On Speaking Out
My name is Pelé Williams. If you all were Yoruba language speakers, I would have introduced myself as Pèlé Williams. Try pronouncing that, if you can. There’s a kp sound in there that is not an English phonogram. Pelé is the Canadian edition of Pèlé. Having a name like Pèlé was not easy, even when I was growing up in Nigeria. You see, Nigerian names often have a meaning. When a child says her name, adults can often decode what it means and why the name was given. For example, “Bose ” means, “I was born on Sunday” and Tokunbo means, “I was born abroad”.
But my father selected- Pèlé – a name that no one could decode. Each time I was asked: “What is your name?”, I braced up myself for a speech. My name is Pèlé . The next question I would get is “ Do you mean Pèlẹ́?” You see, Pèlẹ́ means “I’m sorry” . Offended, I would respond , “No, I mean Pèlé.” The next question will be- “Pèlé?? Where are you from? and “What on earth does your name mean “? So, in a culture where children are seen and not heard, I learnt to speak up and engage my audience, each time I defended my name.
Another reason I had to speak up was that I was left-handed in a culture where being left-handed was considered rude and just plain wrong. Without meaning to, I would offend by simply passing along an item with my left hand. I needed courage to challenge the norm with my teachers and my elders each time I interacted with them.
I grew in a family of five girls, in a society that said “Something is amiss if your family does not have a son”. I had to find my voice each time someone said- “You don’t have a brother?! Wow, how unfortunate! “. I became a feminist child. My decision to get a degree in Engineering was strongly influenced by my desire to prove that “what a boy can do, a girl can do better”. I was one of 6 girls in a class of 60. I took great pride in excelling at school.
Help! The Cat’s got my Tongue
I arrived in Canada for graduate school approximately 14 years ago. Though I had been speaking English all my life, I had to re-learn conversing in Canadian English. I got blank stares when I introduced myself as Pèlé . No-one could pronounce the name! So, I re-named myself. I become Pelé – the Brazilian soccer player or Pele – the Hawaiian goddess of volcanoes and fire, depending on the mood I find myself.
To be understood, l quickly learnt alternative words and phrases: When asked, “How are you?” I replied, “I’m good!” instead of “I’m fine, thank you”. I used the word, elevator instead of lift, truck instead of lorry, pants instead trousers , underwear instead of pants, Mad instead of angry, cookie instead of biscuit, fries instead of chips and soccer instead of football.
I was baffled that, even though I still had a lot to say, I did not always know how to articulate with my “Nigerian accent”. I did not always understand conversations and jokes.
Thanks to PowerPoint, I survived graduate school. I got really got good at organizing and delivering my message. I would rush through the slide deck at high speed. My only goal was to get the talk over with. Everyone said, Pele, that was good, but you talk too fast! To which I would reply, “ But so do you!”
Once out of graduate school, I gravitated towards roles that required little or no public speaking. At one meeting, I remember being asked to speak up because I was whispering without realizing it.
Re-discovering my voice
Over the years, I gradually became more Canadian. I also learnt to rely on my faith in God to survive the palpitations I get during public speaking events. I started practicing with the youngest audience I could find, doing something I had always done. I began teaching kids at the Sunday school nursery, and worked my way up to grade school as my kids got older too.
I stepped out of my comfort zone, when I took on my previous job two years ago . In that role, I was constantly required to listen and communicate to both small and large groups. My opinion was not only welcomed, it was required, and usually on-the-fly.
I was fortunate to be working in an office on a floor where a Toastmasters club meets. Every Thursday at lunch, I passed by the Toastmasters placard on the wall and thought, “these folks most be quite vain to spend their lunch hour practicing how to deliver grand speeches”.
However, in my search to improve my communication skills, I realized most excellent communicators have had to work hard to perfect their public speaking skills. So, I decided to check out the toastmasters club. I have grown immensely as communicator since my first club meeting, in April. 2014 I suddenly discovered , that I no longer have palpitations when I speak on-the-fly in public. I still have palpitations at planned speeches though. But I’m working at it and I’m super-excited about re-discovering my voice again.