UAE-based public speaker on talking your way to the top

Arab-Canadian public speaking coach and author of The Million Dollar Speaker Maher Elusini on how to make your speech command value for time and money

by

Somya Mehta

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Published: Thu 18 Apr 2024, 10:55 PM

Last updated: Thu 18 Apr 2024, 11:00 PM

In the world of public speaking, there are those who inspire with their words and empower others to find their voice. Then there are those who lead by example. Maher Elusini’s journey from a hesitant newcomer to an esteemed public speaking coach and author serves as a testament to the transformative power of self-education over self-doubt.

Born in the UAE to a Palestinian father and Syrian mother, Maher grew up in Vancouver, Canada, where his upbringing was enriched by multicultural experiences, guiding him towards a full-time career in sales. It was in 2018 that he found himself at a crossroads while attending a business seminar that would ignite a spark within him and redefine his path. However, his initial encounter with public speaking was far from what he had imagined.


“Picture this scene: a college room filled with about 45 people. I was there for my first Toastmasters session, officially beginning my journey of public speaking. Then came the Table Topics session, where participants were tasked with answering impromptu questions for about two-and-a-half minutes in front of the audience," Maher recalls.

He found himself silently pleading, ‘I don’t want to get called for this,’ when suddenly, the master summoned him on to the stage. “There was no escaping it; I had to step up,” he adds. "Standing before the audience, I felt the heat in my body rise, my heart pounding in my chest, and the weight of a hundred eyes upon me.”


Despite his best efforts, Maher faltered, unable to find the words. Fraught with anxiety and self-doubt, he had to apologise and leave the stage. “Amidst the embarrassment, a realisation struck me: I had a choice. I could retreat, burying this moment in the depths of my memory, or I could rise to the occasion and strive to become the best speaker I could be. I chose the latter.” A decision that marked the beginning of his transformative journey towards becoming ‘The Maestro’ of public speaking.

From luxury brands like Cartier to high-profile government entities such as the Government of Canada and the UAE’s Department of Economic Development, Maher’s work has reached diverse audiences worldwide. Beyond the stage, his book, titled Million Dollar Speaker, empowers people to speak with confidence and clarity. In a conversation with wknd., the award-winning coach in executive training and leadership talks at length about how our speech can deliver value for time — and money.

Edited excerpts from an interview:

As you mentioned, when people are put on the spot and don’t know what to say, they often experience intense physiological sensations. Why do you think this happens?

It’s the fear of the unknown that triggers these physiological reactions. When faced with uncertainty, like the prospect of stumbling during a speech, failing at it or being ridiculed, our bodies react: ears turning red, heart racing uncontrollably. These responses stem from our primal fight-or-flight instinct, a survival mechanism honed over millennia. Back then, such reactions helped us escape predators like sabre-toothed tigers. However, in today’s world, where audiences generally root for the speaker’s success, these reactions can hinder rather than help. We get caught up in our thoughts, forgetting that there’s a supportive environment around us.

From someone who once froze on stage, unable to speak, to now being considered ‘the Maestro’ of public speaking, how did you achieve this transformation?

I enrolled in the presentation mastery programme, where I had to deliver about 25 to 30 speeches to obtain certification. Additionally, I joined another Toastmasters club, attending sessions every week. Over several months, I seized every speaking opportunity available, read every book on public speaking, sought guidance from coaches, and it transformed my life.

Looking back, in hindsight, the reason I froze was because I didn’t understand the nuances of speaking. We need to educate ourselves to become better at something. Now, anytime I want to deliver a point, I can use the PREP formula, which stands for presenting your point, providing a reason for your point, offering an example, and reiterating the point. There’s another thing called the FAT formula, which enables us to ask what do we want the audience member to feel, act and think? If you address these three aspects — feel, act, and think — there’s a very good chance you’ll deliver a powerful message. Simple tactics, such as these, can be transformational.

What has been the biggest payoff of pursuing public speaking?

Work harder on yourself than you do on your job, and ultimately, your job will take care of itself. We all work diligently on our jobs, aiming for promotions and raises. But what about the most crucial asset in this process? Yourself. How can you not invest in yourself? How can you not take that course, seek out a mentor, or read that book? Delaying investment in yourself can be costly. It’s easy to invest in yourself, yet it's just as easy not to.

I found that my growth in public speaking also supercharged my presentations at my sales job. The prospects were impressed, leading to bigger commission checks for me. Anybody who puts in the work can experience personal and professional gain. As you climb the ranks in your sales career or any profession, whether as a manager, director, or C-level executive, you will be expected to present to groups because that’s what leaders do: share a message to inspire action. Neglecting to invest in the skill set of public speaking can leave a lot of money on the table, both personally and professionally.

Who is the ‘million-dollar’ speaker?

Two wonderful mentors and people stepped into my life during my speaking journey. One of them is Dr Peter Legge, an award-winning author and international speaker. The other is Patricia Fripp, who wrote the foreword to this book. Patricia Fripp is an international speaker and former president of the National Speakers Association. They both earn, on an average, more than a million dollars a year in speaking fees. So, you can imagine somebody who earns at that level. For 45 minutes of speaking, you’re getting paid about $35,000, which is over Dh100,000. But you’re not getting paid for that 45 minutes alone; you’re getting paid for all the years that culminated into that moment. So, it’s really symbolic of what a million-dollar speaker can do. It’s about commanding that value for time — and money.

So, how does one become a million-dollar speaker?

There are two things. Firstly, you have to decide. You need to make the decision right now, at this moment, without any hesitation. There’s no reason to wait until next year because the opportunity is right here, right now. Just imagine where you could be in one year if you seize this moment and commit to this path. Secondly, money is the result. It’s the result of your expertise, your experiences, who you are as an individual, and the stories you’re willing to share to inspire others. I often say in my training that everybody has a ‘change the world’ speech within them.

Another important thing to keep in mind: nobody cares about you. My mentor would often say this. You are a medium, transferring from where you are, into the ears of the audience. The audience is always tuned in to the WIIFM station, which stands for ‘What's in it for me?’. And rightfully so. They’re exchanging their time with you, which by far is the most valuable thing in the world. Or they’re paying you money, which is the second most valuable thing after time. So imagine I’m giving you my time, I’m giving you my money, you better give me something where I can walk away and say, ‘I love this. Can you come back again?’

How important is storytelling when it comes to public speaking?

It’s my favourite aspect. Stories have the incredible ability to take complex strategies and ideologies and simplify them into something that’s bite-sized and easy to digest. Movies — we love them because they tell stories. Most of the songs that you remember are either a story or trigger a story. All day long, you are telling yourself a story in your head. Even Instagram has a story, right? When you say, ‘Did you share this on your story?’, Instagram already knows it. So, storytelling is incredibly powerful. You can’t navigate life without the ability to articulate a complex strategy or experience in a memorable, engaging storytelling manner.

You delve into mastering body language and the importance of vocal variety. How can we leverage these two aspects for public speaking?

Often, it’s not just about what you say, but how you say it. Let’s start with vocal variety. It’s crucial to add cadence to your speech rhythm. Think about it like this: would you enjoy listening to a song if it had the same tone and story throughout? Vocal variety brings charisma to your speech. Now, onto body language. Precision in your gestures is what will make you a million-dollar speaker. I challenge your readers to watch a TED talk on mute. Notice the difference in engagement between a speaker with engaging body language and one who remains static, despite their words.

Once you become deliberate about each thing you’re doing and saying, you enter a loop of competence and confidence. The better you get, the more confident you become, and vice versa. Eventually, it becomes second nature. It’s not about being the best-looking or tallest; it’s about your tone of voice and body language. Charisma can be cultivated.

Finally, despite preparing thoroughly with all the steps you’ve mentioned above, it’s natural to still feel anxiety and nerves leading to a big speech. How do you effectively manage these feelings?

That’s a great question, and I’m glad you brought it up because fear is often the biggest obstacle when it comes to public speaking. I’ve been in hundreds of rooms, and trust me, I know the feeling of your heart pounding out of your chest. But here’s what you can do to prepare. Before the big day, visualise success. Mentally walk through the event, picturing every detail from what you’ll wear to how the venue will look. If possible, visit the venue ahead of time to familiarise yourself with the environment. If you don’t have that opportunity, remember to breathe. Focus on breathing from your diaphragm, not your lungs.

Always keep in mind that everyone in the audience wants to see you succeed. It’s not about you; it’s about sharing your experiences and knowledge. While the financial rewards can be significant, the emotional fulfilment of connecting with an audience is priceless. So embrace the privilege and honour of speaking, and remember to enjoy the experience.

somya@khaleejtimes.com

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