Winning with words

Dananjaya Hettiarachchi  

Dananjaya Hettiarachchi — World Champion of Public Speaking (WCPS), 2014 — is a 30-year-old motivational speaker and human resource development specialist from Sri Lanka, who holds the distinction of participating eight consecutive times in the annual International Speech Contest before winning the much-coveted title in August this year. Hettiarachchi, who represented Tamil Nadu and Sri Lanka at the competition organised by Toastmasters International (TI), was in Chennai recently to deliver keynote addresses at multiple conferences. With this victory, he is now the first Asian to be crowned the champion of this competition, beating over 33,000 contestants from around the world. Excerpts from an interview:

Tell us about your childhood, the background ingredients that have made you.

I was born in Nuwera Eliya, a beautiful city located in the hills of central Sri Lanka. My dad was a planter and my mother was a hotelier. I was a mediocre student for most part of my life. In my younger days, I spent time with the wrong company and turned into bit of a thug because I thought being aggressive would help me gain respect. I was arrested when I was 18 because I had assaulted someone. My mom came to see me when I was in remand and I had never felt so ashamed in my life. I realised how I had never achieved anything substantial and how I had let my parents down. I wanted to change that. This was the turning point of my life.  It was at this time that my dad took me to my first date with destiny — a meeting at a Toastmasters club in Colombo.  

What are you first experiences in public speaking?

I first contested as a public speaker in 2006 when ‘South Asia’s Best Speaker Contest’ was held for the first time in Sri Lanka. I delivered a speech and thought I would win. But the results declared that I hadn’t even made it to the fourth place. After a couple of months, the President of my Toastmasters club called and asked me to participate in the ‘World Taped Speech Contest’ conducted by TI. I thought he was mad to ask me as I had just failed miserably. Then, my mentor at the club, Balraj Arunasalam, asked me to participate. As I could not say no to him, I gave it a shot. Three months went by and one fine morning, TI called, telling me that I had won. I was invited to the US to attend TI’s International Convention and it was there that I first saw the World Championship of Public Speaking. One part of me said that it was impossible for me to get on that stage. Another part yearned to compete and win.

What was holding you back from winning the first eight times you’d tried?

I think it was my fear of speaking English before foreigners. In 2011, I cleared the fourth level of the International Speech Contest (held in Mysore, Karnataka) for the first time. I went to Las Vegas for the semi-finals of the contest and five minutes before I got on stage, I realised that I was going to talk to a room full of foreigners. I grew extremely conscious because English was not my first language. I froze and I did a horrible job on stage. In 2012 and 2013, I made it to the semi-finals again; but I still didn’t make it to the finals. Last year, I went to USA two weeks in advance and practiced my speech several times before an audience of native English speakers. This helped me overcome my nervousness.

Why was winning the World Championship of Public Speaking so important to you?

Besides what my mentors and loved ones wanted me to do, my mind was also in two places when my son was born. A part of me told me that my time was up and now I had to focus on my kid. Another part of me wondered what my son would think if I would give up. This year, I competed for my son.

What would you advice people pursuing their dreams?

If you don't quit on your dreams, then your dreams won’t quit on you. Life will first break you, drag you, and then cut your spirit into a million pieces. Then, when you’ve proven that you're still willing to fight for your dreams, you will achieve whatever it is that you want in life.

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Printable version | Sep 26, 2021 10:39:32 PM |

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