The Power of a Sip of Water

by | 24 April 2024 | Communication, Leadership, Presentation Skills, Public Speaking, Voice

‘Make sure you have a glass of water to hand.’

That is a piece of advice we always give our clients at MSB Executive when helping them to prepare for important presentations. Pausing to take a sip of water fixes a dry mouth, calms jitters, and buys you a moment to gather your thoughts. (Plus your audience will thank you for giving them a moment to reflect.)

But could this little trick have a far more surprising and dramatic benefit? Could a simple sip of water enable you to switch your language?! To many Singaporeans in 2020, it certainly seemed that way.

Grim News

The story begins in April 2020. Lee Hsien Loong, the prime minister of Singapore, had just appeared on TV to announce his country’s COVID-19 ‘circuit breaker’. For most people watching, it was as much as they could do to absorb the news and come to terms with life in lockdown.

Some viewers, though, had a different takeaway. Prime Minister Lee, they pointed out, had begun his speech in English. He had paused to take a sip of water, before continuing… in Malay! A little later, after he had once again taken a sip of water, he resumed in Mandarin!

Theories Abound

Was it magic water? This was a fringe theory advanced by very few people. More persuasive was the idea of a magic cup. When the video of the announcement went viral, the magic cup theory took hold.

Prime minister Lee of Singapore takes a sip of water during an official announcement

PM Lee sips from the legendary language-changing porcelain.

Monetising the Magic

One enterprising Singaporean firm produced a copycat cup with a rather beautiful hand-painted tembusu flower design. Demand for the piece of fabled kitchenware was sensational, and the merchandise sold out within hours. (Whether purchasers enjoyed the same language-switching powers as PM Lee, history does not record.)


What is the truth of all of this? Ultimately, it is evidence of our need for lightheartedness in times of worry. It made people smile. It is also testament to the wonderful human aptitude for silliness.

And what do we at MSB Executive take from these events? PM Lee was under enormous pressure to project calm reassurance while sharing some alarming news. Of course he needed moments to gather his thoughts, calm his nerves, and moisten his mouth and throat. To do so, he paused to take a sip of water – thus proving that one of MSB’s favourite ‘top tips for presenters’ has penetrated to the highest echelons of power!


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