My First Public Speaking Competition
By Ain Aissa
It was about 2am on 29 December 2009 and I was alone, sitting cross-legged in front of a mirror in my hotel room talking to myself. I was a bundle of nerves and I couldn’t sleep, so I practiced instead. I took a deep breath, looked at myself as confidently as possible, pressed the record button on my phone, and started speaking.
When I was done, I replayed my recording to see what worked and what didn’t. Then I would edit my speech accordingly and restart. I couldn’t even remember what time I slept but I woke up shaking, shocked that I even got this far. I stepped out of my room and hoped for the best.
But first, let’s rewind – How did I get here?
I was 19 when I joined (reluctantly, and with much coercion) my first public speaking competition. I was new to debating but our trainer, Hafiedz, thought it was a good idea for me to join Pidato Kemerdekaan 2009, a varsity public speaking competition premised on Malaysia’s independence. I think he only made me go because the university had to send a representative and no one else wanted to go. Since I was a newbie, I was the sacrificial lamb.
The competition took place at the Flamingo Hotel in Ampang and I remember feeling super alone. I had participated in debate competitions before, but it was always with a teammate and a whole contingent of other teams. There was a sense of safety in numbers and there was always friendly banter to stave off the nerves. However, since every public university could only send 1 representative, I was all by my lonesome.
I didn’t recognise anyone in the competition except for a girl named Tharish from Universiti Malaya — another fellow debater. At the time, I thought Tharish was a great debater and she always seemed so confident while I was there in the background, nervously breaking into cold sweats and hoping my pit stains weren’t so obvious.
We didn’t speak much during the competition because I was too shy to approach her. Here I was, a junior who made the mistake of bringing only baju kurung to the competition because I didn’t want to think about what to wear. Looking around at the other competitors — some were wearing full suits, with most exuding an air of total self-assuredness — I felt completely out of place.
Against all odds
As we went through the preliminary rounds, I noticed Tharish doing very well, often getting a lot of praise for her delivery. Intimidated but determined to improve, I went to all the judges after every round for constructive feedback. This was important to do as it would help me improve, show my earnestness, and find out what the judges liked and disliked.
Somehow, I made it through the preliminary rounds and then surprisingly, to the semi-finals. When they announced that I had made it to the finals, I was so shocked, happy, and scared at the same time. Which, in hindsight, was the perfect combination for a milestone moment.
That night, I burned the midnight oil to work on my finals speech from scratch. I didn’t think I would get into the finals so I didn’t have a speech ready. This meant having very little sleep and a whole lot of anxiety.
….and we’re back
Right before I was due on stage, I was still pacing back and forth outside the hall practicing my lines because I hadn’t memorised the whole speech and no one else was referring to notes.
My topic was, “To Remember Tunku Abdul Rahman is to Remember Our Nation’s Strength,” and I decided to approach the topic on a “human” level. I broke down what it meant to be Tunku Abdul Rahman through my late-night research of what he was like as a child, student and family man. I planned to talk about him as an ordinary Malaysian citizen hoping to instil in everyone that while he was a great man, he was also someone like you and me.
Suddenly, a wave of uncertainty came over me and I second guessed my entire approach. What if it was too simple? What if the judges are thoroughly offended? How dare I, a nobody, talk about the great Tunku Abdul Rahman as if I knew him? And just like that, I also started second-guessing myself. What am I even doing here? This is a mistake, the judges made a mistake, I am a mistake. I can’t be here, I can’t do this.
All of my doubts and insecurities suddenly reared its ugly head, threatening to pull me under even before I’ve begun.
I wish I could tell you that I had a special mantra or memory that pulled me out of the funk, that I did something or said something to myself to gain courage. But sometimes, there is no magical cure to nerves and sometimes, you have to do scary things even when you’re scared. It just so happened that when I was having an identity crisis, the emcee called my name and the fear of getting caught running away while it was my turn to speak was more than my fear of speaking. This is what eventually propelled me to the stage.
I remember feeling very cold in the large hotel hall, squinting at the bright lights on me. There were VIPs in the audience — an entourage of government officials including the then Minister of Home Affairs, Dato’ Seri Hishammuddin Tun Hussein. My mum, who was in the audience, later told me that she was horrified when I stepped on stage in front of so many people wearing flip flops — or in her words, selipar jamban!
I looked at the crowd with difficulty and my breath hitched. But I smiled and nodded anyways — as if that gesture was enough to send the fears away. Then I started speaking and it was as if all of my doubts and insecurities melted away. The sheer act of speaking and delivering something I worked so hard on took so much of my focus that I scarcely thought of anything else. I relaxed into my speech and I just performed what I practiced the whole night doing.
When I was done, I felt so, so, SO good. Not because people were applauding or because I was in the finals but because it was OVER! I was scared every step of the way, but I was immensely proud of myself for pushing through and getting to the very end of the competition. I ran to my mum in the audience and hugged her.
Wait – what? Did I hear that right?
They announced the second-place winner and it was Tharish. My heart was in my mouth — I thought she was so good and the obvious winner. Then they announced my name as the champion and I jumped out of my seat and looked at my mom to confirm that I had heard it right.
In my ugly baju kurung and my rubber flip flops, I ran noisily onto the stage to receive my championship trophy. I later got to eat lunch with the minister himself and the competition was covered in the newspapers the next day. Weeks later, I even got interviewed as a “public speaking expert” in another newspaper, even though it was literally my first competition and I was in no way, an expert!!!
To this day, I will always remember what the minister said when he announced the winner. “Although all the finalists were good, there was one speaker who really stood out from the rest.” It was a constant reminder that even our perceived “normal and average” selves can be unique and special — if we just set a stage for us to be those things. Because of course, Tunku Abdul Rahman was incredible and amazing, but he was also just a man. The experience taught me that wonderful things happened outside our comfort zone, when we feel most scared and alone.
For you, dear readers, don’t wait for a sadistic trainer to force you into difficult situations. Go out there and seek out challenging but rewarding ways to express yourself!
Aissa is the founder of Seek to Speak and teaches public speaking to kids during the weekends. She has a full-time job as an in-house legal counsel but loves sharing her speaking tips and tricks wherever she can. She also likes cooking stews, reading fantasy books, and tending to her potted plants.