The last time Colin McKechnie went to add Malaysia, it ultimately cost him “a kidney and some other parts,” he said.
Serving in the British military’s elite Special Air Service, he’d picked up some kind of ailment while on a mission in Borneo in the late 1960s. Soon thereafter, he found himself in excruciating pain and needing surgery that resulted in the removal of the aforementioned body components.
The 68-year-old Turlock resident returns to Malaysia next month with an entirely different kind of mission in mind: to win the world Toastmasters public-speaking championship in Kuala Lumpur. He’ll stay in posh hotels, not the venomous critter-filled jungles he remembers all too vividly from so long ago. In fact, his bigger worries are the stresses of competing and trying to win over judges who are more familiar with veteran competitors than with first-time world tourney participants like himself.
McKechnie is a native of Scotland who said he was an unlikely candidate to ever challenge for a world public-speaking title. He joined Britain's Royal Air Force in 1963, moving within two years into the Special Air Service. Among the unit’s duties: dealing with terrorists – “We were involved in seven major operations in nine years and we never lost a single team member,” he said – and training with the American Green Berets, Delta Force and other elite military units to do the same.
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He left the military in 1974 and went to work for a British manufacturing firm. His bosses told him he needed to develop his public-speaking skills.
“I said, ‘What? Me stand up in front of people and talk? No way,’ ” McKechnie said. “They told me, ‘You have no choice.’ Well, they were wrong. I quit. But it was the same thing at the next company. I discovered that I love it.”
He found himself working as a trainer, traveling all over the world and spending six weeks at each stop.
“It was great for the ego, but not for the marriage. I was out of the country four to six weeks out at a time,” he said. “My ex-wife, she didn’t like that.”
One trip brought him to the United States, and that turned into a job at Gallo Glass in Modesto. But he really wanted to learn about what goes inside the bottles, not the bottles themselves. When that didn’t happen at Gallo, he said, he left to work for Delicato near French Camp.
“I got heavily involved in winemaking,” he said. And also deeply involved in Toastmasters, where he continued to hone the speaking skills that led him to start his own consulting company specializing in stress management, communication skills, balancing home and the workplace, and resolving conflicts.
“My first day in business was 9-11 (Sept. 11, 2001),” McKechnie said. “I didn’t even have business cards. But I got lucky. A bunch of companies knew what I did and they called me.”
There are numerous clubs in the region. McKechnie belongs to one in Modesto and two in Manteca. In May, he competed in the District 39 championships in Reno and won the International Speech Contest for Division A, earning the right to compete in the world championship event in Malaysia on Aug. 20-23.
Each competitor’s first speech must last from 41/2 to 71/2 minutes and be inspirational and emotional. “A second over or under and you’re out,” he said. And it must be given before about 800 people from a stage spreading 80 feet wide and 60 feet deep.
“That’s the hardest part,” McKechnie said. “There’s no big screen (TV). I’ve got to work the whole stage, back and forth.”
The second speech, should he reach the final, must be completely different from the first. But speakers do benefit from the big screens because the audience includes roughly 4,000 Toastmasters from around the world.
“The stress is horrendous,” he said. “When I entered the division competition, at the side of their room there was a blood-pressure machine. Here I’m full of smiles and jokes, and my blood pressure is 215 over 108 (120 over 70 is considered normal). In Reno, at the district championship, it was 215 over 105. And I teach stress management ...”
McKechnie understands the competition is not unlike figure skating, where the judging often is based upon the judges’ familiarity with the competitors, regardless of the performances on the ice. He’s a newcomer to the world stage and hopes to make a strong showing this time that they might remember the next time.
He’s glad to have the opportunity, even if it means traveling all the way to Malaysia. Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 vanished into thin air in March, the entire plane and its 239 passengers still unaccounted for. Another Malaysian liner, Flight 17, was shot down over Ukraine last week, killing all 298 people on board.
He’s flying on another airline.
“I got the cheapest one I could find,” McKechnie said. “But I’d fly Malaysia Airlines. After what’s happened, they’d be the safest planes in the world right now. (Security is) going to be extra stringent.”
This trip to Malaysia will be interesting, if for somewhat varying reasons than his last. He’ll be among friends at the Toastmasters convention and speaking contest. But there are never guarantees.
“There will be 4,000 Americans in one room,” he said. “Hopefully, HSA (the Homeland Security Administration) will be paying attention to when all the chatter goes on.”
After all, he was in Malaysia once before, to fight insurgents in the jungles of Borneo. He lost a kidney and “other parts” and has a long scar on his left side to show for it.
This time, he’d rather have a trophy.