Speaking Prodigy

Feb 22, 2013 in , , ,

A/N: The interview I did for this article was probably one of my favorites ever, and I had a lot of fun with this one, especially since a lot of the questions were ones that I really wanted to know the answers to myself. I hope that you find it as informative as I did. :)

Published in School Times yesterday.
Three words to describe Grace Tan: eloquent, confident, and energetic. Born, raised, and educated primarily in Mandarin and Hokkien, English was not Grace’s forte for many years. When she first came to Kuala Lumpur to study for her A-Levels at age 18 from her hometown in Johor Bahru, she was fearful and reluctant to speak up in class, and even to the people surrounding. All that changed, however, when she scored well in her A-Level exam, and her lecturer, a woman she greatly admired, told her that she just had to brush up on her English, and encouraged her to take up law.

Heeding her lecturer’s advice, Grace decided to take up the challenge, and strived to become a lawyer. It was tough for her, as English still didn’t come naturally then, but with her everything-can-do attitude, she managed to earn her degree. Since then, and for the last eighteen years until today, she has been practicing as an advocate and solicitor, and is currently a senior partner in a law firm in the heart of Kuala Lumpur.

Eight years ago, she joined Toastmasters International, which teaches important communication skills, one of which being public speaking. Since she was a young student, Grace loved to be the center of attention, being on the stage was just part of that love. As her proficiency in English grew, so did her public speaking skills, and soon, she was hosting for events, and doing some emceeing. In 2009, she was voted Toastmaster-of-the Year, and she now has several mentees under her.

All that didn’t come easy, however, as Grace put a lot of hard work into improving her English. Even today, though she has mastered English, she still works on her pronunciation, and makes it a point to search for the correct way to say a word if she isn’t sure about it.

She has made many speeches since she first joined Toastmasters, and the largest crowd she has spoken in front of was a thousand strong. The main thing she says one must have in a speech is the OBC – opening, body, and closing – as is in an essay.

The difference between writing an essay and making a speech, however, is that the audience can see you, and not just your words in a speech. There are actually five elements in a speech, best defined with this: “Who is saying what to whom using what medium with what effects?”

Speakers use tools such as gestures, and vocal variety to express what they want to say. Interestingly enough, when asked to pick just one tool as the most important, Grace chose gestures, citing that she could still express herself through facial expressions and her hands, even if her tone were completely monotonous. Of course, in a good speech, tone is important, and Grace stressed that a variety of pitch – highs and lows – as well as speed, must be utilized in order to keep the audience engaged.

When Grace first makes an entrance on stage, she makes sure not to just dive straight in. A speaker should pause for a few seconds first, said Grace, taking the time to make eye contact with a few people, and calm the nerves. As an icebreaker, she likes to begin with some jokes that relate to everyday life.

One key that Grace uses when she makes a speech is to always stay energized, even if she really is exhausted, as the audience feeds off the speaker’s energy. When she sees people who aren’t as interested anymore, especially after a long session of technical terms, she livens things up by cracking some jokes, and engages in light conversation to give her audience a break.

Nerves usually come with making speeches, and even experienced speech-makers have a temporary lapse that leave them at a loss for words every now and again. So, how does one combat this, and still pull off a great speech? One technique that Grace has learned is to throw a question back to a member of the audience. This gives the speaker extra time, and also fresh ideas from someone else. This technique is especially useful when one has to give an impromptu speech.

Besides speaking, however, one important aspect of making a speech is knowing when to end it, especially before the audience gets bored. According to Grace, the closing is important, because it is the last thing that the audience will remember.

There no exact educational path to become a public speaker, but there are still ways that one can learn more about speaking. One method is to join Toastmasters, as Grace did, but since that is only open for those above 18, they also have a program called the YLP (Youth Leadership Program) for people aged 11 – 17. Before all that, however, one must have a good comprehension of English (or whatever language one plans to speak in), and English courses can help with that. From then on, it is a matter of getting oneself out there, letting people know how good you are, and marketing yourself the right way.

As a final note, Grace again stressed how important it is for a speaker to show his or her enthusiasm, and be an entertaining speaker, because even if the audience doesn’t remember what was said during a speech, they should still remember what they thought of the speaker.