, if I see there is an opportunity, I’d love to come back in the future.

- I suppose you’ve become familiar with Armenians’ potential for public speaking while you were working with CBA. Do you think Armenians are good speakers?

- I think everyone has the capacity to be a great public speaker. In my work with the Central Bank, I met incredibly smart people. I was very impressed with their interest, dedication, love for their country, and passion for their work. When you take all these qualities and bring them on stage with you, then you become a very powerful speaker.

My experience working with the CBA showed me that Armenians can be great public speakers.

- Apart from being a public speaking coach, you are also an opera singer.  How did you manage to take up such different professions? Did singing help you overcome the fear of speaking in public?

- They actually have many similarities. When I left opera and went into public speaking, I realized that everything that I had learned as a singer was relevant in public speaking. I was able to stand on stage confidently, without fear. I also learned the proper way of breathing during my singing years, which empowers my voice and projects it across the room.


Allison Shapira

- So breathing is essential for successful public speaking, isn’t it?

- It definitely is. You must have noticed that when you get nervous before speaking, you forget to breathe or you start breathing quickly, and that nervousness makes it difficult to speak effectively and focus on your message. Therefore, it’s very important to focus on breathing beforehand; it will calm you down and control your nervousness.

- What role does body language play in public speaking?


- Body and facial gestures are very important in public speaking. We must make sure our body language is speaking the same language as our words. Public speaking is successful if what we say with our words is the same as what we say with our body.

Body language is also something cultural; the same gesture can mean different things in different countries. It’s always important to understand the norms of body language in a foreign country to ensure that we don’t offend anyone.

Specifically, eye contact can be different in different countries. In some cultures, men and women don’t make eye contact with one another for long periods of time. So when I am on stage giving a speech, as a woman I might not make lingering eye contact with a man because I could be misinterpreted; in the Middle East see that kind of sensitivity.

- What you can say about specific body language in Armenia?

- As much as I managed to observe, body language in Armenia is very similar to that of other countries. People like to use their hands, make eye contact and smile when they speak.

There’s an opinion that you can’t bring that body language on stage. But my message to them is that they can bring that body language with them. My goal is to help people be the same person on stage as they already are off stage.

- Are you born a good public speaker or do you become one?

- You don’t have to be born a good public speaker. Public speaking is a skill, not a talent. It’s like playing football or playing violin: the more you practice, the better you get.

- What does one need to succeed in public speaking?

- First, you need to be passionate. It takes a great deal of time and practice. You need to be passionate and dedicated to improving your public speaking skills. You need to have a purpose for speaking. It has to be important to you in order for you to make it important to your audience.

You also need to believe in yourself and have confidence in your ability to give a speech. My goal is to help people understand that everyone has a right to speak.


Allison Shapira

- Where did you find the best public speakers?

- I give lectures and lead workshops all over the world - Japan, South Africa, Uganda, Argentina, Israel, Northern Ireland and many other countries. I can’t say there is one country that has the best public speakers. I met wonderful speakers in every country I visited. The skills that make you a good public speaker have nothing to do with where you come from or the language you speak.

When a person has a message and takes the time to build skills in learning how to deliver the message, then they are incredibly powerful public speakers. I’ve found amazing public speakers in every country I have worked in.

- What did you like in Armenia the most?

- The toasts. They are a great example of public speaking. They bring people together and help us celebrate what we have.

And, of course, Armenian apricots.

- What would you recommend for people to do to improve their public speaking skills?

- First and foremost you need to take time to prepare for speaking. Sometimes we just stand up and give a speech with no preparation at all. It is very important to spend at least 30 minutes to an hour preparing your speech, then practicing in front of a mirror, or your friends, or by videotaping the speech.

Before giving a speech, you need to determine who the audience is, what your goal is, and why you are motivated to speak on this topic.

Finally, while speaking, remember to breathe. The right breathing will help you speak with a powerful and confident voice. This is something we can all learn.

Siranush Simonyan talked to Allison Shapira
Photos by Emin Aristakesyan

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