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Sharing by Michelle Khoo on "Grit and Compassion".

Hi my beloved YWLC members and mentors,

Some of you who were at YWLC's 10th year anniversary celebration would have witnessed me perched precariously on a small rectangular box trying to tell everyone about my story of 'grit'. I am so grateful for the outpouring of support, and humbled that ladies across different life stages all felt it spoke to some of the tribulations they have been/ are going through. If you missed it, you can read it below.

Speaking from the heart and being real in front of an auditorium full of strangers is not easy, but everyone appreciates authenticity. Here's a behind the scenes look at how I prepared for the speech. Some reflections with the benefit of hindsight. Hopefully, this would in some small way help develop real and authentic leaders in YWLC.

First, give voice to an important message that is seldom heard or spoken.

What is everyone feeling but too afraid to say? That's a powerful way to connect directly to the heart. Do you have a personal story to share that others can relate to or draw inspiration from? Taking the first step to be vulnerable invites others to open up. And it is easier to be vulnerable when you realise the story you share is not really about you, but just a medium through which other people can understand themselves.

Second, respect your audience.

Although I mention this second, this was, to me, the most important. I wanted to ensure everyone - from the newest member to the women who have been there, done that and have it all - had something to take away from my 5 minute spiel. I had to throw out and rewrite initial drafts of my speech, because it had too many cliches, or it came across as showing off or lecturing people on what they should do because I had done it a certain way. When even the YWLC preemies (the girls still completing ITE) came to tell me that they felt they could connect to my speech, I felt I accomplished my goal.

It's useful to test your speech out with a good friend. I could sense my husband trying hard to stifle his laughter or stop his eyes from rolling in my first few versions.

Third, make every word count.

Even if there wasn't a time limit, making every word count shows your audience you respect their time. For every sentence, I ask myself "why would the audience need to know that". If the meaning doesn't change whether or not the sentence or word is there, it probably doesn't need to be there.

I love using imagery and contrasts (e.g. mountains and valleys) because you can evoke a lot in very few words. In a short 5 minutes, I wanted to take my audience on a journey, from ignorance to discovery to conflict to resolution to epiphany.

It's not always about being brief though. Some things need to be said the way you would to a lover or close friend. For example, I originally wanted to use the phrase "Quite inexplicably", but it sounded quite pretentious when said aloud. So i changed it to "I didn't understand what was happening", and I felt I could say this with a lot more sincerity.

Finally, practise practise practise.

I used to think that to sound natural, I should rehearse less so I would sound less scripted. But I realised, to be vulnerable in front of an auditorium of mostly strangers takes a lot of mental preparation. So I repeated my speech many times in front of the mirror. The first few times, it came out rather contrived because the natural instinct is to hide away negative feelings. But each time, I challenged myself to remove one layer of defence and to permit myself to let raw emotions emerge. Every word and every breath in between had its own emotional significance. Rehearsing helped me overcome the nerves, which would have put the walls back up. While on stage, because I could anticipate every next sentence, I could reassure myself that I was fine with sharing it and fine with revealing the emotions attached. I could then focus externally on reaching out and connecting to the audience.

In summary, some guiding questions you may want to ask yourself when you need to make a big speech or ahead of an important or difficult conversation:

  • Can I acknowledge something my audience is thinking but not saying?

  • Can I be vulnerable first as an invitation for the other to open up?

  • What would my audience need to hear? What is unnecessary for them to hear?

  • Am I being respectful of my audience time?

  • How would I say it to a close friend or lover? What would a close friend think of my message?

  • Do I give myself permission to reveal my innermost emotions to this audience?

  • Have I been of service to my audience?

Transcript of Michelle's soapbox speech at YWLC 10th Anniversary Event

"Grit and Compassion"

If asked to picture someone who has overcome the odds, the first thing that comes to my mind is someone with a rags-to-riches story. I picture the person alone in a big pristine board room, looking elegant and powerful like on the magazine cover of Fortune or the Peak. To add to that image now, this person probably happens to be a mother of three or four kids who are each also high achievers, while being an active contributor to society.

(I’m probably describing half the people in this room)

It’s great that we have such inspirational models like that in our midst. But for those of us who haven’t got there yet, I’d like to venture that it may be dangerous for us to think that – that is all to the picture. Everyone talks about the mountains, no one mentions the valleys.

Fast forward, my life was everything I dreamed of, I married my childhood sweetheart, I have 2 (mostly) adorable boys, my career is going generally where I hoped it would go. But then, there were days where I felt I wanted to just run away and disappear. I didn't understand what was happening, but these days got more and more, closer and closer. I was becoming really mean and anxious. I felt I wasn’t good enough as a mother, a terrible wife, and not quite sure if I was really making the impact I wanted to at work. I think too much, fear too much, envy too much. I tell my husband I’m going crazy. He gives me a look that says… I’ve always been this way.

The challenge that has shaken me to the core was not any goal or ambition I set myself. It was coming face to face with myself. Selfish, mean, ego and all. And I had never been so scared in my life.

In recent months, we have seen a few examples of bright sparks snuffed out too soon. People we thought were at the top of their game, suddenly deciding it was end-game. Among the audience, there are many who might have the belief that we cannot show weakness because so much is at stake, because we are supposed to be better and stronger than the rest, because we need to prove we can do it all. But that is why it’s even more important to have this conversation. That is why we need to tell ourselves and each other, it is OK to be vulnerable some times. It is OK to need rest. It is OK not to be perfect.

When other female friends tell me I’m a supermum, I wonder if they’re going through the same mental struggles as me. Always beating ourselves up for not meeting up to this perfect standard we set for ourselves. I want to say you’re just as perfect, but the words don’t come out right. I hoped this soapbox could set the record straight.

These days I’m feeling a lot better.

  • I’m investing a lot more time focusing on my husband, as my partner in life, and not just the poor other chap that needs to help keep our madhouse in order.

  • I’m focusing on what I can contribute, not competing about how much.

  • I stopped believing I was struggling alone on this journey, but that there were many other people like me.

  • And I started thinking about what I could do to help make the journey a little easier for others who are going through the same thing.

Is that grit? To me grit is not about overcoming the odds, but about being able to press on even in the knowledge of your own weaknesses.

So what would my magazine cover look like? My moment of grit probably looked like this: In a contorted position trying to push the car door as wide as possible but being blocked by the next car that parked too close by, sweat and hair plastered over my face, squirming baby in one arm, toddler grabbing on to one leg to make sure he doesn’t run out on the road. But I have a triumphant look on my face because I just smashed a cockroach that was running on my baby’s car seat with my bare hands.

Life is messy, little things can get you down. But you are not alone. For what it’s worth, everyone has the capacity for grit. It doesn’t matter if you’re a CEO, or a stay-at-home-mum, or just the average girl next door. If we can run we run, if we can walk we walk, if we need to stop, we rest. As long as we show up every day, be there for our loved ones and the people who need us. That is what’s important.

Ms Michelle Khoo was the Chairperson of YWLC’s 3rd Executive Committee (2014-2015). She is currently the Head of Social Strategy at Ministry of Finance.

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