How Women Can Shine On Stage

Need to make a presentation?

Portrait of Tammy Strobel

Need to make a presentation? Or nail your best friend’s wedding speech? Overcome your phobia of speaking in public and own your time in the spotlight. High-achieving women who wow audiences for a living share their secrets with Karen Tee.

" I’d like to give my two cents’ worth, Nancy."

"Donald, you’ll just  have to wait your turn. Also, it’s Ms Nancy to you."

It’s a little hard to imagine, but Sukki Singapora is shy by nature. With her rainbow-coloured hair and figure-flattering outfits, Singapore’s first burlesque artist is also an outspoken, self-professed feminist who clearly does not fear the spotlight. Case in point: She wore a cape bearing the words “Asians come in all colours” to the Singapore gala of Crazy Rich Asians. But even this bold performer used to be “crippled with stage fright”.“Nerves, sweats and shakes, I had it all,” she says.

Although most of us may never have to disrobe on stage, the tongue-tied terror caused by the mere thought of having to speak up in public is probably very relatable. But we’ve all got to do it at some point.

Not everybody possesses the moxie to ham it up in front of a crowd, but what’s heartening to know is that even the best of us, from TV show presenters to corporate powerhouses and, yes, burlesque performers, learnt this skill the hard way. For instance, Sukki credits her craft with teaching her to project confidence in front of an audience.

We get her and four other accomplished women to spill their secrets on nailing an appearance in front of a big audience.
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Su-Yen Wong, CEO and founder of consultancy Bronze Phoenix, helps organisations and individuals reinvent themselves. Wong has appeared globally as a professional speaker, moderator and guest lecturer.

“The first step is to ask questions, specifically to understand what the client is trying to accomplish. Context matters, and I tailor my approach for each specifi c audience. I conduct research on the industry and company, and then integrate that perspective into the presentation. With panel moderation, the more time I’ve spent with the panellists and the more knowledge I have about the issues being discussed, the better-positioned I will be to guide the dialogue.

“I started life as a musician – my first solo appearances on stage as a pianist were probably around the age of six – and in many ways, public speaking is similar: The more prepared you are, the more comfortable you will be on stage, which then translates into your ability to project confi dence. I try not to refer to notes when I’m delivering a speech, but I practise it from beginning to end. It’s a bit like jazz – something that appears to be a spur-of-the moment improvisation actually belies the hours of practice which enable that fluidity.”

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Colette Wong, sports anchor, Fox Sports “Smile, and express yourself using your hands. But do not exaggerate your movements. Using your hands while you talk can also help ease your nerves. Just don’t overdo it.

“I try to be myself as much as the situation allows me to be as it makes me feel more at home with my surroundings, and the people I am addressing. Of course you have to look at your audience and adjust your style accordingly; a more formal crowd and occasion would require a corresponding formality of presentation.

“Whether I’m speaking to a group of bankers or sports fans, I try to be as natural as I can, and I temper my level of exuberance depending on the audience. I have a terrible memory, so I find that cue cards with pointers give me the assurance that I’ll cover all my points. No one is going to fault you for referring to cue cards. Better that than forgetting your spiel.” 
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Shannon Kalayanamitr, entrepreneur and venture partner at Gobi Partners.

“I talk a lot. I am one of the most extreme extroverts I know, but that doesn’t mean I have always been a great speaker. I do actually forget what I mean to say sometimes. The trick is always to remember just a few main points. I typically have a list of topics and my comments, then I boil it down to a short list via bullet points.

“It doesn’t matter which words you use – you know your sh*t, so you will be able to speak about it in interchangeable words at all times. Another trick for presentations and slides is to use one slide for one point, then elaborate from there.

“I do get haters who have told me to ‘sit down’, but I tell myself there is a reason why I’m speaking. That gives me confi dence.” 
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Anita Kapoor, TV host, emcee and speaker

“Work on the agility of your mind by reading, meditation, exercise – or whatever works for you. And don’t try to be or speak like someone you are not. Before an event or talk, I ground myself with self-talk. I also walk barefoot and I pace a lot, working off adrenalin. I prefer going on stage calm and collected.

“I’m always most comfortable standing in a way that feels rooted. As for clothes, wear what allows you to look sharp but also move well, and which does not cause any wardrobe malfunctions or unintended flashing. I also ask about seating – this is super-important. High stools? Low armchairs? Handheld, head or lapel mics? This helps me prep.

“Sometimes, the unexpected can happen. A couple of years ago, I was emceeing a film festival when a prominent creative began heckling me from the audience. When he wouldn’t stop, I retorted with a quip which both diffused the situation and made the audience laugh and applaud. I considered that a good day on the job. Be unafraid to face a situation with elegance, tact and strength.”
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Sukki Singapora, burlesque performer

“What helped me project confidence was learning to watch myself in the mirror. And I don’t mean in my everyday getting ready routine – I mean watching myself speaking or rehearsing, dancing or just moving. Knowing and learning your best angles and what works for you can completely change the game. It may sound silly or feel weird, but that’s precisely why it helps! Exuding confidence starts by learning to instil confidence in yourself.

“Another tip for when you’re actually speaking in public is making eye contact. It can be very tempting to raise your gaze above everyone’s heads so you can’t see them looking back at you, but actually, the best way to project confidence is to engage with the audience. Draw them in and get them on your side. Maintaining eye contact after a while can also help you feel less overwhelmed – when you realise that every audience member is just another human like you, willing you to succeed.” 


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“Oprah Winfrey’s speech at the 2018 Golden Globes was a high-water mark for me. It was authentic, and it was compelling. She told stories while delivering strong messages. And she was above all passionate and inspiring. Closer to home, Mette Johansson, Lavinia Thanapathy and Joanne Flinn are not only superb speakers but also take the lead to bring more diversity to stages around the world.”

– Su-Yen Wong

“Michelle Obama is strong and poised, natural yet impactful. She’s also down-to-earth, which makes her accessible and relatable to her audience.”

– Shannon Kalayanamitr

“I watch comedians like Lily Tomlin, Tracee Ellis Ross, Hannah Gadsby, Gina Yashere and Ali Wong for their storytelling and timing, and talk show hosts such as Ellen DeGeneres Frances-White of The Guilty Feminist podcast for how they approach content and techniques.”

– Anita Kapoor