Secrets of a top Toastmaster

By Laila Nasry
As a bespectacled teen, Dilip Abayasekera was an avid reader. Yet, for a science student his reading matter hardly bordered on theories and formulas, instead on famous speeches of world leaders. Lincoln's Gettysburg address, speeches by John F. Kennedy, Winston Churchill… interestingly, all committed to memory.

Standing on a box he would render them with aplomb to whoever would hear him - most often his family’s male domestic aide, also his only competition, the two of them drafting separate political speeches in Sinhala.

From the debating team at Royal College to winning oratorical contests in Palm Beach Junior College, Florida, where he went for his higher studies, public speaking, which started as a childish pastime soon grew to a well-mastered art and today, Dr. Dilip Abayasekera, 51, a qualified industrial scientist stands as a professional speaker, trainer and speech coach and the first Sri Lankan to become 3rd President of Toastmasters International.

Living in Missouri at the time, his wife by chance had spotted an advertisement in the newspapers with details of the local toastmasters club. The decision to join it came easy but unlike most of its members the reason being not to improve communication skills but to have a captive audience. "Public speaking cannot be learned from books, you must have your speeches evaluated," he says.

With successive speeches his passion for public speaking grew. Working as a scientist in a chemical company, he was instrumental in setting up a Toastmasters programme there. Lunch breaks were devoted to conducting seminars for his colleagues on effective presentation skills, speech craft, creative thinking and mind mapping. Soon requests came from his boss to coach scientists and engineers on how to make better presentations.

Just a year later, he won the District Competition which had representatives from 87 other clubs. Sights were set on the World Championship of Public Speaking. "It was like preparing for the Olympics. I watched tapes, spoke to past champions and practised hard," he recalls. But lady luck did not favour him that time around nor in the two attempts thereafter.

Learning from the experience Dr. Abayasekera says, "A speaker must give something of value to the audience. He speaks to them and not to himself." Thus he says, "It's necessary that you dig deep within yourself and discover what you can present on your own that would be of value. That's what I needed to discover. I was an orator until then."

At his fourth attempt in 1992 after a two-year break, he bagged second place.

Generally his topics are of inspirational value. "People need someone to inspire them. It's not preaching but sharing." Thus it's important to keep it simple. But as to what captivates an audience he says, "Enthusiasm is the key. If something excites me it's bound to catch on to those listening to me", a principle, which he strictly adhered to as a graduate teaching assistant in the past and current resource person conducting seminars. However he states that one cannot reach each and every person in the audience. "They all come with some sort of baggage. Prejudices, bad experiences, personal opinions… but what is important is to connect with them and them with you."
Today Dr. Abayasekera specializes in not just public speaking but has branched out and conducts seminars on creative thinking, leadership, sales integrity and relationship building. Having studied each of these subjects in depth, Dr. Abayasekera says his seminars include a theory aspect explaining to participants reasons as to why they develop stage fright, shyness etc., the understanding enabling them to deal with such issues in a better manner. Among his many distinguished clients are the Pentagon, the US Immigration, United Nations Development Programme in Sri Lanka and the Ministry of Plan Implementation in Sri Lanka.

He says that the response from his clients is overwhelming. Recalling one such occasion at a seminar he had conducted in New York, he says, an elderly couple had come up to him at the end and said, 'Your speech was a spiritual impetus for us to go on. We wish our son could have heard what you said. Can you please send us a tape of your speech.' Such response he says "…and I'm floating up near the ceiling."

After 17 years in the Toastmasters Club, during which as President he led his club to number three position in the world, later as District Governor heading his district to fourth place worldwide and elected to the Board of Directors in 1999, Dr. Abayasekera is convinced the Toastmasters programme works.

Recounting its success in the Baltimore Youth Detention Homes where the residivision rate (rate of one-time offenders returning to prison) fell below five percent subsequent to the programme being carried out there, he states much of it is about people beginning to see themselves and their world differently.

The programme itself, which includes both communication and leadership, is a self-paced learning process and according to Dr. Abayasekera people learn best, when they actually do it and not merely read about it, in supportive atmospheres and when they are having fun… three prominent features of the Toastmasters programme which contribute to its success.

As an "Accredited Speaker" of the Toastmasters and conductor of regular seminars, Dr. Abayasekera says, "I've seen people go from closed buds to an open flower… and that's the story of the Toastmasters Club over and over again."

When Lankan waves reached the summit

By Upali Salgado
This is to add to Fr. Mervyn Fernando's story of the "Everest Climb" (The Sunday Times of May 25), which took place fifty years ago. It would interest readers to learn that, when at the summit, Sir Edmund tuned on his powerful short wave radio, the first thing he heard was a trade announcement from the Commercial Service of Radio Ceylon!

According to Sir Edmund, he heard a distinct voice saying Radio Ceylon, advertising Bushell's kopi (coffee). Bushell's Coffee was a well-known trade name at that time, like Nescafe today. Radio Ceylon had been gifted a very powerful radio transmitter by the British after the conclusion of World War II, on the intervention of Sir Geoffrey Layton, Commander-in-Chief of the Forces.

There was also a raging controversy at that time about reaching the summit after a gritty and risky climb. According to Sherpa Tenzing, "The rope that joined us was thirty feet long, but I held most of the loops in my hand, so there was only about six feet between us. I was not thinking of ‘first’ and ‘second’. I did not say to myself, ‘There is the golden apple up there. I will push Hillary aside and run for it.’ We went on slowly, steadily, and at last, we were there. Hillary stepped on top first, and I stepped after him."

Tenzing says, in his book Man of Everest, "I unwound the four flags from around the axe. They were tied together on a string, which was fastened to the blade of the axe, and I held up high the axe, and Hillary took the picture. The order of the flags from top to bottom was the United Nations, British, Nepalese and Indian.”


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