Yes, being called an ‘idiot’ changed my life

NOV 12, 2020

This year, as autumn rolls into winter, I’ve already reached the halfway point in this marathon called life. Before turning the next corner, I am stopping to catch my breath and reflect—on a girl, whose life led her down a path full of thorns; on a woman, who possesses courage in greater proportions than her diminutive stature; and on a professional, who is adventurous, undefeated and untamed.

I became who I am today because of someone’s hard assessment in 1990. I recall the moment that occurred in September, early autumn, the day following an important event.

“Deborah, did you even go to school?” asked my director bluntly during an executive meeting.

The question caught me completely by surprise.

“Have you ever written a speech or given a presentation?”

“Yes,” I replied, because I didn’t know what else to say.

“If you went to school and studied these skills, why were you speaking like an absolute idiot on stage last night?” she asked.

I suddenly felt the eyes of two dozen people staring at me. The word ‘idiot’ stung like a slap to my face. My mind replayed the night before on stage in quick flashes. I had been in front of an audience of well over 2,000 people, proudly presenting with a manuscript in hand, expecting applause and admiration that never came.

Tears welled up in my eyes. I had only two options: to instantly resign in protest and bear the term ‘idiot’ forever or find a way to redeem myself. I drew in a sharp breath and replied, “Please give me a second chance.” I needed to prove I could perform and present under pressure on stage. The next event was in December.

Looking back, I realize I was still an amateur with no stage presence and unable to connect or engage with the audience. Indeed, I had given an uninspiring presentation.

Autumn slipped into winter, and I could be found at my desk every day—head down, desperately altering speeches, muttering the words to myself and memorising the script. I paced across my office, mimicking the body language of other impressive speakers, watching and observing them, learning from both their strengths and their weaknesses.

Whether my performance in December was worthwhile or not is insignificant, but from then on, I was the keynote speaker at this conference.

This experience helped me to develop and shape my own style on stage, and I offer the following suggestions:

  1. First, I focus on learning about the audience’s background to assure the topic and its content resonates with them. Then, I let my heart write the script—I do not copy and paste from others. I also include content relating to current affairs, using examples, stories and quotes where necessary and relevant.
  2. No one wants to listen to a monotonous robot. So, I’ve worked hard to fine-tune my accent and tone, perfecting my pronunciation and emphasis. Most importantly, I concentrate on the essence of the message I want to convey.
  3. It’s important to consider your audience at all times—view your presentation from their perspective. Learn to adjust your body language and maintain strong eye contact.
  4. Above all, always prepare well in advance. For example, if I have a presentation in May, whether it be 5 or 50 minutes long, I begin preparing in February.
What makes an impactful speech? Invest emotionally in every single word.
When writing your script, be clear about what you want to say. Keep this message in mind and present it in your own words with a personal tone of voice.

“Every master today was a disaster yesterday.” Remember, mastery takes time. I was blessed that someone pointed out my weaknesses so early in my career. After all, a gemstone only shines after it’s been polished.

In an industry where motivation and marketing play such a critical role, public speaking has opened many doors for me and strengthened my influence. Looking back, I realize my harsh and critical boss was, in fact, the most important mentor in my life.


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