There is something uniquely powerful about public speaking. Often, we see leaders in business and politics on a different level. They are thought leaders: passionate, articulate and confident. It can be hard to imagine ourselves wielding such influence. In some respects, it has to do with culture. In many Asian societies,1 communication is indirect, emotions are muted and being soft-spoken is the norm. How can we rise to the level of the inspirational speakers we admire?
Yew Wai Kong is the VP of Product at OVO, an Indonesian fintech with a digital platform supporting a sophisticated ecosystem of online payments, financial services and merchants.
Having worked for the likes of Fave (formerly KFit) and Groupon, he had a front row seat to the development in South East Asia’s tech landscape and discovered how top-tier leaders influence the industry. He set out to take his career to the next level by making the rounds with public speaking engagements in the tech seven years ago, establishing himself as a thought leader and cultivating crucial connections in the process. I had a chat with him to find out how it all started, how he developed as a speaker and how it’s changed the course of his career.
The Case for Public Speaking
Yew Wai didn’t set out to become a public speaker per se. He admired his mentor’s ability to bring energy to a crowd, speaking so eloquently and enthusiastically. He couldn’t imagine himself doing the same - it was as if speaking to such large audiences and elite groups was far and out of reach. Curiously, he asked his mentor how to take part in these kinds of events. It was an opportunity for him to learn how to extend influence over bigger groups.
Underpinning public speaking are the same communication skills that leaders use on a regular basis. Speaking with confidence and communicating clearly propels careers forward and helps us connect with different people. These skills allow us to explain our thought processes, convince people and negotiate. Day to day, we use them in one on ones, team meetings and presentations to senior executives. Whether we’re speaking to a tight-knit group of our one downs or crowds in the hundreds or thousands, the fundamentals are the same.
Extensive professional networks are a valuable asset to leaders at any level. They open up career opportunities, grant access to industry information, establish links to expertise, stimulate learning and enhance support systems. Growing networks is one of the top reasons for attending professional conferences and events. Speaking engagements at these sorts of forums take things a step further by showcasing our expertise, bolstering our reputation and enhancing our visibility within the industry.
Yew Wai experienced this first hand after accepting an invitation to speak at an economic conference in Bali. It was an inflection point in his career as a public speaker. At the time, Fave was gaining traction in Indonesia and there were about 1,000 participants, including top tier government officials. The significant media milage around the event made him recognisable as an expert and led to more public speaking engagements.
Finding Your Voice
The reality is that public speaking can be intimidating. The idea of getting up in front of huge crowds in itself can be daunting but fear can be compounded when we speak English as a second language. Those of us, myself included, who come from an immigrant background might feel like we’re starting on a backfoot. Too often, we compare ourselves to established public figures of the West who speak with finesse we only dream of.
Like Yew Wai, many of us won’t be public speaking rockstars right out of the gate. As he was starting out, his mentor assured him that public speaking was for everyone and that it wasn’t smoke and mirrors. In the tech industry, it is inevitable. There is an abundance of events and as we build experience, connections and thought leadership, we pop up on the radar for different forms of public speaking. It’s a bit of a blur to him now, but Yew Wai remembers that he started out small - speaking to groups of 20 to 30. He teamed up with his mentor, who’d made the introductions and set him up to share some insights.
A key aspect of public speaking is adapting to your audience. We need to be mindful of the context we work in and the specific challenges we face. The diversity in South East Asia for instance is a significant factor that should influence our communication styles. We have more than 100 ethnic groups here speaking over 1,000 languages and dialects.2 The region is home to a wide array of people with varied cultural backgrounds and values. We can adapt in different ways like speaking in the local language where possible, adjusting the directness of our speech or selecting the level of detail appropriate to our audience.
One of the most memorable speaking engagements for Yew Wai was an internal company event. There were about 400-500 participants in this annual town hall and he was selected to speak. Slated to go on at the end of the day, he knew the crowd would have had a full day and considered this as he chose a topic. He decided to talk about dealing with difficult situations with the company’s founders. This piqued the interest of the attendees and gave him the space to take a light-hearted and humorous approach. The presentation was relatable and candid as he shared pictures and great stories alongside meaningful insights. About 90% of the attendees came for his talk and by the end of it, he received a standing ovation. Everyone was entertained and laughing but had excellent takeaways.
This experience changed Yew Wai’s thinking around public speaking. He realised that when you have great content, bring good energy and speak about a topic you are passionate about, it changes you. A self-professed introvert, he noticed how he switched from his default reserved persona to a more outspoken one in the moment.
We all would have come across excellent public speakers at some point. They are aspirational, but many of us think speaking with that level of confidence, refinement and poise is unattainable. At best, it would take massive leaps and bounds to make it to the same neighborhood. In reality, public speaking is like any other skill. It can be developed. Excellence in any field is driven by consistent incremental improvement. When Yew Wai was quite new to public speaking, he set out to do at least five speaking engagements per year just to get into the groove.
Reflecting on his experience, Yew Wai developed a framework over the course of his career - working with colleagues and speaking to bigger audiences. No doubt, our experiences will help us create a personal one that suits us perfectly but Yew Wai’s method is great springboard with only four points:
- Establish a baseline
Help the audience understand what the topic is before you delve into the details.
- Think in boxes
Clustering your thoughts will provide structure to your speech and the flow will help listeners follow along. There are different ways to approach this, like exploring questions (who, where, what, when, how) without stating them explicitly.
- Close the loop
Always end by taking your audience back to the main point. In the office setting, this might come in the form of documenting action items, summarising meetings or following up on items down the road.
- Adjust to your audience
Consider the setting so you can connect with your audience meaningfully. Tailor your language, tone, level of detail and energy to your listeners.
Public speaking is not reserved for the upper echelon of business leaders. It’s for everyone. We benefit a great deal from taking the time to communicate with more clarity and intention. Honing our public speaking skills allows us to lead others better and cast influence over a wider network.
- Quality content, good energy and passion can help our inner public speaking personas break out.
- Start in small settings and keep practicing your speaking skills.
- Have empathy for the audience. Understanding them will help you connect with them meaningfully.