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How did an introverted writer who used to hate public speaking find the courage to take to the West End stage in her own solo theatre show? Yang-May Ooi, writer and performer of Bound Feet Blues - A Life Told in Shoes, reveals her fearlessness secret to supercharge your confidence as a public speaker.
I used to have a stammer and I was so afraid of speaking in public, I chose my professional career out of fear: I became a solicitor instead of a barrister because I was scared of having to stand up in court.
My ideal lifestyle was to be a writer because writers stay at home by themselves. I was fortunate enough to achieve this dream with two novels published by Hodder & Stoughton, the first of them, The Flame Tree becoming a bestseller in Malaysia, outranking Ken Follett. The only problem was that writers are expected to go out there and promote our books - going on radio and TV and giving talks. In the UK, I was invited on to the BBC, LBC and book signings and other events. My publisher sent me off to Malaysia and Singapore and I appeared on local media there. It was nerve-wracking!
Fast forward to 2012. In the age of the internet, Youtube and multimedia, the expectation for writers to go out there and perform is even more intense. So I decided to get some help and signed up for Ginger’s Foundations course and the TED Talk weekend. This led me to be invited to give a TEDx talk at TEDxCoventGardenWomen in Nov 2013. The talk inspired the audience to get to their feet as one and shout out an iconic phrase from it: “F**k the Labels!” and has been described as “one of the most moving talks at a TEDx event”.
I realised that all these years, I’d had a talent for live storytelling and public speaking that I had not seen because my fear had got in the way. I began to explore how I could develop this even more. I had a go at telling a story at the cult storytelling club The Story Party. I signed up for a workshop for solo performance and also Ginger’s Inspiring Speaker’s Programme.
Out of all this, my solo story performance Bound Feet Blues - A Life Told in Shoes was born.
Bound Feet Blues tells stories passed down by the women in my family interwoven with my own coming out story in a journey that takes the audience from England to Malaysia, China and Australia. With my roots in storytelling and public speaking, I use no props, no change of costume or change of scenery. It will be just me, my voice and physicality and the audience’s imagination….
The 3 week run of full theatrical production opens in the West End in Nov/ Dec this year and is supported by an internationally renowned creative team, including director Jessica Higgs and set/ lighting designer Hua Tan.
I have no formal drama training and it is a huge responsibility to carry a solo show all alone on stage for an hour.
I feel terrified, excited, focused, amazed all at the same time.
So if I’m terrified, how come I’m writing an article about how to be fearless?
Courage isn’t the absence of fear. It’s feeling the fear and doing it anyway (thanks, Susan Jeffers!)
And there are things we can do to ensure that our feelings of fear do not overwhelm us so we can go ahead and do the thing we want to do.
Here is my Number One Secret for Fearless Presence on Stage:
Know this: the stage is in fact the safest place you can be.
We usually think of the stage as a place where we are exposed, where people judge us, where we are not allowed to fail, where we have to be perfect. Standing there with so many eyes upon us, our internal critic kicks into overdrive. Or our inner caretaker wants to keep us safe and is desperate to pull us off that stage.
So let me say it again: the stage is in fact the safest place you can be.
On stage, you can prance about like a child and do Bruce Lee kicks - as I do in Bound Feet Blues. On stage, you can fall to your knees to show a woman beaten down by life - as I do in my award-winning speech at the Ginger Gala Finale. On stage, you can show your vulnerability - as I do in my TEDx talk.
Because audiences want to laugh and cry and be moved. By giving yourself permission on stage to be silly, passionate, vulnerable and more, you are giving permission to the audience connect with their own childlike sense of fun, their own passion, their own naked heart - not just in the moment of your talk but in their lives.
Audiences also want you to be real - so if you fluff up or stumble, that’s OK. I’ve fluffed and stumbled plenty. Tech has gone wrong. I’ve had to chatter on to fill dead space when the person I was introducing had slipped out of the room at the wrong time.
On stage, you stand in for each person in that audience. If you mess up or forget your words, the audience will not think less of you. Often they won’t even notice. But if they do, they will in fact think more of you. Because they are feeling exactly how you are feeling in that moment and they will see your struggle to recover as courageous. Because you are each of them in that moment. So you can be sure that they are all silently giving you their support and warmth and willing you to succeed.
In my first public performance of Bound Feet Blues, in front of a sold out theatre, I fluffed the first line of the show. Later on, I got some lines in the wrong order. In each case, despite my mind shrieking at me for the fumbles, I took my time and recovered. The audience stayed with me. And the show still got 4+ star reviews….
So the next time you step onto that stage, remember this: the audience are championing you. You stand in for each of them up there. So being on stage is the safest place to be all that you are - passionate, foolish, wise, messy, real. And in being all that you are, you will inspire your audience to be all that they can be.
Yang-May Ooi is an award-winning TEDx speaker, bestselling author and acclaimed story performer. www.StoryGuru.co.uk
Bound Feet Blues - A Life Told in Shoes
Tue 24 Nov - Sat 12 Dec, Tue - Sat at 7.30pm ¦ Tickets £16 / £12 concessions.
Tristan Bates Theatre, 1A Tower St, Covent Garden WC2H 9NP
Online: http://bit.ly/bfbtickets ¦ Box Office 020 7240 6283
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