Secrets of a Public Speaking World Champion

This week I had the opportunity to attend a workshop with the Toastmasters International 2014 World Champion of Public Speaking, Dananjaya Hettiarachchi (‘Dan’ for short).

It was a delight to observe him weaving in so many key public speaking skills as he engaged the audience with stories, questions and examples along with general charm and a great smile. Dan shared various tips on preparation, content and delivery and a few secrets about how he beat 33,000 other speakers from 120 countries to win the world title.

Here is an overview of what he covered:

Be Authentic

Whilst we can always learn from watching other speakers, it is important not to imitate another person’s delivery style as it will not be congruent and will come across as awkward and inauthentic. Dan was unsuccessful in winning the title until he embraced and developed his own way of communicating. You can study others to understand the art of speaking but then use your knowledge to find your own unique style that works for you.

Know Your Message

As I wrote about in a recent post, knowing your key message is vital. You should be able to ask every person in the audience what your speech was about and get the same answer from everyone. Therefore, it is crucial to spend time developing and refining your key message. Your ‘foundational phrase’ as Craig Valentine (1999 World Champion of Public Speaking) calls it, should be short and sweet. Short so that it is easy to remember and sweet so that it is easy to recall. By sweet, it should have a sense of rhyme to it. e.g.

  • An apple a day keeps the doctor away
  • Life goes on so you must be strong
  • No more crying, keep on trying

A seven year old should be able to understand your message.

The Hero’s Journey

The hero’s journey is a well-used template in storytelling - a hero goes on a quest, faces a challenge, discovers the solution (in failure), recovers and applies the solution in order to eventually achieve victory. This can be a great structure for a talk, especially if you’re speaking about a universal subject that the entire audience can relate to (essential for winning the Toastmasters International Speech Competition!)

*Note: When sharing your hero’s journey, you can’t be the person who discovers the solution to your own problem; the solution needs to come from someone or something else - a wise adviser, a supportive friend, a parent, a book, a quote, a movie, etc. The solution will be your ‘foundational phrase’ which you should repeat several times throughout your speech.

Connect With The Audience

A good way to connect with your audience and help them relate to your material is to ask them a question; an even more effective way of getting them involved is to ask them to raise their hands to answer the question. Throughout your talk, continue to ask the audience questions that help them connect to your topic. For example, if you are speaking about wanting to be great at water skiing, try saying ‘Raise your hand if you’ve ever wanted to be great at something?’


Your speech starts well before you open your mouth to speak, even as you are walking to the platform; therefore, stand tall and walk with your chin parallel to the ground. If you are shaking the hand of the MC or contest chair (there is a lot of handshaking in Toastmasters!), ensure your handshake is strong and confident, not aggressive or submissive.

Then take your time; wait four seconds before speaking. This enables the audience to finish evaluating you so they’ll be ready to listen when you start speaking. It also allows you to get grounded and comfortable and make eye contact with the audience too. Make sure you smile a genuine smile.

To ensure you don’t transfer your weight from one side to another (this reduces your credibility), shift your body weight forward slightly to the balls of your feet.

Throughout the talk, use open gestures i.e. exposing the palms of your hands. When not using specific gestures to highlight a point, relax your arms by your sides with your palms slightly towards the audience.


Dan also shared five things he has learned during his 10 year journey to World Champion Speaker:

  • Believe – that success is possible. You can't just wish for it though; you need to want it as much as you want to breathe.
  • Attitude – have the right attitude to risk. Take some risks and don’t suffer from paralysis by analysis.
  • Little things make a huge difference – be aware of the small things that can diminish your credibility and improve them.
  • Learn to be a better person – before you become a better speaker. Be the same off stage as on. Your words mean nothing if you are not sincere.
  • Sustain your success – find yourself a mentor who can support you on your continuing journey.

So that wraps up the words of advice from champion speaker Dananjaya Hettiarachchi. Whether you are aiming to be a public speaking world champion, or to engage your team at your next team update, use these tips and you’ll deliver a winning presentation.

If you enjoyed this article, click here to access Mel Sherwood’s ‘Top 5 Tips for Public Speaking Success’

Mel Sherwood is a pitch and presentation specialist who prepares ambitious entrepreneurs and business professionals to take centre stage, embrace the spotlight and present with more confidence, credibility and conviction.

Mel's book 'The Authority Guide to Pitching Your Business - how to make an impact and be remembered... in under a minute!' is available on Amazon. To find out more go to or follow Mel on Twitter @MelSherwood_