Nilmini Herath – a member of the delegation of young British Sri Lankan professionals who visited Sri Lanka in March as part of International Alert and the Royal Commonwealth Society's Diaspora Dialogues initiative – shares her experience of speaking in the UK Parliament.
‘Oh sorry I can't make it, I'm giving a presentation in Parliament on Wednesday’. As I heard the words aloud, before I even looked up from my diary, I realised that I'd uttered them a little too nonchalantly and prepared for the barrage of questions that would follow. My friend's reaction, of course, mirrored my original one; pure disbelief and a little confusion over why I would be given an opportunity such as this. But the experience of presenting in the UK Parliament began long before we entered the doors of the House of Commons...
We were a group of seven second-generation Sri Lankans who had been brought together by International Alert and the Royal Commonwealth Society to participate in a programme named “Diaspora Dialogues”. The programme gave us an incredible opportunity to connect with Sri Lanka and explore ways in which we could contribute to its development and peacebuilding process.
It all began with a visit to the country that saw us travelling to areas as diverse as Puttalam, Kilinochchi, Anuradhapura and Trincomalee; and meeting a multitude of players, including politicians, IDPs, ex-combatants and civil society. Although just a few months earlier most of us did not know each other at all, we had been on an incredible journey together and were about to host our first public event to talk about the experience and our ideas for taking things forward.
One of the most important elements of the preparation was the time we spent thinking about the potential attendees. As with any presentation, the audience – their level of knowledge, their areas of interest and their sensitivities – drove the format and content we chose. As a group of young professionals, we all had some experience in putting presentations together. This was very much in our comfort zone. Analysing the potential audience of an event to be held in Parliament, however, presented some particular challenges. Many of us did not have much – if any – experience of dealing with parliamentarians and we were inevitably a little nervous about their attendance. We wanted to make the best possible use of our rare opportunity for interaction but had very little understanding of this group, not even knowing how to address them.
Perhaps more challenging was the unpredictability of the audience composition as a whole. We knew that Parliament can attract a variety of people and groups, and that we might find ourselves facing strong sentiments or emotions, groups with diametrically opposing viewpoints and possibly even preconceptions about, or hostility towards, ourselves. It seemed that we had to be prepared for just about anything!
In the process of developing our material, however, I found my nerves easing.
One thing that helped tremendously was that we had each other, and among our small group we had quite an array of talents, skills and knowledge. We each had multimedia material courtesy of our video and photography gurus that I knew would give us an edge in engagement. Each of us individually could find in the other members of our group an astute audience on whom we could practise our individual speeches and refine them for sensitivity. Crucially, we also had the expertise of International Alert and the Royal Commonwealth Society who supported us with everything from arranging the logistics to helping us in the development of our content and preparing for difficult questions and opinions that might arise.
As we went through this process I had two major realisations. One was that we actually had something interesting to say and perhaps it wasn't so crazy that we should have this opportunity after all. Our experience had been incredible. We had all learnt a lot from the visit, and had stories to tell and rare insights to share. The other was that in this area of work, it was far too easy to offend or antagonise and it was going to take all of our tact to pull it off well. And so the preparation for Parliament left me continually oscillating between feeling daunted and excited.
Walking through security on the day I felt surprisingly calm. I could see how the grandeur of the building, together with the security and bustle, could be a source of intimidation, but for me there was something serene and comforting about it. The fascinating architectural details distracted me from my speech and the traditional touches gave me a sense of perspective, reminding me of how many speeches and presentations had been, and would be, given there before and after this one.
The actual event was a bit of a whirlwind. In no time at all, the room was full, we were sitting on a panel and were being introduced as the audience gazed at us intently, some even taking photos. From that point on it all just seemed to happen on its own; the video played, words fell out of our mouths as we each did our little bit, people asked questions, we answered them and the MPs with us facilitated and gave their comments.
There wasn't time to be worried or nervous about what was coming; at this point we just had to do it! There also wasn't so much to be worried about.
I had prepared myself so much for the negative that the positive comments and ideas took me by surprise, although of course they shouldn't have. In this way, it was an incredibly validating and empowering experience; one that left us with a new sense of direction and purpose as well as a few useful contacts and offers of support!
We presented on a variety of themes, including youth, health, IDPs and resettlement, demining, devolution and much more. We wanted to address what we experienced in relation to these themes; what we believed were positive developments as well what remains to be a challenge from national and local perspectives.
An overarching theme was the involvement or potential we saw of the Sri Lankan diaspora. Presenting as a group made this much easier. From a practical perspective, it meant that we could divide up the themes among ourselves and direct questions to one another based on individual knowledge and interest. But in an emotional sense, it was also extremely reassuring to feel the presence of the rest of the group on the panel.
Just as the experience of presenting in Parliament began long before we entered the House of Commons, it will also end long after we walked out. There's the immediate high and sense of relief, followed by self-evaluation and analysis and the ongoing support or collaboration with the contacts we made. I would say that the true potential of this event is yet to be determined or realised, and will of course take some work on our part.
Yes, there were mistakes: our speeches were a little too dry, I should have answered this or that question differently and I wish I had used cue cards instead of a typed script. But it was all a powerful learning experience that was not at all bad for our first time, and with the renewed appreciation I feel for our group and work, I thoroughly hope that it is the first of many.