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Sense and Sensibility — Myrmidon Kangara

In Greek mythology, the myrmidons are a fierce tribe fighting under Achilles in the Trojan War. For her fondness of Hellenic tales, a mother decided to name her daughter after the valorous people. From myth to reality, this daughter of Zimbabwe is little short of legendary: with mere words she subdues and inspires, but unlike the myrmidons known for their unquestioning subservience, Myrmidon is a social-minded individual who chooses law as her vocation. Possessing great oratorical skills and a strong knowledge base, she landed champion of the CUHK English Public Speaking Competition as a freshman. In the ‘FLTRP • ETIC Cup’ five-day four-round marathon English speaking contest held in Beijing last December, Myrmidon bested 190 top orators across the country and took home the first runner-up, just 0.8 mark behind the champion.

Crossing verbal swords on stage

Right before my eyes, Myrmidon was mature and spoke no-nonsense. She had a crisp manner of speaking, and upon hearing compliments or when talking about life’s tidbits, she would give coy smiles and infect the surrounding air with an innocent dreaminess, reminding one that she was still just a 19-year-old girl. But when she rolls up her sleeves, this girl covers so much ground that no room is left for complaint: as the interview drew to a close, the writer requested her to send in some information. The next day Myrmidon wrote in a short note, explaining that she needed some time to compile the data and they would be ready shortly. What the writer received later was a 10-page curriculum vitae detailing all clubs and activities she had joined, with all the dates, positions and responsibilities neatly put. The 20 photos she sent in all came with descriptions, together with illustrations in points clarifying the finer details arising in the interview. She did not only inspire confidence on the podium but also in everyday life.

The Responsibility to Speak Up

Few could have guessed that the queen on stage as we see now was once a Cinderella fettered miserably by her own shyness. Describing herself as ‘definitely introverted’, Myrmidon joined a couple of public speaking clubs in high school, though she was never an active member. Back then she came across a lot of contests and activities that she took an interest in, but she was too timid to speak in front of people and give them a try. ‘As I got into CUHK, I realized the continuing of this trend would be detrimental. If I am to get out of the shell, I need to learn to speak in public.’ Picking up the gauntlet of public speaking was driven by necessity, but what fuels her passion for the oratorical art is a sense of responsibility to life and society. ‘I like the idea of people sharing ideas—I think many problems we have today require us to sit down, talk things over, and then go out and get it done. If you can speak in public, you can share ideas. On the contrary, if you have good ideas but remain reticent, then it is not going to do anyone any good.’

It may be more than a mental break, but how does one perfect one’s skill in the art of public speaking? Myrmidon pointed out that, regular practice aside, observation also plays a crucial role. A speaker needs to learn her trade from everyday life, say in lectures, college assemblies or even from watching a movie or sit-com, paying heed to how people speak. To people who aspire to improve their speaking skills, Myrmidon suggested they should first try to get used to talking face-to-face with other people. ‘They can join a club, say a hiking club, which does not need to be about debating. As they grow in confidence, they can try Toastmasters.’ She stressed that socializing with others is important, as debate covers a wide range of topics and others’ personal experiences can be a rich source to draw on.

Less is More, Resonance Rocks

Back to the public speaking competition, Myrmidon attributed her good result to the immense help and support she received from her coaches, the three teachers at the English Language Teaching Unit—Dr. Sarah Lee, Ms. Ella Leung and Ms. Olive Cheung. What is the biggest lesson she learned from them? ‘Well, it’s that in public speaking, delivery matters more than ideas. Speak slowly and to the points, do not bombard the audience with complex or too many ideas, make sure they understand or even enjoy your speech. Only when they understand what you are saying can they connect and agree with you.’

Heroes behind the stage (from left to right): Ms. Ella Leung, Ms. Olive Cheung and Dr. Sarah Lee

Myrmidon also took home from the mainland contest the lesson that consummate public speaking is winning the hearts of the audience. ‘Let’s say the monsoon is coming. If you just give a plan on how we are going to protect the people, it’s not going to win over the crowd. But if you say people are drowning, let us help everyone because we are one united family, people will bond with it emotionally. Focus on the content, and more so the emotion, because at the end of the day, people are emotional beings. If you can get to their emotions, then the audience is yours.’

How Antony uses his rhetoric to turn the tides in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar is not lost to the orator and law student Myrmidon. But Brutus’s sincerity and speaking from the heart in the same play are what she abides by. In the impromptu speaking round of the grand finale of the ‘FLTRP • ETIC Cup’ contest where the finalists were asked to explain what the world is to them, Myrmidon put forward the view that the world is a mix of sense and sensibility. Only when they go hand in hand, such as using science to rectify prejudices, or religion to resolve the moral crises brought about by scientific progresses can mankind obtain peace. How to speak in public and how to live one’s life are all about treading the fine line between sense and sensibility, guided by a kind and grateful heart.

And Myrmidon possesses a kind and grateful heart. In the world of public speaking, her role models are Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X and the novelist Chimamanda Adichie, who impressed billions with not just their beautiful rhetorics and passions but also concrete plans which people can follow to bring about changes. An avid reader and a writer of poetry herself, Myrmidon tackles issues of social justice in her poems. Poetry and public speaking appear to stand in the pole positions of emotion and reason, but she sees the two have something in common: ‘You put a lot of ideas organically into a speech, just like in a poem every word, line or even space counts.’ Aren’t her speeches her love poetry to the world?

Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe writes in his novel Arrow of God: ‘The world is like a Mask dancing. If you want to see it well you do not stand in one place.’ Going abroad and pursuing knowledge are often Siamese twins. Yet going abroad is simply the first step; what matters is to open one’s heart and mind to embrace the trials and tribulations along the way. Innocent and Myrmidon have come from Zimbabwe and met at Hong Kong and CUHK. Their extraordinary stories will surely inspire many other travelogues of the soul.

During the FLTRP•ETIC Cup contest, Myrmidon made friends with quite a few contestants and received a lot of help from them. Among them are Liu Yuxi (left) from Sichuan Technology and Business University and Jason Zang (right) from Qufu Normal University, who is also champion of both FLTRP·ETIC Cup and 21st Century Coca-Cola Cup English speaking contests

Article adapted from CUHKUpdates