On Aug. 23, Sri Lankan human resources consultant Dananjaya Hettiarachchi was crowned the World Champion of Public Speaking by Toastmasters International. He survived seven rounds of a competition that lasted six months and included 33,000 competitors from around the world.
He and eight other finalists competed at the Toastmasters annual convention last month in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Hettiarachchi took first place for his speech “I See Something,” which clocked in at seven minutes and 20 seconds. You can watch the full speech below:
We spoke with Hettiarachchi about his winning speech and what you can learn from it. Here are a few things that made it great:
He keeps you guessing.
Hettiarachchi tells us that the modern style of speech-making has transitioned from a theatrical monologue to a conversation with the audience.
There are several theatrical elements to Hettiarachchi’s speech, but they’re done in a way to connect with the audience rather than dive deeper into himself.
He bookends his speech by holding a rose in his hands — the first time to pull the audience into his message and the second time to send them off with a laugh. He avoids being melodramatic or silly by finding a rhythm of silence and laughter, drama and humour.
“A speech has to be like a rollercoaster,” he tells us.
He starts with a message.
Hettiarachchi tells us that a common mistake beginners make when crafting their speeches is starting with a topic instead of a clear and concise message. This message is whatever you want your audience to be thinking about when your presentation concludes.
The message of “I See Something” is that anyone has the potential to be great, even if they have long abandoned their greatest aspirations. To avoid making that sound trite, he tells his own story of going from a law-breaking and lost kid to a motivated and focused adult. His story is the vehicle for a message, which the audience can personalise for themselves.
He fluctuates his cadence and gestures without making them distractions.
Hettiarachchi is far from monotone, but he also doesn’t sound off the wall. He expertly alternates between lowering his voice to a solemn level and raising it for comedic effect.
Pay close attention to the way he makes use of pauses. He takes anywhere from one to a few seconds of silence to emphasise a point, staring into the eyes of audience members to hook them even further.
At the same time, his gestures are open but controlled, so he doesn’t look like he’s flopping his arms.
He ties everything together.
There’s a technique comedians use called a “callback,” in which a joke alludes to a previous joke in the set for added laughter. It serves as a sort of reward for being an active listener and makes the set feel more cohesive.
Hettiarachchi pulls this off with the phrase, “I see something — but I don’t know what it is.” It shows up in the beginning, middle, and end, and feels fresh each time because he plays with the delivery. He also introduces his parents in the story with similar audience prompts.
When he concludes his speech, you’re left laughing and feeling satisfied.