Benjamin Loh: Public Speaking Disaster, Fear of Judgement & Never Say No - E160

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Never saying no to me isn’t an absolute. There are times when I would definitely say no as well. If opportunities are not aligned to who I am. I would not go to a CEO conference and teach people how to grow and scale, all those are clear no’s for me. In the domain where I am empowered to say yes, I would ask if I have some past experience and potential to create value for people. That’s how I would frame my decisions to say yes. I do not just take everything on. - Benjamin Loh

Benjamin Loh is a Certified Speaking Professional (CSP) and Professional #Millennial Speaker. As the youngest Certified Speaking Professional (CSP) in Asia, an accolade accorded to top 12% of professional speakers globally, an Associate Certified Coach (ACC) with the International Coach Federation (ICF), Benjamin has empowered over 120 senior leaders individually in topics like strategic communications, public speaking and presentation skills as their Executive Presenting Coach etc.

In the role of a Professional #Millennial Speaker, he has also partnered over 55,000 executive clients and entrepreneurs, professionals, directors and CEOs from over 9 countries in Asia from corporations like ANZ Bank, Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS), Porsche, UOB Bank to enhance their performance on stage and communicate effectively across generations. His work in entrepreneurship and activism has also been covered on over 70 occasions on the following media platforms like The Huffington Post, Channel News Asia (CNA), Straits Times (ST), Radio Television Hong Kong (RTHK), and BFM89.9 Malaysia

Jeremy Au: (00:30)
Hi, Benjamin, super excited to have you on the show.
 

Benjamin Loh: (00:33)
Thank you, Jeremy, I’m looking forward to being of value to the folks who are listening to your podcast.
 

Jeremy Au: (00:40)
We’ve known each other for almost 10 years now and I’ve seen you grow as a speaker across multiple platforms and in yourself as a public speaker.
 

Benjamin Loh: (01:00)
I’m looking forward to sharing everything.
 

Jeremy Au: (01:05)
Benjamin, who are you?
 

Benjamin Loh: (01:07)
In the philosophical sense, I’m asking that myself, who am I? Anyway, I’ve been in the speaking/training/coaching scene for the past 12 years. I’m now running a boutique training consultancy where we help fortune 100 to fortune 500 leaders or startup founders to perfect their speaking engagement, helping them to be authentic as well as effective on stage. Outside of that, I’m a professional speaker. Prior to COVID, I flew to 8 countries and spoke to them about the potential of the upcoming workforce – millennials and gen-z; and to let them know there is hope in the upcoming generation. My role is to be a bridge between the leaders of today and the leaders of tomorrow. Outside of work, I’m a father of one. My boy just turned 7 months at the time we are currently speaking.
 

Jeremy Au: (02:53)
How did you first get the spark of public speaking?
 

Benjamin Loh: (03:00)
I used to study in a boy’s school and I was quite chubby. For the longest time, I was the victim of bullying. There was emotional and physical trauma. In addition to that, I’m a very introverted person and I think that public speaking came to me rather than me looking for it. Also, I used to watch the intervarsity Mandarin debates aired on television. Watching them move the crowds with their eloquence was a seed that was planted into me at 11 or 12 years of age. Ten years later, in my late teens, I discovered that going through a life coaching program, I discovered that I had a story to share. One thing led to another and I was telling my story to the media. People then started to invite me one after another to talk and I turned pro when in South Korea and an organisation emailed me saying they wanted me to share my story and train their young people in public speaking and asked how much I charged.
 

Jeremy Au: (05:51)
That’s interesting. The first part was how you became a speaker and the second was how you became a professional. How did you learn to speak?
 

Benjamin Loh: (06:17)
In my earlier stages, it’s realising that speaking is a human fear and the misconception that being young is a bad thing – inexperienced, young, wouldn’t hold much weight. I used that to my advantage in that when I’m young I can say I’m still learning. I’ve always felt the hallmark of a great speaker is how they work off-stage as well and I’ll always be sat in the front row of the other speakers to take notes on their presentation. It’s an amalgamation of all these first hand learnings, speaking on stage, making mistakes and realising that you don’t actually get roasted or die from a bad speech, and getting better.
 

Jeremy Au: (08:09)
What’s the worst speech you’ve made?
 

Benjamin Loh: (08:15)
My worst speech happened some years ago when I was speaking in Macau. This was when I said yes to everything and little did I know that doing so would set me up so badly. What happened was I’ve been speaking in English which is the language I’m most comfortable with. I was asked to speak at a convention where they used Mandarin. I thought that my Mandarin was passable, so I said yes. I realised soon after that I would be presenting to professionals who have been using Mandarin all their lives and whose standards for the language aren’t like our own. I worked with a Mandarin coach for two months, but still ended up making all the mistakes that I tell my clients not to make. Fast forward to the day of that event, I woke up at 3-4am and practiced all the way to 9am, rehearsing all my lines in front of a mirror. When 11am came around, I reverted to looking at the slides and couldn’t trust my voice, my content. Normally an hour-long speech in English just flies by, but that one hour in Mandarin was the most harrowing time of my life. The worst moment came after when normally people would want to take pictures with you. I was heading back to my hotel room and it was a rather packed elevator. There were two ladies at the back of the elevator said something I’ll remember for some time to come – The speaker in the main hall spoke so badly, he was such a waste of time. We shouldn’t have wasted our time. I was the only speaker who spoke at the main convention hall and I was the speaker prior to the break. They said that without knowing that I was at the front of the elevator. That was my worst speech and made me question if I was ready to be on any stage. On the back of that, I worked with another language coach from Mainland China and the very next year, I spoke in Hong Kong in Mandarin and managed to win the audience over.
 

Jeremy Au: (12:30)
That sounds like the worst nightmare for so many people. How did you process the feedback you overheard?
 

Benjamin Loh: (12:47)
I think the first few emotions was that I was beaten. I felt like the biggest loser and locked myself away in my hotel room. Did not even text my wife. My way of processing it was just letting it flow through me and feeling it all at once. Then asking myself after wallowing enough in self-pity – what did you learn from here. I basically bounced back by telling myself that you can’t always get perfection, but you can work to be better.
 

Jeremy Au: (14:38)
I hear others refer to you like an amazing demigod or that he totally oversells himself. How do you handle that where people either admire you or are saying stuff about you?
 

Benjamin Loh: (15:01)
To some extent we look for validation. Why else would we stand up on stage to speak? Personally, I don’t like that. I do not like standing under the spotlight and I don’t know if anyone idolises me. I speak not to oversell myself, but to be myself and letting audiences know that I may have gone through certain experiences that may make me a vessel of knowledge for them.
 

Jeremy Au: (16:50)
How would you advise people to handle the fear of speaking or judging them?
 

Benjamin Loh: (17:15)
That fear of being judged is a very common one. I would usually take a very curious approach and say something like – Who do you fear being judged by? When doing so, it’ll either encourage them to go deeper or make them think what the judgements really about? I think understanding the story of their fear is important. It could be a very overbearing parent or a strict upbringing that caused them to be this way. It’s important to understand then that what was a fear growing up need not be a fear in the upcoming speech. Another way is to go the logical route. People often think of themselves. When you are worried about people judging you and thinking of you, the reality is that they’re more often just thinking about themselves. So, their fears are common, but pretty much unfounded. The third is to just give them a dose of reality. Just have them speak and see the reviews they get. It’s often very different to what they are thinking in their head that they are a bad speaker and that they are on the right track.
 

Jeremy Au: (20:37)
How would you define that “Right track”?
 

Benjamin Loh: (20:56)
It would be one where you’re able to forward yourself sustainably as a person. What I would advice my students or clients to do is to record their speech. For example, Jeremy, do you watch yourself presenting?
 

Jeremy Au: (21:43)
Yes, it’s an occupational hazard, but not all the time. Maybe 1 out of every 10, I’ll take a quick peek at.
 

Benjamin Loh: (21:52)
Good enough. Most of my corporate or startup clients never watch themselves. If you never watch yourself, then how are you going to get a personal perspective of yourself? Also, it’s important to realise that you’re a work in progress. So, debrief to go through what works and what doesn’t work. It’s telling my clients what can be improved on and a healthy relationship with watching yourself and improving yourself, that should keep them on the right track to being a better speaker.
 

Jeremy Au: (23:20)
I’ve also seen you scale across platforms from conventions and webinars. Tell us what that was like.
 

Benjamin Loh: (23:44)
I learnt from an early point in my career that you’re only as good as the impressions and the visible perceptions of you being put out there and when I was first starting out in the industry, it was rough and difficult. I realised quickly that it was important to be visible and to be on platforms that gave me that. It’s about using the right tools to allow you to do your work better.
 

Jeremy Au: (25:38)
I’ve seen you talk using different dynamics like your political speeches during the last election. Tell us more about your approach to exploring that series.
 

Benjamin Loh: (25:58)
For context, I started out with a pet project during the last general election called PSS – Politically Speaking Singapore. I think I was reasonably inspired by YouTube videos where someone is reviewing something or commenting on something. For me, I had a few reasons behind it. One was to use everyday moments as teaching lessons where you don’t need to look to the west for good role models for speaking when there are Asian speakers who are really positive role models too. Two, I wanted to encourage and expand the dialogue of what it means to communicate well.
 

Jeremy Au: (27:43)
You mentioned Asian role models for public speaking. I’m curious about that. If asked who I’d consider good speakers, my answer would be JFK, Martin Luther King Jr, Steve Jobs. Who are some of the Asian greats?
 

Benjamin Loh: (28:13)
Those are the usual household names from the west. In Asia, I think I’ll have to say the founder of Evolve and One Championship – Chatri. Usually when you hear Western speakers, there’s a brash aggressiveness to them. When Chatri speaks, even though he studied in the States, he is Thai by descent, and he speaks with a lot of humility and his responses are very measured.
 

Jeremy Au: (29:47)
He’s a great example and an awesome guy. Starting to wrap things up here. Could you tell us about a time you had to be BRAVE?
 

Benjamin Loh: (30:12)
Well, I would say the moment I felt really brave was me not giving up in that hotel room when I told you about the story that I had a speech that totally bombed. For me, that was one of the lowest moments of my professional speaking career because I literally fell on my face in front of about 400 Plus audience as well and they had high expectations, but I just couldn’t deliver and, for me, I think bravery this if you look at bravery and what bravery means, it means a lot of things to different people. Some people think that bravery means that you need to be leading a lot of people, going through a massive huge endeavour with running a big corporation. But I think for me, it’s being brave for me in that notion was that was my lowest, most humiliating and most confronting moment. But I told myself that if I could live past today, I can live past another day. So that was, I feel I hadn’t given up on myself and I could take the easy way out to say no, let’s just do English professional speaking which is what I’m being booked for. I could be comfortable with that. But for me, one part of me just didn’t say no, and I hired a second Mandarin coach and I pursued that. I listen to this China app called Ximalaya, which is a Chinese podcast app, 30 minutes every day for a good six to seven months without fail. And for me being comfortable in the uncomfortable in the professional sense and in that trajectory, even like bring myself up there, I know I was marketing myself after that, saying - hey, I can and I will speak in Mandarin. I think that was a moment that I felt I was most brave.
 

Jeremy Au: (31:47)
One recurring theme is you never say no. You didn’t say no in your first paid public speech, not saying no to your first Mandarin speech, not saying no to your second Mandarin speech. What does never saying no mean to you in your context?
 

Benjamin Loh: (32:10)
Never saying no to me isn’t an absolute. There are times when I would definitely say no as well. If opportunities are not aligned to who I am. I would not go to a CEO conference and teach people how to grow and scale, all those are clear no’s for me. In the domain where I am empowered to say yes, I would ask if I have some past experience and potential to create value for people. That’s how I would frame my decisions to say yes. I do not just take everything on.
 

Jeremy Au: (33:39)
How do you decide when to say no or yes?
 

Benjamin Loh: (33:47)
I have a think tank of mentors and trusted advisors. There are times when I think I’m being individualistic in my decisions, I would turn to them and say – Hey, I am thinking of this opportunity, you knowing me and who I am, do you think this is something to take on?
 

Jeremy Au: (34:37)
If you could go 10 years back in time, what advice would you have given yourself back then?
 

Benjamin Loh: (34:48)
I would have been studying my 3rd year of Accountancy in SMU. I think the advice I would tell myself is – don’t give yourself too much pressure to figure it all out at once. All my peers were striving to get into the Big 4. I still didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life and I’m a lot more comfortable these days knowing that if I’m putting myself out there with good work and good words, the right people will come by and the right opportunities will come knocking on my door. Learn that life happens in seasons and while you can’t harvest anything in winter, there are still lessons to be had.
 

Jeremy Au: (36:31)
Awesome. Wrapping things up here, I’ll love to paraphrase the three big things I learnt from you today. The first that I learnt from you was really your career as a public speaker, how you started out and how you also became a professional paid speaker. Also, I think there’s a real moment of vulnerability about you sharing about your public speaking disaster in Macau and thank you so much for being honest and real about what that experience was really like for yourself and how you felt it and how you processed it and eventually went on to do it again and better in Hong Kong the second time. The second thing I really enjoyed was really you talking about judgment and really about how people see who you are on stage versus who you actually are and how you think about not just how you try to articulate and convey who you are as a human person now on the public space, but also how you coach other clients to get from point A, which is that fear, to point B, which is being on the right trajectory. The last thing is, thank you so much for sharing about your spirit of courage and bravery, especially around never saying no. Which doesn’t mean, like you said, always saying yes, but, I think, going to how you also have the wisdom and judgment to figure out and this kind of take life and move forward all the time. Thank you so much, Benjamin, for coming on the show.
 

Benjamin Loh: (37:52)
Thanks for having me and the pleasure was entirely mine.