More than words

Winner of the Toastmasters World Championship of Public Speaking 2016, anti-bullying crusader, lover of chicken biryani... Darren Tay tells DEEPA ALEXANDER how he conquered the stage

Updated - December 01, 2016 06:52 pm IST

Published - October 19, 2016 02:26 pm IST - Chennai

Darren Tay. Photo: R. Ravindran

Darren Tay. Photo: R. Ravindran

American historian, Henry Adams’ famous quote that ‘A teacher affects eternity; he can never tell where his influence stops’, found an echo in a school in Singapore many years ago, and on a stage in Washington DC more recently.

At the Marriott Marquis, Singaporean lawyer Darren Tay pauses on stage before he pulls on a pair of white underwear over his suit to the startled laughter of the 1,600-strong audience. For the next five minutes, Tay talks about how he was bullied and forced to wear an underwear over his school uniform, how he learnt to ‘outsmart and outlast’ the taunting, and how ironically, his bully, now a counsellor, taught him some of life’s most important lessons. Tay delivers his speech speckled with humour, ensuring that the gravitas of the subject is never for a moment lost in the laughter that accompanies it. It was an act of confidence that won him the Toastmasters World Championship of Public Speaking, setting him apart from 30,000 competitors through several rounds of competition. The championship, held since 1938 except for the War years, brings together participants from over 142 countries, who are finally whittled down to 10. It is hosted by Toastmasters International, a not-for-profit educational organisation that since its founding in 1924, operates clubs worldwide to hone members in communication, public speaking and leadership skills. Tay is the first Singaporean to win the honour.

The 27-year-old, who was in Chennai recently at the invitation of the city-based District 82 of Toastmasters International, says “I’m humbled and excited by the experience. Last year, a Singaporean was a finalist, and that served as inspiration to win the grand finals.”

But much before Tay in his spiked hair and dark suit became the toast of the town, he was a graduate of the National University of Singapore in civil and commercial litigation law. “I’ve stopped practising law for now. It’s a crucial time for me, travelling to different places to speak,” says Tay, whose first visit to India also includes addressing toastmasters clubs at New Delhi and Thiruvananthapuram. Reeling out the names of Indian foods and festivals — he loves biryani and dosa and says ‘Deepavali’, without the faintest trace of an accent — Tay’s was an upbringing rooted in the cosmopolitan milieu of Singapore. “I grew up in a modest family with rich values. My father is an engineer, my mother, an entrepreneur who gave up her business so that she could spend time with my younger brother and I. They taught me to remain humble when I achieved and to never give up when I failed.”

But the spark for public speaking came from Tay’s English language teacher when he was 14. “I was a shy boy and the teacher insisted that I present a paper alone. When I did, I’ll never forget what she said — she told the class that this is how a presentation should be made. That one sentence made a world of difference. After that, she made me present a book review of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone in the school library, and invited the teacher in charge of the debates club to sit in. I’m grateful to her, because from then on, I began my speaking career. It was a life-changing story,” says Tay with earnestness.

Tay became a member of the Punggol Park Toastmasters Club in 2009, honing his skills in public speaking and debating. “For the international contest, you have to deliver a speech that could be persuasive, informative or inspirational. Informative speeches tend not to resonate with the audience, while inspirational speeches always make a mark. I practised in front of a video camera — recording my performance for my mentor to evaluate. I gave out feedback forms to the audience, and if they could sum up my speech message in one sentence, I’d done my job. I visited a club every single day for a month before I went to compete, where I spoke on the same subject — ‘Outsmart, Outlast’.”

Tay, who is the author of Express To Impress and runs a public speaking academy, “hopes to be able to continue in the same direction. One of my mentors told me that if you’ve got a lot from society, it is also time to give back. Many people sell their information, but I want to make a difference by giving it free. So, on my website, you can find PowerPoint presentations and speeches. When you give it free, it is passed forward.”

Almost evangelical in his zeal to help others, Tay hopes to serve as a bridge between the East and the West, being proficient in Chinese and English. “I want to communicate with the youth, teach them about mindfulness, and help them deal with their internal demons. When people have stage fright, I want to make the butterflies in their stomach fly in formation,” he laughs. “I’m also working to be an anti-bullying ambassador in my own country, especially now, when an increasing number of people are being cyber-bullied. When you show them how to connect the dots, they feel they too can make it.”

Tay, who enjoys a weekly game of badminton and reading self-help books, says, “They help you glean alternative viewpoints, even if you are confident with your craft. As you grow, you want to know how others do it, and discover that there are different pathways to the pinnacle.”

Lend me your ears

Darren Tay’s tips to be a successful public speaker

* Visualise your lines positively. Say ‘I will remember’, instead of ‘I won’t forget’.

* Mindfulness increases endorphins and enables an inner connect that’ll help you deliver better.

* Humour relaxes both the audience and the speaker.

* Don’t step on the audience laughter. Let them laugh loud and long before you continue with your speech.

* Pace your speech — record and learn.

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