■ 23:48 (UTC±01:00 +DST), 18 APR 2016 | CHE ZÜRICH-CITY
I have to admit, I’ve mixed feelings when it came to the Gemeindesaal (or Community Hall, a “mini” City Town Hall of sorts) in Zumikon, Switzerland. It remained to me a lesser-favourite part of Zumikon, the place I went to school in Switzerland, for a fair bit of time — simply because we sat exams there — and it was rather scary. A grand hall for upwards of 500, converted to a hall of around 200-300 students sitting exams!
However, the whole thing changed on 14 December 1996. I remembered an audience that almost filled the entire hall — parents, kids, everyone, as everyone joined our school for an afternoon of performances just in time for the festive period. On a conservative count, I figured there were at least 200; more recently, I was told this figure could have been upwards of 500.
You couldn’t really shout to 500 — few contemporary human throats were made for that amount of “raw power”. Technology, then, stepped right in, with a microphone & amplifier system getting your message to the rest of the world (or the hall). These things amplified every last utterance — including what you got wrong.
Which to people who hate making mistakes — or are just outright scared of such massive audiences — will likely make them faint.
But not yours truly.
I remembered I joined another student — a she, from probably French class (a grade above) — as we started into the poem, Il Neige — in French, no less. The reciting of the poem — or indeed, my first onstage performance in front of such a huge audience — was both scary and exciting at the same time.
I had hitherto no real “mic experience” — the ones I picked up for karaoke didn’t even count. 500 was easily my biggest audience to date. There was no amplification technology available in late 1993, when I was onstage in front of an audience of probably 250 for the school’s Christmas show, then held on campus. I’m guessing I might have been heard clearly by only those in the front half of the hall. (The hall below is only around two-thirds of the entire hall for the late 1993 school performance.)
But at the Gemeindesaal, with technology in front of the lectern, it was really a case of every last breath you did being made audible to the entire audience. This included unintended mistakes — which I sort of did close to the very end. But we did our bit onstage, come hell or high water.
At the end of my performance on 14 December 1996, I headed onto a train to central Zürich to meet with a family friend. I remained the stodgy, reserved me — uninterested as ever.
Yet inside, I was hiding this sense of excitement and elation that was bursting to be let out. I had actually addressed an audience of 500 for the first time in my life.
At age 14, this was the kind of stuff my dad might not have been too excited about. For him, a very traditional Chinese parent, going to school in Switzerland meant scoring high marks, not entertaining hundreds in front of the mic. They did not know about this at all until late 2015 (their reaction was an instant #OMG — the good way!).
In 1997, I came back for Round Two. This time, the mic was hand-held; they did away with the lectern; and I addressed the audience, all on my own. I felt even greater excitement — contained only when I went through my performance, a recital of a poem, this time in English.
Two of the largest audiences I entertained since then were in 2004 — for a fashion show of at least 1,000 (organisers said upwards of 2,000 came, although I still stick by that lower figure of a thousand), and the emceeing of the Portsmouth performance of Cultures of China, Festival of Spring, a Lunar New Year of the Monkey gala for the city in southern England.
The moment when you hold the microphone up and make an announcement instantly grabs the attention of nearly everyone at the venue. You had to be sure you sounded audible, courteous, civilised but also serious — you only had so much leeway in terms of the language you chose. Having seen quite a few hosts — from China and elsewhere — struggle here with the right choice of words — I know I had to raise the bar even further. It had to have the “physical” equivalent of tapping someone — courteously — and asking them to, with a smile, take their seats and get ready for what was up next. You had to be in control without making the audience feel like you took charge by force — and still give them the idea that this thing, this event, this gig, was starting, and there would usually be no leeway for any possible delays. When you delivered a speech, the way I’ve experienced it, the hardest bit is at the start — a bit I’ve found easier by thanking the presenter (or the audience, or both!), and starting out with a quick question or two. A forceful statement here would be ideal, in the eyes of advice from a few ‘motivational speakers’, but my end, it was far more a case of trying to “link up” with the audience. Even if you don’t elicit an instant response, you have to use language that puts yourself closer to them — rather than make them think you were here only for “shouting orders” as to what was next.
Going onstage and either emceeing or delivering a talk is probably never an easy thing. It’s said that public speaking is said to be the biggest fear reported by many American adults, topping flying, financial ruin, sickness, and even death. I usually get around this by imagine I was making an important station announcement to the encouragement of a circle of friends (that’s the image I have in my mind; you are warned that this might not work with non-railway-oriented people!). The most important thing I do is smile. I’ve probably seen the most sincere smiles when getting onboard or leaving a flight operated by SWISS (no joke!… and I’ve flown on many airlines). I try to aim for a smile as relaxed, as confident, and as sincere, and I in fact always try to get myself to adopt a standard that goes above what I’ve experienced myself.
I now relish every single moment in the spotlight, but none of this would have been possible without the Stage Swissness that started it all in late 1996. It’s Swissness made in Switzerland, through trial, error, and a great deal of experience, plus a fair bit of experimentation as well. It’s ICS that made it possible, and I’m happy I started my return to the Inter-Community School, the school I’ve been in for 10 years in Switzerland, with a visit first to the Gemeindesaal in Zumikon, where it all began onstage.
This was the very audience I faced when talking at TEDxGuangzhou in late 2009. I told them this was going to be tweeted later — as my talk was about Twitter! Everyone had a great time. ■ ■ ■