Talking Is Hard

Guest Article by Jonathan Chan, Beatles fan and our man in green

The “gift of the gab” isn’t one that anyone receives.

Nobody is born with the ability to stand before a crowd and instantly be articulate. Anyone who claims otherwise is likely mistaking brash confidence for eloquence. Like any art form, oratory requires time, effort, preparation and lots of practice.  Hopefully, this comes as some sort of relief to those of us who feel that we’re the only ones whose stomachs do backflips whenever endless rows of eyes cast their gaze upon us. Public speaking is something that only gets better with experience. As someone who once shied away from the prospect of engaging with people unnecessarily, I believe I might have some insights to offer. 

If you ask anyone who knew me when I was younger, they might recall a reticent and uncertain boy. I rarely raised my hand during class for fear of being mocked for foolish remarks and I didn’t see myself as having anything substantial to offer during discussions. As my years in secondary school went on, some burgeoning confidence developed through presentations during language arts and participation in spoken word poetry (to dismal results). The turning point came when my teacher submitted my name to contest my school’s internal public speaking competition.

My resistance toward public presentation was rooted in the fear that my ego would be battered, as had previously been the case during several unpleasant experiences in debate. Being initiated into the arena of public speaking was different as the goal of an orator is primarily persuasive, not combative. Dabbling in the school’s oratorical competition under the aegis of an English teacher, I found myself posed with the challenge of devising a speech that would entertain and inform. Beyond that, I also faced the dreaded impromptu speech- a speech on a randomly assigned topic to be delivered after 5 minutes of preparation.

With regard to the former, I remember the scandalized expression on my teacher’s face when I prepared a speech that centered on the cultural shock I experienced in a Korean sauna. Instead, I settled on the more accessible topic of voice actors, explaining how our expectations can be subverted by reality, such as when I found out that the voice actor of Robin from Teen Titans was a bald, middle-aged man. I remember getting a gentle rebuke when I quoted “obscene” Beatles lyrics on stage during the impromptu round to illustrate the absurdity of language, but also the immense satisfaction I got from uttering the words of my favourite band before the school. I walked away from the experience with a good measure of feedback and insight, whether it was learning to engage an audience through gestures or by alternating the tone and pitch of my voice for emphasis. Perhaps it came as a surprise to my parents at all that I took on the challenge of public speaking because, in their words at the time, “he doesn’t say much at home”.

That initial foray into public speaking was complemented by topics of my own selection, as I touched on cartoons and music and a whole array of things that fascinated me. When I was sent to represent my school in a national oratorical competition, the art of public speaking suddenly took on more socially conscious undertones. We were tasked with crafting speeches based on a community involvement project where we brought food and other necessities to elderly who lived alone in flats. During the activity we shared meals with them, spoke with them about their lives and traded stories and jokes. The speech I prepared thereafter was one that I felt more strongly about than any before, because for the first time I felt as if the things I spoke about- compassion, kindness, contentment, joy- were things that I could proclaim with conviction. 

Through those experiences I found a sense of validation and confidence in my public speaking abilities. I held the advice I’d received from my teacher mentors close by whenever I needed to deliver a presentation in class or recite dialogue during drama or serve as an emcee for school events. I realized how immensely useful it was to have had some measure of training, as there will always be circumstances where we need to address groups of people, even in the most unlikely places. This has proven true through the course of my National Service thus far.

When we think of some of the greatest orators of the 20th century, an imposing figure of immeasurable influence that comes to mind is Winston Churchill. We think of the incredible rallying speeches he gave to his nation in wartime, whether it was to “fight on the beaches” or offer their “blood, toil, tears, and sweat” to vanquish their enemies. We think of the galvanizing effect he had on the people he led through his oration, but what most people don’t know is that as a boy, he stammered terribly, spoke with a lisp and was timid in temperament. As he entered politics as a young man, he devoted a tremendous amount of effort toward his ambition of being “master of the spoken word”. Amidst personal setbacks and instances of public humiliation, Churchill read widely, crafted his speeches with great meticulousness and practiced voraciously. While we may never ascend to the heights of his oratorical mastery, his life provides plenty of lessons from which we can learn.

You might’ve started reading this with the expectation that I’d provide a handy list of tips and tricks to help you get through your next presentation or speech. Instead, I’ve merely proffered what might seem to be a verbose recount of some of my experiences, but I do believe that experience is what truly matters when it comes to refining a craft as delicate as oratory.

Take opportunities as they come, whether it’s in the form of emceeing, theatrical productions, conferences, motivational addresses, or competitions. These will help to build a pantheon of experiences that you’ll be able to draw upon and that invariably, will help to refine your craft.

Who knows – one day a speech you deliver might serve to irrevocably transform someone’s perspectives for the rest of their lives. Or even better – encourage them to give this public speaking thing a try.

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