Interview with Shirley

I was recently interviewed for a magazine, so I thought I’d post the questions and answers here. I hope you enjoy them.

Can we start with a little background information?
Where are you from and what is your current role?

I’m originally from Sheffield, Yorkshire. I was a secretary there for 9 years, working my way up to be PA to the Deputy Group Managing Director of a large company with branches throughout the UK.

Right now I’m owner and CEO of STTS Training Pte Ltd in Singapore, which I set up in 2006. With my small team, we organise a lot of public workshops as well as in-house training for both me and several other professional trainers. Personally, I conduct training in business writing skills, email writing, success skills for secretaries, and communication skills.

What is your background?

Ooops, just answered that, but let me tell you a little more. I always knew I wanted to be a secretary and teach because my mum had also been a secretary and secretarial teacher. In my early secretarial days (I started working in 1973!) I kept going back to evening classes to gain higher qualifications (170 wpm shorthand). In 1981, I went to college twice a week to study for the LCCI Examinations Board Private Secretary’s Diploma (now the Private and Executive Secretary’s Diploma). During that year, our teacher inspired me. She also made all of us in the class enter the local competition looking for Super Secretary 1981. None of us would ever have entered that competition if it hadn’t been for her pushing us. Several of us were in the final, and at a grand ceremony at Romeo & Juliet’s nightclub in Sheffield, I was crowned the winner. What a shocker! That meant I was automatically in the Northern Region round of the competition – and guess what? Again, I won. In the national final, with 4 people (North, South, East and West) I came second.

Looking back, that was a major turning point for me. Without being pushed by my teacher, I would never have entered, and eventually the experience of being in the competition really gave me a great boost in confidence. It’s something I talk about to this day (as you can see) and particularly it really seems to motivate participants in my workshops.

After passing my LCCI Private Secretary’s Diploma, I left my company and went to Huddersfield Polytechnic to study for my Certificate in Education. This one year course was again a big turning point for me. I realised quickly that I’d found my niche and I loved teaching.

You are one of the most respected trainers in Asia. How did this come about and how has it changed your working life?

Thank you. It’s just amazing the direction my life has taken me. In 1983, towards the end of my year at Huddersfield, we were all looking through the newspapers for a job, and I saw the job of my dreams ‘Teacher wanted to teach on LCCI Private Secretary’s Certificate and Diploma courses’. But the next line stunned me – it said ‘in Singapore’! Being a Yorkshire girl and only having been abroad once to Spain, I had to ask my friends “Where’s Singapore?” It was 1983 so no Internet, and many people said “It’s in China” or “It’s in Hong Kong”! Long story short, I applied for the job and was interviewed in London by a lady called Pam Forrester from the LCCIEB who was interviewing on behalf of the Singaporean secretarial college. She offered me the job on the spot, and I went home flying high as a kite.

I flew to Singapore in August 1983, and my boss wanted to send me home the very next day because she couldn’t understand my Sheffield accent. The lovely lady Pam who interviewed me told her to be patient, as she felt sure I’d adjust my accent. (Pam went on to become a major influence in my life, a second mother, a mentor and a friend. I cannot thank her enough for all her guidance, encouragement and support.) I had a steep learning curve in the first few months, but eventually stayed for two years. After that I spent two years as Head of Secretarial Studies in a college in Bahrain, Arabian Gulf. Then back to Singapore for two more years.

In 1992, I moved back to Sheffield, and that was another shock to my system, but I enjoyed being able to come back to Singapore, sometimes twice a year, to do workshops, teacher training, etc. During this period, I was also assistant examiner to the Chief Examiner Pam Forrester, helping her mark papers in the LCCIEB Private Secretary’s Certificate and Diploma exams. When Pam retired, she nominated me as Chief Examiner, which was a huge honour – writing exams, leading a team of assistant examiners, designing new exams.

Eventually I decided to move back to Singapore full-time in 2002, so I set up my own training business then.

You are the author of 12 successful books on communication. Your book ‘Model Business Letters, Emails and Other Business Documents’ has firmly established itself as the definitive guide to clear and effective business writing, selling over half a million copies, worldwide. Give us some background on writing the book.

I was teaching in Singapore in 1991 when some representatives from what is now Pearson Education came to visit my school asking what books we ask students to buy for each subject on the LCCI courses. I told them the names of the books, but said that we don’t ask Business English students to buy a book because we didn’t find one book was suitable. They had already identified this gap in the market so, having seen some of my work, they asked me to write a book. Well you could have knocked me over with a feather! I had never even dreamed of writing a book, never even thought of it. I then wrote my first book for them – Communication or Business. This book is now in its fourth edition and it’s used by schools and colleges in many different countries to teach LCCIEB English for Business.

The following year Pearson told me that the guy who had written Model Business Letters (Gartside) had died, and they asked me to revise his book. Again, talk about knock me over! This book had been on my bookshelf since I was a secretary, and it was then in its third edition. What an honour it was to be asked to revise this book, and what a big job! So my 4th edition of this book was published in 1992, then the 4th edition in 1998, 6th edition in 2002, and the current 7th edition was published in 2011. I’m very proud of this book, and its popularity. It’s been translated into many different languages and is sold all over the world.

Since then I’ve had the good fortune to have written many more books, and collaborated with other authors on others. Who would have believed it for Shirley from Sheffield?!

You were President of Asia Professional Speakers Singapore (APSS) 2011-12. Most Assistants hate public speaking with a passion. What advice would you give them?

I’d tell them if they get an opportunity to present anywhere any time, they should do it – because “if you don’t do it, someone else will”! You get some opportunities in life and think, “Oh crikey! I can’t do that!” and sometimes you just don’t do it. Ever since my first book, my motto has been “If I don’t do it, someone else will”. There are numerous instances where this has happened in my life, times when I’ve had to get out of my comfort zone. Nike has a great tagline – Just Do It!

With public speaking, I’ve always found that audiences don’t sit there thinking, “Oh I hope she makes a fool of herself!” They really want us to do well. A friend once said to me, “Do you know what confidence looks like?” So if we know what confidence looks like, we can emulate it. We can show confidence. Preparing for any presentation, I would suggest we need to remember the 5 Ps: Prepare (thoroughly), Practice (regularly), Pause (don’t be afraid of silences), Punctuate (for emphasis), and Perfect (tweak it and practice some more!)

I have to also say here that when I joined APSS as a member in 2005, I was completely intimidated by the people I saw there, and never dreamed I could climb the ladder and become President. But the more I got involved, the more I learned. The more I learned, the more I gained, and the more I was able to share. The more I gained, the more I grew and the more confidence I gained. When I was asked to join the Executive Committee, I felt it was a huge honour, and being President has been a huge highlight of my speaking career. In my first presidential address, I remember saying, “Hey, if Shirley from Sheffield can do this, you can too!”

In July 2013 I was asked to become a member of the Executive Committee of the Global Speakers Federation. Wow! What an honour! All speaking associations around the world are part of the Global Speakers Federation – and now I’m playing a key role in developing and guiding professional speakers ‘globally’!

What inspires and motivates you?

I’m inspired and motivated by positive people. As a speaker and trainer, I love to visit speaking conventions, particularly in USA, Canada and Australia, organised by the Global Speakers Federation or one of the GSF’s member associations. Sure it is a big investment to attend these events, but I have not only learned a lot from the fantastic speakers I’ve had the privilege to see and hear. I’ve also made loads of new friends from around the world. Attending these events has also given me business opportunities that I would never have happened had I not pushed myself to get out of my comfort zone. It’s something I constantly have to keep doing.

What has been the highlight of your career so far and why?

My biggest highlight in the past year has been attaining the designation Certified Speaking Professional. CSP is the highest designation in the world of professional speaking, and is a globally recognised credential. The CSP is awarded to speakers who have met strict criteria, and there are currently fewer than 700 CSPs in the whole world, with only 9 living in Singapore.

But in all honesty, I’d say there have been several highlights in my career. Being Super Secretary 1981 was a huge thing for me, for Shirley from Sheffield who had left school with no qualifications! It’s true! I left school at 15 with nothing. I went on to do a two-year secretarial course, and at the end of that I was awarded the title Student of the Year for passing more exams than any other student! Yahoo!! I had found my niche!

Every new book is a highlight for sure. Model Business Letters, Emails and Other Business Documents 7th edition was a huge highlight. President of APSS was a huge highlight. Being asked to put together the Success Skills series of books for Marshall Cavendish was a huge highlight (there are now 10 books in the series).

Running my first secretaries conference ASSAP (Asian Summit for Secretaries and Admin Professionals) in 2006 was a huge highlight, and we’ve done that annually ever since.

What are the main challenges facing the industry at the moment?

I’m sure there are lots. One of the biggest challenges must relate to communication skills. A PA has to communicate effectively with people from all levels. She wears many different hats, and her communication style for each will be very different. I truly believe that one of the keys to anyone’s success for the future will be building relationships. You need to build relationships at every level, and to do that successfully you will need different personas. We constantly need to work on developing and honing each of these.

Another challenge is to keep up-to-date with and interested in technology. This has been and will be a constant now and in the future.

I also believe PAs will always have to work on their organisation skills. You’re the hub, the central nervous system of your boss’s office. You’re a clearing house for all your boss’s, and your own, projects. Keeping all those plates in the air is going to be challenging.

Where do you want to be in 5 years’ time?

Married with 2 cats and a gorgeous husband. Healthy and happy. Maybe living in Canada, or USA, or Australia. Travelling around the world speaking and training, motivating and educating people, and of course renewing existing friendships and making loads of new ones.