Former Toastmasters’ International President Dr. Dilip Abayasekara shares elements of his personal journey and his vision for the Toastmasters’ movement in Sri Lanka and India.
"If you want to change the world, don't wait for the world to change; just look at the old world with new eyes," says Dr. Abayasekara, who has made it his life's mission to help individuals and organizations unleash their communication and performance potential.
But he wasn't a champion of words always.
According to his mum, the well-known journalist Anne Abayasekara, when Dilip was about two years old, he would barely speak. "We were a bit worried and took him to the doctor who assured us that everything was fine. And now we can't stop him from talking," she says, smiling.
"Now I'm making up for lost time. I was practising my listening skills then," Dr. Abayasekara quips.
His transformation from a scientist to a champion speaker, motivator and President of Toastmaster's International (TMI) is an inspiring tale of realizing ones' inner calling while helping other's live their dreams.
A personal odyssey
"As an undergraduate in college, I was required to take several subjects outside my major. I took every course on speech and speaking that was available. It was fun and I would usually get an A. But I hadn't put two and two together to realize that I had an aptitude for speaking," Dr. Abayasekara said.
He pursued his conventional career path to become a successful chemist holding several patents on his work.
However, it was the Toastmastering experience that helped him unleash his potential as a speaker.
"As a scientist your focus is on matter and energy. I was researching and developing new polymeric products and coatings, spending about 8-10 hours a day in a lab. This was intellectually stimulating. But when I found that through the power of speech I could touch and connect with an audience at Toastmasters, I discovered that it gave me a great sense of fulfillment," he said.
Dr. Abayasekara tested his speaking skills by competing in speech contests and went onto become the first runner up at the World Championship of Public Speaking in 1992.
But speaking remained a hobby until a profound experience paved the way to unleashing his full potential as a motivational speaker, coach and mentor. After delivering a speech to a packed room at a conference organized by Toastmasters in New York City in 1993, Dr. Abayasekara received a note from an elderly couple that helped change the course of his life.
The note read, "Your message today was a spiritual impetus for us to get on with our lives. We wish our son could hear it. Would you please send us a tape of your message?""I was just floored. This was better than a paycheck, I thought, to realise that I could affect someone's life that way. As a speaker I was addressing some deep human needs," Dr. Abayasekara said, recalling this illuminating experience. From then on there was no turning back, as he created his own training and coaching company, Speaker Services Unlimited, focusing on enabling individuals and organizations to unleash their communication and performance potential.
"I started coaching people in public speaking, creative thinking, team building, etc. on a part-time basis. Another turning point in my life came at a science symposium. I was listening to another industrial chemist's presentation and jotting notes. But half way through I realized that I was writing down ways in which that scientist could improve as a speaker. But I was there as a scientist, not as a speech coach! That is when I realized where my true passions lay. In 1996, I bid goodbye to my career as a scientist and became a full-time trainer, speech coach, and inspirational speaker. That's why I say that Toastmaster's changed my life since it opened the door for self discovery," he said.
Toastmaster's in Sri Lanka
The approximately 160 Toastmasters Clubs in Sri Lanka and India comprise Toastmaster's District 82. The Sri Lankan movement that began with just one club in the early 80's has grown in strength to include about 40 clubs at present in the Island.
Sharing his vision for the Toastmaster's movement in Sri Lanka, which celebrated its silver jubilee this year, Dr. Abayasekara, stressed the need to take the benefits of the Toastmasters program to areas outside Colombo.
At present, Sri Lanka has two clubs in Kandy and one in Kurunegala. "The leaders of D82 have done an outstanding job of building a strong base of clubs and the infra-structure needed to take the movement out to people in areas outside the major cities," he said. He particularly commended the leaders and members of District 82, in Sri Lanka and India, for creating one of the finest performing Toastmasters districts in the world.
Youth, below the age of 18 is another special target group in the Toastmaster's movement. In addition to Youth Leadership Programs which are conducted by club members, Dr. Abayasekara also said that a new program is being developed by Toastmasters World Headquarters, where learning materials would eventually be made available to school teachers and youth workers to help children to speak and lead more effectively.
The Growth of Toastmasters
From a humble beginning in 1924 at the YMCA in Santa Ana, California, Toastmasters International (TMI) has grown to become a world leader in helping people become more competent and confident speakers and leaders. The nonprofit organization has nearly 250,000 members in more than 12,500 clubs in 106 countries, offering a proven and enjoyable way to practice and hone communication and leadership skills.