Public Speaking Is Tough: how I overcame the challenges along the way

I was the principal of a mission school for five years. I received several blessings during my tenure. One such blessing was to be able to deliver short weekly reflection messages to the students and staff.

Even though it is a mission school setting, and there is a long-standing practice for daily reflections, the majority of students and staff are not of Christian or Catholic faith. Only a low proportion of staff and students do not have any religious affiliation. Hence I decided from the start to deliver messages that are mostly secular in nature, comprising learning points gathered from sources other than religious texts.

I continued this practice when I moved on subsequently to a secular school. The difference is that instead of delivering spoken messages, I relied on video clips to introduce the messages I am delivering. The messages remained secular in nature.

Preparing for these messages is tough. It is almost like public speaking, on a weekly basis, and to a diverse group of people. The one good thing is that the audience is a captive one. They have no choice but to listen to my messages since the message is delivered during morning assemblies.

I will always remember my first message to the school. It was a short message about the need for teamwork, how a group of children in a race decided to run together to finish the race, so that no one will be left out. I was very nervous delivering that message. Even though I have given many more messages over the years, I do get stage fright every now and then.

I have learnt four lessons about public speaking after these years of preparing and delivering messages. I am still not perfect, but I think I have become better and more polished when speaking to an audience.

1. Make The Message Relevant Or Relatable To The Audience

Having a captive audience does not mean you abuse their time. Neither does it mean going on and on without taking note of their responses.

I learnt it is important that what they listened to is what they need to hear, right there and then. Even for messages that do not seem to apply to them, craft it in such a way to appear relevant.

For example, I will speak about ways to release tension or relieve stress in the weeks leading to major exams. That will help students (even teachers) to remember that performance can come about when the person knows how to manage the stress and tension.

On weeks when we are commemorating or celebrating specific festivals or events, I will craft messages that are linked to them. So I talk about national pride on the week when Singapore celebrates National Day, and I used the following video clip to illustrate the pride we ought to have in singing our national anthem.

Ramli Sarip singing the Singapore national anthem

I also spoke about the World Cup and the Singapore F1 Grand Prix when these events were round the corner, and linked them to specific lessons I would like students and staff to take away. After all, there will be fans of such events in the school, who will perk up when there is mention of such events.

2. Talk About People Who The Audience Can Identify With

Using stories can help the audience connect to learning points quickly and easily. While I can use personal stories, it is better to use stories of people whom students and staff can identify with better. Besides, using my own personal stories all the time may also lead to others perceiving me as trying to be self-aggrandising.

So I tap on famous personalities from different countries. For example, I used Steve Jobs, Bruce Lee and Stephen Hawking to speak about certain morales or ethics students could emulate. I also tap on distinguished alumni of the school to get students to understand that prominent personalities can come from amongst their midst. For example, I spoke about Pierre Png and Chew Chor Meng (both prominent media artistes), Danny Teo and Teo Kiang An (both prominent businessmen) to students, since they are alumni of the school.

People stories can come from anyone, including you and me. Besides using stories of people who appear in media regularly, I also tap on stories of ordinary folks who have accomplishments to their names. So I introduced a Singaporean Chef whose restaurant was given one Michelin star (Jason Tan), a local sneaker customised sought after around the world (Mark Ong), and also a Singaporean athlete who performed an act of sportsmanship during a regional competition (Ashley Liew), amongst other people.

3. Use Jokes, Songs, Puzzles Or Stories To Hook People

Some of my fodder for messages actually come from a range of sources unrelated to education. I used the lyrics of a song once (Fear is a liar) to talk. It is a good reminder that songs can carry messages that are not just musical. Sometimes I used stories available on the internet (remember the story of the tortoise and the hare?), other times I used puzzles (such as one to illustrate algebra) or jokes (what do you call a phobia for school. Schoolphobia, although this is true!).

I also used examples I come across in my readings to highlight specific issues. The Spyce Boys is one example where I talked about how four undergrads made use of their technical knowledge to invent a machine to solve a real-world issue (you can watch the video clip I showed below). Another example I used is Takeru Kobayashi, the first person to eat 50 hotdog buns in the Nathan’s Hotdog Eating Challenge, to highlight how the unthinkable can be challenged through a systematic exploration of the issue.

The Spyce Boys speaking about their restaurant and robotic chef machine

4. Include Actionable Steps After The Message

Sometimes your audience may listen to the message, but did not catch the moral or lesson behind it. Hence it is always useful to either include a summary of the learning points, or better still, outline some actionable steps to round up the message.

In my sharing of Irene Ang’s life story (a prominent celebrity in Singapore) for example, I encouraged students to lean on their faith and friends when they are depressed, and focus on helping others to prevent yourself from spiralling downwards. When I shared about the story of Chaz Davis (a marathoner who is visually blind), I encouraged students to learn to try even if they may be risk averse. When I shared an excerpt from the Kung Fu Panda movie, I asked students to consider how they want to step out of their comfort zone in a new academic year, so that they can develop and grow.

Will I continue to do this if given the chance? Definitely. These are moments where I get to share my thoughts on life, and impact others in ways other than through administrative or executive decisions or policies. The preparation for these sessions can be tough at times. I also run out of ideas from time to time, and have to think hard the night before occasionally on what to say. Sometimes my children are the ones who provide the ideas too.

Do you hesitate to speak in public? How do you tackle the challenge of speaking in public? What are your strategies in keeping the audience engaged? Do share your thoughts and comments with me. Public speaking is always a challenge to be tackled in my life’s journey.

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