Will they listen?

To aunty, that is. and understand her since she is giving her first speech overseas to a largely non-english speaking audience. Oh boy. 

THERE are plenty of serious and important issues and events going on which I should probably write about. But not today. This time it’s about me.

So dear reader, you can take it or leave it; I won’t be offended.

You see, who would have imagined it? My avid interest in Korean dramas got me invited as a speaker at a media forum in Seoul.

That’s taking place today and depending on the time you read this, I am either trying to calm my nerves, have fainted from the stress, or have managed to survive it and am drinking soju in a bar somewhere.

Of course, I am writing this in advance – actually a good four days earlier – as I have to pack over the weekend and practise my presentation.

I am nervous as hell because I am not an experienced speaker. I have only given a handful of speeches to small groups and the last two times gave me severe stomach cramps.

I can write decent speeches but I am terrible at delivering them. That’s because I stutter when I am nervous, have a low-pitch voice that is hard for the audience to catch and get sweaty hands because I am nervous.It is much bandied about that the average person is more afraid of speaking in public than death.

According to the US National Institute of Mental Health, this fear called glossophobia affects 75% of the population.

Considering how Americans are encouraged to speak up in show-and-tell classes since young and they still fear public speaking, how much more terrifying is it for Asians who have been taught to keep quiet and mind their words? Well, my generation was. I still remember a primary school teacher writing in my report card to complain that I was too talkative!

Now where was I? Oh yes, I am going to South Korea to give a talk to a foreign audience (who will need translators to understand me) on a topic that my hosts from the Asean-Korea Centre think I am quite knowledgeable about. What was I thinking?!What’s the topic, you ask? The role Asean media played in the popularity of the Korean Wave. Okay, I am a journalist (even though I am no longer in the newsroom) and I am a Korean drama/K pop culture fan. But who am I to talk about Asean media?

I mulled over the invitation for all of four days before deciding to take up the challenge. And I have been regretting it ever since.

I had to do quite a bit of research and thankfully I could turn to Asean newspapers that are, like The Star, members of the Asia News Network.

I sent a long list of questions to journalists Parinyaporn Pajee and Khetsirin Pholdhampalit at The Nation of Thailand, Primastuti Handayani at The Jakarta Post of Indonesia, Nguyen Thuy at Vietnam News and Chan Boon Lian at The Straits Times in Singapore for their input.

All of them, except for Chan, took great pains to answer practically all my questions.

Chan was brief but I appreciated his making the effort to at least reply. Another ANN newspaper totally ignored my cry for help but it’s okay. It was admittedly an awfully long list. Which is why I am so grateful to my new-found friends who answered, including my follow-up questions.

With K-pop culture taking America (and pretty much the whole of the English-speaking world) by storm, thanks to the rise of K-pop groups BTS and Blackpink, there is a lot of interest and plenty to talk about. And while no expert, I realise I do know a fair bit.

Apart from the dramas, I listen to K-pop and I am, ahem, a BTS fan. I haven’t joined the group’s global fan club called ARMY and it is seriously as powerful and deadly as a military force when it comes to supporting and protecting these seven extremely talented, thoughtful and well-mannered young men.

But for my presentation, as it turned out, I had gleaned a lot of information and found myself trying to cover too much ground in my slides.

And then, good advice came unexpectedly. I needed help with some of the PowerPoint tools and Chez Hong, my colleague from the IT department, came along.

By coincidence, he had just attended a workshop on giving presentations – wish I had known about it! – and wisely told me to reduce the number of slides because I couldn’t possibly go through all in the time given, which is 15 minutes.

“You should just focus on one or two key points and all you need are five slides. You want the audience to focus on you, not the slides,” he said.Well, actually I was hoping to distract my audience with the slides and reduce the attention on nervous me.

But Chez Hong was absolutely right. I was trying to cram in too many points and no way could my audience absorb them all, especially if they are not fluent in English.

Goodness, just five slides? I am a long-winded ahjumma (aunty in Korean) and I figure I need to give visual clues to my Korean audience to help them along. So I have 15 slides, the maximum set by the forum organisers.

Next, practising my speech. There are tonnes of advice from public speaking gurus on the Internet like using the right body language and making eye contact with the audience. I have no idea if they will work or whether I can remember to apply them until I get up on that podium.The best advice, however, came closer from home: from my 25-year-old son. He patiently sat through a few practice sessions and made helpful suggestions on improving my slides.

And just as I thought I was sounding posh and clear by carefully enunciating every word deliberately, he looked me in the eye and said: “Mum, you are trying too hard. You don’t sound natural. Just speak like you are talking to my friends.

“They have known you since high school days and do you know why they love talking to you? Because they find you so interesting, expressive and charismatic. That’s you being yourself.”

I was truly gobsmacked. These young people saw me this way? I am now quite chill and feel so much better. What the heck, even if I fall flat on my face in Seoul, I still have my own little band of home-grown supporters!

Besides, what did the great Dale Carnegie say? “There are always three speeches, for every one you actually gave. The one you practised, the one you gave, and the one you wish you gave.”

Aunty will go on stage again in June to launch her book, which is a compilation of articles from this column and other stories. More on that later!


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