Tall Poppies

I was sitting waiting for my daughter in her car the other day, trying to find a station on her radio that wasn’t playing garage music when I found myself listening to Cole Porter’s “You’re the Top”.

What a lovely, joyful, upbeat tune. It just makes you feel happy. But just listen to the words (It’s okay; I won’t sing).

You’re the top! You’re the Coliseum, You’re the top! You’re the Louvre Museum, You’re a melody from a symphony by Strauss. You’re a Bendel bonnet, a Shakespeare sonnet, You’re Mickey Mouse

You’re the Nile, You’re the tower of Pisa, You’re the smile on the Mona Lisa. I’m a worthless cheque, a total wreck, a flop, But if, Baby, I’m the bottom, You’re the top!

Imagine being put on such a high pedestal by someone with such low self-esteem?

Imagine being the singer of that song. How does anyone come to feel so unappealing? A worthless cheque, a total wreck, a flop. What mare’s nest of trauma has that poor soul endured!

But then, high self-esteem is a rarity in adults. Young children generally believe themselves to be invincible, but by the time we reach adulthood we are crippled.

We are all so afraid of failure.

Babies learn to walk because it doesn’t occur to them that they can fail. They don’t give up after their first encounter with the edge of the coffee table – or the tenth. Down they go for the umpteenth time and still they keep trying until they master the skill.

When my son was 8, he wrote and presented a PowerPoint show on volcanoes to his entire year at school. It contained photos, animations, video footage, explosions and a quiz at the end. With the casual aplomb of the young, he didn’t put a foot wrong.

Ten, twenty years later, he’ll be like us: Amongst everything else –terrified of public speaking.

I recently undertook a whole barrage of tests on self-esteem and rated quite highly; and we toastmasters are a friendly bunch for the most part –sandwiching our criticism between two slices of praise. Commend, recommend, commend. Why, then, do I recall the cutting criticism with such vivid clarity while the fulsome praise fades to ill-remembered whispers?

Do you remember the people who inspired you to succeed; or the miserable wastes of humanity who piled all their failings onto you:  “Oh, give it to me! I’ll do it” “You’re just like your father!” “You’ll never amount to anything Smithers”?

The major difference between us and all the other creatures on this planet is our highly-evolved ability to communicate through language.

And as with all humanity's many talents, we turn this beautiful gift into a tool with which to destroy ourselves.

Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never harm me. What arrant rubbish. Bones heal quickly, but the wounds inflicted with words maim for a lifetime.

When I was little, my Nan was always remarking to other people of my sister and I that Bo was pretty and what a lovely disposition Tessa has. And everyone agreed. Both comments were true, but I took this to mean that I wasn’t pretty. I can now look back at photographs of myself and see that I was a pretty child – and I also recall what a miserable little cuss my pretty little sister was! In trying to highlight her granddaughters’ good points, Nan unwittingly hurt this one. Most of us can recall similarly painful experiences. But why do we choose to remember the damaging over the affirmative remarks? I won’t pretend that I know, but what I have realised is that it is not failure which terrifies us, but success. At some point, it becomes easier to listen to the voices that tell you that the exertion success requires just isn’t worth the effort. Failure is easy. Failure is acceptable.

It’s better to try and to fail than not to try at all. Nonsense. It’s better to try and fail than to succeed.

It’s called the “tall poppy syndrome”, after the saying that it’s the tall poppy that is first to be cut – and cut them we do. From Bill Gates, Richard Branson, Heather Mills, and especially Posh and Becks. You can’t read a newspaper or watch a television programme without someone rubbishing either or both of them. I’ve even heard them used for fuel here at Toastmasters.

I know I can’t bend it like Beckham, and I’m willing to bet that none of you can either.

We reserve our approbation for those of us who remain mediocre, like the rest of us. We like people to shoot for the stars, provided that they miss and crash back to Earth.

We’re fully supportive of our heroes on their journey to the stars, but when they’re in the gravitational pull of fame and fortune, we turn on them. We find fault, seek out the failings. Fly too high and we’ll shoot you down. Dare to stand out from the crowd, and we will cut you down.

I’ve watched Victoria Beckham’s career more closely than most of you because my daughter, herself a singer and dancer, idolises her. And I can’t think of a better role model. She is witty, poised, charming and entertaining. There has never been a whiff of scandal about her. She works hard. She loves her family. And would David Beckham have carried himself with such pulchritude after his humiliation during the last Word Cup without her?

Posh and Becks are nice people, earning a fortune doing what they’re good at and supporting each other in the process. And we vilify them for that? Because they are successful?

Once upon a time, before you descended into cynicism, wasn’t that what you wanted for yourself?


I won Best Speaker for this speech. I started out fine, but locked onto my notes in the last couple of paragraphs. Rats!

Guests and Club Members' Comments

“A brilliant speech. You really combined all the speech giving techniques well – vocal variety, good gestures, confidence. Well done.”

“Witty, inspiring, philosophical, content full, no recommendations”

“You have a special kind of talent that is rare in this club. Well crafted and told, exceptional use of language, well-argued. Good gestures. For polish, you need greater control of voice and inflection for emphasis.”

“Well done Tessa, interesting and touching speech.”

“Absolutely brilliant” You had my captive attention throughout. Such a true message and lovely lovely language.”

“Great topic. Good vocal variety –very passionate.”

“Fantastic speech. Content was awesome and delivery excellent – improves every times. How do you do it?”

“Very honest. To the point. Moving.”

“What a great speech – so refreshing, listenable, true and well delivered. Great!”

“As usual, very good. Very interesting speech and wonderfully delivered. Maybe slightly less use of notes, but don’t worry as you didn’t let them rule you. An utter winner Tessa, well done!”

“Very engaging. Had emotional impact. Excellent”

“Very nice, friendly manner. Excellent eye contact. Smart appearance.”

“Best speech yet, Tessa! Well done – perhaps more pausing.”

“One of the best speeches I have seen here. Quite simply excellent. I have no recommendations to torture you with.”

“Great job. Just one recommendation: you tend to tilt you head and look left at corner of eye. You write the most amazing speeches. I’m very impressed.”

“Very well presented.”

“Excellent use of language to get message across. Tied in with life experiences. Well-argued. Over time."