Nilakshi Parnidigarmage is the current Dean of Ezra Stiles College at Yale University. She has worked at various international human rights organisations in the Hague, Cape Town and Baghdad, and at one of the world’s leading law firms, Quinn Emanuel Urquhart & Sullivan LLP.
In 2000, Nilakshi was honoured at Buckingham Palace by Prince Philip for winning the ESU International Public Speaking Competition. Here we talk about her involvement in the ESU and the ways in which public speaking has helped her throughout her vibrant career.
1. How did you get involved in the ESU’s International Public Speaking Competition?
From a very young age, I loved theatre and debate and represented my school at various competitions. Back then there weren't too many competitive public speaking events in Sri Lanka. But one day my mom saw a small write-up in the local newspaper about the ESU competition calling for applications. She asked me if that was something I would like to do and I jumped at the idea. Winning the international competition - or, indeed the local competition - was the last thing on my mind. It was just a new opportunity to stand up and speak in front of an audience, which I found to be slightly more exciting than terrifying at that point!
2. What did you find the most rewarding about the programme?
Participating in the ESU contest in London was one of the best experiences of my life. Sure, winning the contest was great and the awards ceremony at the Buckingham Palace was memorable, but it's the friends I made at the contest that has stayed with me after all these years. Shahyan, one of the contestants from Pakistan, is a close friend and we have visited each other in several cities at various points in our lives. Mieke, one of the contestants from South Africa, is now a dear friend and even flew to Sri Lanka for my wedding in 2013. Pooja, one of the contestants from India, has steadfastly remained my best friend since we met in London. We are now closer than family. These are just a handful - but these folks have enriched my life.
3. As a Dean at a very prestigious university, how are public speaking skills important in your everyday routine?
Honestly, I don't even think of speaking up in front of an audience as "public speaking" any more. I have to stand up and speak up quite often - sometimes it's spontaneous, other times I'm expected to make prepared remarks.
Often, as Dean, the speeches I give contain important information that needs to be accurate, so I always write out exactly what I have to say, triple-check the facts, whittle the whole script down until I am left with a few bullet points or keywords, and use those to navigate my speech/presentation. The prep work I did as a competitive public speaker has been helpful - I always have a full script nearby, but only have the bullet points in hand. I have never had to use a full script but my mind is more at ease when I know that all the information I need is within reach if I suddenly forget everything.
I am aware that everyone's time is valuable so I always keep an eye on a clock and I try my best to begin and end on time. I don't do these consciously any more, but I do keep eye contact with everyone in the room throughout the presentation and try to move around in a way that's not distracting so that I can hold everyone's attention while I have the floor.
4. How and why did you move from working in law and human rights to academia?
It was not so much a decision to move to academia as it was a decision to move back to Yale. I attended Yale as an undergraduate on a full scholarship, and my four years here were extremely transformative and positive. Even though back then I thought I knew all about Sri Lankan history and the dynamics of our local war, once I came to Yale, I started questioning the singular narrative of our history that I learned in school. I came to better understand the true context of the Sri Lankan war - I think it's necessary sometimes to move far away from a place to better understand it.
I learned a lot about the world and myself during my years at Yale and it left a lasting and overwhelmingly positive impression on me. So the idea of leaving behind corporate law - I was working for a big international litigation firm at that time - and returning to this place to teach, to serve as a Dean, and to build meaningful relationships appealed a lot.
I am teaching a seminar in the Political Science department on Wrongful Convictions in the spring and I am very excited. I still get to stay connected to the world of human rights but I also get to work with truly amazing young students. While I am happy I worked for a while in corporate law, I do not miss that lifestyle at all!
5. You have worked to prevent violence and to promote peace in all parts of the world; what motivated you to work in international human rights organisations?
I grew up in Sri Lanka during the civil war. Compared to some others my age, I lead a very privileged life. For instance, I did not lose immediate family members as a direct result of the war or during one of many suicide bomb attacks in my city. I was also never at risk of being forcibly recruited to fight for the rebels. However, war and civil violence was still very much a "normal" part of my upbringing. To me, it would have been impossible to have grown up in that era in Sri Lanka and to not have had an interest in studying and working in the field of human rights.
6. Given the opportunity, what issue would you speak out about today?
I wish there was a way to banish all corrupt politicians from all countries. I follow Sri Lankan and U.S. politics very closely and am so disheartened every day to see how greed and self-interest guide so many important decisions. Sometimes when I read Sri Lankan news, I feel that for every two steps we move forward, we then take one-and-a-half steps backwards. It's almost the same pool of established cronies that run for office every year. And the field is so corrupt that those with integrity do not want to get involved. I try to give back in small ways but I'd be lying if I said that I don't feel helpless when I read about local politics. I am inspired by my mother as she worked as an attorney for several decades in Sri Lanka fighting bribery and corruption, and even after retirement, continued to serve the country by working for Legal Aid.
You can check out our video from last year's competition to get an even better idea of what this programme is all about. For more information about the International Public Speaking Competition and to register click here.