PUBLIC SPEAKING PAIN

Yesterday I finished the first week of my face-to-face classes to become an adult educator. It was a tough week of learning and trying to absorb new information, and doing things outside of my comfort zone.

The class was small with about twelve students of differing ages and backgrounds being taught by a knowledgeable trainer. Everyone had similar challenges in balancing studies with life commitments, and so they were supportive and helpful with one another. It was a great atmosphere to be a part of.

Despite some experience with public speaking in previous jobs and volunteering in classrooms, I get nervous standing in front of a group and talking.

It doesn’t matter if I’m talking to children or adults, I’ll still react the same. It could be a bunch of staring lizards and I suspect I’d still get the shaky hands, tremor in the voice and sweating.

On the first day of classes, we had to do introductions. Say your name, why you’re there and what you want to improve on. If you wanted to elaborate further, you could talk about a hobby. There were talking prompts on the board. Sounds easy right? You’re talking about subject matter that you’re an expert on…you.

There’s just something about having the focus of your peers and standing in front of a room that automatically has my pulse racing and my hands wringing. I got through it but internally berated my performance, dissecting it to pieces. I wondered how others felt despite everyone seeming to sail through their introductions.

The next few days, the trainer got us doing one on one, small group and class activities. There were fun learning tasks, short quick “energisers” (quick games to refresh during the arvo slump), and public speaking tasks.

It was rather clever how the trainer worked on building group rapport to create a supportive and comfortable environment for us to do talks. Initially, the trainer got us to do micro public speaking tasks, increasing the time and complexity as the days went on.

By the last day, we had to give a lesson to last twenty minutes that involved a resource of some kind and ideally involved class participation.

I used a PowerPoint presentation on customer service and looked at some of the worst scenarios I’ve experienced. One example involved a customer double parking his Mercedes-Benz in front of the pharmacy and demanding I did his prescription quickly because he didn’t want a ticket. That was used to explain the entitled customer.

After each slide, I tried getting audience participation by asking them their ideas of how I chose to respond in each of the scenarios, using multiple choices as options. It generated some interaction but nowhere to the extent of other people’s talks.

I also got a couple of people up to role-play a scenario but that didn’t work too well. I think I needed to work on my lesson plan and found better ways of generating fun, practical and engaging activities. What I learnt from watching other people do their presentations was that I needed to make my delivery more engaging.

I knew that I’d be more critical of myself, and how I thought I performed wouldn’t necessarily be accurate, so I asked the trainer for her feedback.

Hand tremors, sweaty armpits and hands, shaky voice, racing pulse and jitters aside, I needed to know how I “presented” to others.

The trainer opted for the sandwich method. You know, one good comment on either side of a constructive comment.

“You’re really professional and presentation was great. You could smile more. You look stern, a bit serious. You could inject a bit of humour to lighten the talk. Otherwise, it was good.”

I need to work on my delivery. The problem is, I’m pretty sure smiling isn’t possible when I’m in fight, flight or freeze mode. As for humour, does laughing at your own jokes count?

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STRANGE ENCOUNTERS

Have you ever had a random encounter where you walked away thinking “What the fudge just happened?”

Like it was so surreal, you couldn’t possibly capture the essence of the encounter with words alone? That your words simply wouldn’t do it justice?

I had such an encounter. I won’t be able to reproduce the scene with great accuracy, but I think you’ll get the gist. Bear with me while I narrate my bizarro experience.


We were sitting outside of a café soaking in the sun’s warmth as we sipped our hot drinks and ate our pastries. We were on a short holiday at a seaside town on the Bellarine Peninsula in Victoria, Australia.

An old man walked by and tapped my husband on the shoulder.

“Excuse me young man, could you watch over these while I get a trolley?”

My husband offered to carry the box of plastic hangers to where the man needed but the man declined. The old man needed the trolley for support while he walked several blocks towards his house and didn’t want to inconvenience my husband.

After retrieving a trolley from the nearby supermarket, the old man thanked my husband. Shortly after, the existence of two children and a woman suddenly became apparent to him. Gesturing to me, the old man told my husband that he had a pretty wife.

“You’re very pretty. Where do you come from?”

Knowing that he didn’t mean where I lived in Melbourne, I replied that I was Vietnamese even though technically, I considered myself Australian. But I knew he didn’t mean any offence and was curious about my heritage.

“Did you meet your pretty wife in Vietnam?”

My husband explained that we met as students while in University some twenty years ago.

“What do you do? How much do you make? 80K, 100K? Where do you live? Are you rich? You must be to have such a beautiful wife. I’m not saying you’re ugly. You’re a good-looking bloke yourself.”

He might as well have asked if I was a mail-order bride or a gold digger.

Turning to me, he asked if I had been in Australia long. It must have confused him hearing me speak English without an accent.

“I was born in Australia.” 

The conversation was ridiculous, but I wasn’t offended by his assumptions, just amused. He must not have met many Australian-born Asians.

“Have you got a friend you can introduce to me? My wife died of breast cancer decades ago. I’ve been alone for you wouldn’t believe how long.”

Bah! How do you respond to that?! After laughing awkwardly, I replied with no.

“How old do you think I am? Guess. Take a stab.”

If this wasn’t a loaded question… My husband said 78 while I said 68 to be safe.

“I’m 73 years old. I walk every day and go for a swim first thing when the water is cold. Asian women don’t really like going into the water. They don’t like wearing bikinis and getting into the sea, do they?”

“You look like you’re in your forties,” he said, looking at me.

Now, this when I felt offended. I didn’t care too much about his stereotyping of Asian women or his suggestion that my husband had scored a mail-order bride.

No, I was offended that he thought I was in my forties. I’m still two years off my forties thank you very much! Seriously, it’s a universal faux pas to even hint at a woman’s age. Old age must have addled this poor man’s brain. That’s the ONLY explanation for why he thought I was older than my years!

“Do you want to come to my house for beer? I live just a street away. Are you sure you don’t have a lady friend like you to introduce to me?”


The poor man was lonely and just wanted to have a yarn – I could understand that. While I have a soft spot for the elderly and usually didn’t mind humouring people, we did have to be somewhere. So we ended the conversation and parted ways.

When I’m a dotty old lady and craving companionship and conversation, I wonder if young people will spare a moment to indulge me?

If they do, I’ll be sure to keep my opinions to myself… especially when it comes to a woman’s age.

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AWKWARD CHRISTMAS HUGS

For introverts, there is nothing worse than being forced into a situation where you have to meet strangers and execute small talk. Actually, there is… small talk with your partner’s family’s extended family. I’ve no doubt it would raise the hackles of any introvert.

It’s the worst situation for an introvert to be in because unlike with random strangers, you can’t remove yourself unless you run out of the house on the pretense of an emergency of some kind. For many of us, sitting through tortuous family gatherings, especially for special occasions like Christmas, is a must.


We travelled almost seven hours and stayed with my husband’s parents for Christmas 2020. On Boxing Day, some of his extended family came over for a visit. The in-law’s family room housed my husband’s two uncles, two aunts, cousin and her two children as well as the eight of us that were already there. Teas and sweets were passed around, and the small talk began.

True to form, as soon as the small talk began, I made excuses to leave to another room. I gathered the children and set up the Nintendo Switch to play video games. I stayed with them in the front room on the pretense of supervision. I was really avoiding the awkward small talk and uncomfortable feeling of having many sets of eyes on me while I tried mumbling my way through conversations. I didn’t need that stress in my life. Was it rude? Most definitely, but I’ve made no secret about my anxiety with small talk.

When the children had their fill of video games and decided to play a game called “Don’t Step In It”, I reluctantly returned to the family room where all the adults had gathered.

“Find a chair and stop looking like an outsider,” chastised one of my husband’s aunts upon seeing me lurk around the fringes of the room.

“I’m fine where I am,” I replied sheepishly. I hate being made a spectacle. I’d happily hide in the shadows if it meant no one asked me uncomfortable questions or expected me to converse like a grown adult. No thank you.

When the time came for people to leave, I stood around awkwardly, knowing that I had to say goodbye to them. I walked out with my husband and children, waved goodbye to one set of aunts and uncles then returned to bid farewell to the other set still inside the house. The aunt gave me a big hug and threw out my ‘I don’t really like to be touched’ rule. As the uncle made his rounds with his goodbyes, I stood there debating whether the uncle would expect a hug too because his wife just gave me one.

The aunt totally threw me with the hug. Now I was confused as to the appropriate social etiquette expected of me. So when the uncle turned to me, I gave him a hug and surprised the both of us. It was self-inflicted awkwardness and you know how I hate feeling awkward.

When everyone was gone, I threw myself on the couch near my brother-in-law and his partner and bemoaned how awkward the experience was for me. My brother-in-law’s partner, a fellow introvert, hadn’t enjoyed the small talk and mostly sat there listening to others converse instead.

Fellow introverts, what is the secret to small talk with extended family? Better yet, how do you avoid giving and receiving awkward hugs?

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