Toastmasters PM1: Ice Breaker

I will record my Toastmasters speech scripts on this blog. “PM1” in the title means that this is for project I of the Presentation Mastery pathway.

Shared below is the first prepared speech I’ve delivered at NUS Toastmasters. I also wrote about the experience in this post.

Good evening, fellow toastmasters of NUS! If you don’t know me yet, my name is Jason. I came from China to Singapore in 2019 to pursue a PhD degree in computer science.

During my high school years, one of my teachers once described me as “a quiet boy sitting in the corner, doing what should be done.” I was at that time quite smug about this description. I even slightly despised those more gregarious around me, who I considered were wasting their time babbling about useless things. After all, in the test-driven education system, I fared well by keeping minimal communication with others and focusing on work by myself. When I graduated from high school and entered a decent university in 2015 with a promising prospect, little did I realise that this strategy was far from a panacea, let alone that it would cause embarrassing problems in less than two years.

In May 2017, after months of preparation, I finally put together the traditional annual concert for the Students' Harmonica Society at my university. It was an important event. To the Society, it was a perfect stage both to promote harmonica music to the general student body, and to allow its members, who might not necessarily have much music education background, to experience performing music on stage. To me, it would be the culmination of my one-year presidency, which was now in its final months. However, no sooner had the concert started, than it began to fall apart: volunteers not showing up, microphones running out of battery, horrible sound balance with accompaniment masking the melody, lighting either too bright or too dim. As the person who was ultimately in charge of the whole event, I had to hurry to hold the whole thing back together with duct tapes. I dashed between the backstage and the control room, passed microphones onto the stage, implored a friend to bring extra batteries. I felt exhausted and ashamed, and the only thing I wanted to do throughout the whole two hours was to sink into my bed and never think about this abomination any more, but I had to drag on and land this crackling plane first. The plane did finally land, barely in one piece, after what seemed to me like a year. In the aftermath, nobody talked about this concert much among the audience and the Society members, but I could sense disappointment in the air.

What exactly was wrong? I asked myself, suppressing the shame I would feel every time I recalled this event. The preparation had been insufficient, I understood, but what led to that? I did not think it was lack of effort from my side. I had started the preparation nearly six months before the event, and worked from dawn to dusk in the last two weeks, skipping almost every lecture and accumulating a stash of unfinished assignments. To build a committee of volunteers, I had sent a “call to arms” to every individual of the over a hundred members. Fewer than expected responded, and among those who did, quite a lot became unresponsive soon after joining, but the unassigned work would all be taken up by me. I wrote invitation letters, drafted agreements with sponsors, prepared scripts for the MC, and even tried rescuing the less than satisfactory poster a member had created. Although I understood that the workload was overwhelming for one person and wished that someone else would be willing to take up some work with better quality, I did not think there was any choice for me but to take it up on my own. After all, people had refused to help, and as I often lamented, our hobbyists’ society was so unlike the Students’ Union, which every member joined with the goal of serving others rather than that of simply entertaining oneself.

It was not until one day when I happened to talk of this matter to a very senior member when I realised what really had gone wrong. Guess what he told me? He told me that I should have treated people to meals more. I was dumbfounded. My mind went back to when I had just joined the Society, when I barely knew anyone there and was not interested in taking any organizing role myself. It was then when the former president found me in the practice room, asked my name and invited me to dinner. It was then when a strong personal bond began to form between the Society and me, and when I started taking an active, rather than passive, role in running the Society. At the many meals, parties and meetings before that year’s concert, where the volunteers, who had known each other well, chit-chatted cordially. On the day of the concert, people were all focused on the common goal of executing the plans smoothly, yet at the same time were cheerful for being present at a great moment. I myself had enjoyed participating in the preparation for that year’s concert as much as the concert itself. In contrast, my concert was more like a one-man show. Like what I had done in my high school years, I sat in a corner and quietly did my work. For something like a concert though, it would still need effort from more than one person, but when I asked for others' participation, hoping that they would fall in their respective roles perfectly, things did not turn my way. My failing to see the importance of personal bonds and communication had doomed the concert.

This incident changed my attitude towards communication and socialisation, from indifference or even contempt to appreciation. The problem though is that I have never been good at them. I can feel embarrassed by not knowing what to say at a dinner table and get stressed all night before giving a horrible presentation. I have to step out of my comfort zone to expose myself more to communication and improve, or I will slide back to my old hermit ways. This is what I have joined toastmasters for, and what I hope I will achieve with your help. Thank you for listening!