Don’t be afraid, my mentor is here

Do you have a fear of public speaking? Yes, I do. That’s why I joined the toastmaster club, get more practice and try to overcome my fear. That’s why I was fortunate to met Ernest Chen at a social dinner and asked him to be my mentor. And that’s why I am here today to write about this article because he was generous to accept me as a protege.

After all these periods, I almost forgot about my fear. At least I have less anxiety in front of a small group of friends. Until the moment last month, I met a student of my mentor, a little girl. She is only thirteen years old, but she has the ambition to be a successful diplomat translator one day. Public speaking is a prerequisite to be successful in the role. We are all impressed by her goal, and my mentor is here to help her achieve the dream.

To achieve the dream that would require practice. A lot of practice. At the beginning of the class, she was asked to give a speech for two minutes. It could be any topic about the school, the Olympics games or what we have learned that day. It would be a piece of cake since there are only five audiences. Any person would be capable of talking for two minutes easily.

Yet, she could not utter a word. She was scared to start the first sentence. She got the pressure from the audience, especially her mum was looking at her with high expectations. Her mum started to urge this little girl to speak, “Quick! Just start the speech, don’t waste our time.” The more the pressure, the more challenging it for her to start. The longer she waited, the higher the level of fear.

Eventually, she could not withstand the pressure anymore. She started to cry. Her tears came down. Not only I can feel her fear of public speaking, but I can also see her crying visually at the moment. My mentor, Ernest, said to her, “Don’t be afraid. Your teacher is here. I am here to help you. Just start the first sentence, and the rest would come. There is no right or wrong. Don’t be afraid.”

Would my mentor be able to help her to overcome the fear? Of course not, at least not right away. Your fear won’t go away by being told not to be afraid. My mentor also took many years to practice, with lots of effort to learn. It was not easy for him to win speech contests with all the trophies. Although the little girl did not overcome the fear immediately, she did improve the following week. More importantly, she seems to get better and better, more and more confident, with good progress week after week.

Now, I am a man almost twenty years older than this little girl on my turn to speak. I hope I would not cry in front of the crowd with fear. However, I did feel the stress, but it was okay with an audience of five people. I am improving as well, trying to use some skills that I learnt from my mentor. Interestingly, the fear of public speaking does not seem to go away, even with more practice.

Last week, I was working at my day job as an engineering manager. I had an important presentation for a client with seventy people listening. It included senior management, such as the CEO of the Singaporean multinational company, offering taxi booking, food delivery and digital payments services. I need to show him the core banking product that we built. The pressure was on.

Like preparing the speech at the toastmaster club, I wrote the script, memorised it, and practised it hundreds of times in front of the mirror. I also add in the elements of body gestures, conversational tone and a bit of humour. Yet, the fear of public speaking did not go away. My mind started wondering: “What if I say something silly in the speech? What if I forget about my sentence? What if I embarrassed myself in front of the big crowd of audience in this important meeting?”

My inner voice was going negative, but suddenly another voice came into my head. It was the voice of my mentor, Ernst Chen. It was the same sentence he told the little girl many times: “Don’t be afraid, your teacher is here. Just start the first sentence, and the rest would come. There is no right or wrong. Don’t be afraid.”

I was still stress in my presentation, but the demo was going well. The CEO of my client seems to be impressed. He asked me two follow up questions, which was a good sign. At least it means he understood my presentation in order the ask questions. The public speaking skills I practised seem to stand out from the rest of the other six demos in that one hour.

I want to take this opportunity to say thank you to Ernst Chen. He is an excellent public speaking coach, and there is a lot to learn from him, such as impromptu speaking, rhetorical devices, and his life wisdom. It would probably take many years for me to practice to reach his high level and win a speech contest. But at least for now, he taught me the first step, the baby steps, to overcome my fear of public speaking. He reminded us, “Don’t be afraid. Your mentor is here.”

By Victor Leung

Experience in software development, consulting services and technical product management. Understanding of business and technology with an MBA in Finance and a Master degree in Computer Science. AWS Certified Solution Architect with experience in building products from scratch and serving as a charismatic leader.

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