The saying that most people are more terrified of public speaking than death was probably invented for people like me.
I’m not one to give up, though, so I’ve kept saying yes to speaking engagements, with mixed success. And it never gets less scary. Because each talk has been on a different topic in front of a different audience, it feels like the first time every single time.
When I walk into the auditorium that morning, I have barely slept two hours the previous night. The keynote speaker, who looks like some senior management chap, is elaborating on some high-level concepts: principles of business, corruption, Enron.
In the Q&A session, hands shoot up. The audience members ask some high-level questions that make even the articulate speaker pause. I’m impressed. These local students are smart, bright and curious – a far cry from the passive stereotype we so often hear about.
Then comes the worrying thought, “Will they find my stories too simplistic?” But I have little time to fret. Before I know it, I'm seated on the stage with two other speakers and the person who invited me to participate in this event, Dr Brian K.M. Wong.
The first speaker, Aw Tai Hau, the boyish-looking founder of Pott Glasses, stands up. I know he’d been nervous because he kept glancing at his cue cards earlier. I like this guy. You’ll do well, I pray silently.
He is good. He has the energy, wit and experience to motivate the audience, all of whom are older than him. From his opening sentence, “So raise your hands, how many of you love your job?” – nobody does, and gales of laughter follow – he strikes a chord with the audience. While I’m pleased for him, the bar just got higher for me. I feel panic setting in.
The next speaker, Amir Hasan, launches into a smooth presentation about Aiskosong, an app that helps students save money. I’m gobsmacked. What do they feed these millennial babies?
I am praying fast and furiously now. Please, God, help me. Don’t let me humiliate myself in front of these postgraduate students.
And then it’s my turn.
I get up and take the laser pointer. Looking at it apprehensively, I whisper to Dr Wong, “How do you use this thing?”
He tells me. I walk to the edge of the stage and look the audience straight in the eye. There must be at least 300 people present.
I think of a good friend’s advice about public speaking: observe the audience and respond to them. As Dr Wong introduces me, I note their reactions. Some of them look surprised when he reveals that I am a writer.
I begin, “You might be wondering what I’m doing here. I’m not an entrepreneur. Or rather, I didn’t think I was an entrepreneur until I had been a writer for several years. In fact I became a writer because I am shy... I am terrified of public speaking. So you can imagine how many sleepless nights I spent preparing for this. When Brian told me two nights ago I have to prepare a slideshow, I reacted, what...? But I don’t know how to do PowerPoint!”
The audience breaks out in laughter at my confession. Phew!
Encouraged, I progress to why I left a good job in a multi-national corporation: I was always a bit different from the rest of my colleagues. “In fact, one of my colleagues called me a hippie.” Incredibly, more laughter. I feel like I've won the lottery.
I carry on smoothly for a few more minutes, and then trouble strikes.
I remember looking at the slides to make sure I stick to the storyline, and suddenly, my effortless rhythm freezes. I stammer and lose my train of thought. In hindsight, I wonder if it’s because I speak better without a script.
From the corner of my eye, I see Dr Wong motioning. Time is running out. I have gotten carried away by the audience’s reaction, and I still haven’t even come to the main point yet. I feel my spirits drooping. Then an inner voice says sternly, don’t let this derail you. Just focus on winding up and do better next time.
I’ve always had a problem concluding my talks well. After the last few experiences, I told myself I must improve. So last night, I spent extra time thinking about my conclusion.
The preparation pays off now, because my last few slides sum up my key points, which I’m sure I would have never remembered in my panic-stricken haze. It’s not the most elegant of endings, but still an improvement on anything I’ve done in the past.
When I return to my seat, the other three speakers give me the thumbs-up sign. I smile gratefully. They are probably just being polite. On the bright side, it wasn’t a disaster.
The Q&A session starts. As the students ask their questions one by one, it dawns on me that all the questions are about start-ups – questions for the other guys. My talk probably didn’t resonate with them. I try to suppress my disappointment. After all, I knew coming in that I was the outsider. It’s still a good experience, and some of them, at least, seemed to enjoy it.
“I would like to address this to Alex.”
I look up in shock. Who is this audience member who has a question for me? I don’t have to chance to mull over that. His voice is soft, and I have to concentrate because he is asking a long, thoughtful question that could roughly be summed up as, What’s the most important thing for someone to be a successful freelance writer?
“Thank you for giving me a question,” I begin. The audience laughs. Clearly they have caught my subtle meaning, I realise with delight.
Encouraged by their reaction, I manage to craft a lucid answer about achieving a balance between profit and conscience. Maybe the audience would remember this instead of my awkward silences, I hope.
Thinking everything is over, I start to zone out, as I usually do after intense activity.
I’m wrong. To my astonishment, I hear Dr Wong saying something about my story being an example of business with conscience. I nearly fall out of my chair when he projects my clients’ testimonials on the screen!
Never having been praised publicly like this, I don’t know how to react. I look left and right, not sure where to hide my face, which is getting redder by the second.
Then I have a crazy thought. Don’t think, my inner voice says. Just do it. I pick up the pink folder I’d brought and cover my face to show how shy I feel, prompting the audience to burst into appreciative laughter. I couldn’t have asked for a better ending.
Of the many awesome moments, one in particular sums up how I feel. Just before our session, Dr Wong invited us to go into the VIP room. Walking into that room and knowing that those ostentatious high-backed, gold-trimmed velvet chairs were meant for me, I had goosebumps.
I’ve been in VIP holding rooms, but I have always been the one ushering the VIPs in. I’ve never been the person being ushered in.
You cannot imagine the feelings going through me at that moment. That’s got to be worth at least a few awkward silences, don’t you think?
Alexandra Wong (facebook.com/MadeinMalaysiabook) was speaking at Networking Day 4.0, organised by the Putra Business School (PBS) and Universiti Tenaga Nasional as part of the course requirements to connect MBA students with industry. The event is fully managed by the PBS Students Association under the supervision of PBS faculties.