DUBAI // The first Arab to compete in the finals of the 2013 Toastmasters World Championship of Public Speaking almost didn't make it to the podium.
Shurooq AlBanna, 29, an Emirati, was in tears before boarding her plane to Cincinnati in the US, where she came an impressive third in the international orators' competition.
"Just before my flight I almost quit," Shurooq said. "It was too much pressure."
More than 30,000 people from all over the world applied to take part but only 88 were shortlisted for the world stage.
On the day of her speech, Shurooq ignored the curious glances at her shayla and abaya, and strode onstage to deliver her speech, entitled "Finding the Pearl".
"It's scary up there," she said. "Everyone gets scared, even the world champions.
"But you learn to use it and interact with the audience, and pretty soon you're addicted to it."
The speech explored the importance of looking beyond appearances to find the goodness in people.
"I truly believe that if we all adopted this philosophy and focused on finding this good essence in each other, then life would become more fulfilling and meaningful," Shurooq said.
See Shurooq at the 20th district Toastmasters Annual Conference in May, where she won first place in the International Speech category.
The speech was inspired by The Diary of Anne Frank, which she read at the age of 9 on a holiday in London.
"There are many lessons you can learn from her life, but more than anything it taught me to believe in humanity," she said.
"Regardless of religion, race or beliefs you should always find the humanity in people."
Now an employee of the Dubai Health Authority, Shurooq pursued a string of hobbies as a child and always loved acting and being on stage.
At the age of 10, she landed her first public-speaking role as a presenter on a children's show.
"I still remember that first line I had to say. I was so nervous," she said.
"My parents already gave up on my hobbies, I've had so many over the years.
"When I started with Toastmasters they didn't think anything of it. But when I won third place I called them and my dad was in tears, they were so happy for me."
When a friend introduced Shurooq to Toastmasters, the international organisation that promotes public speaking, she was sceptical.
"I thought, I've done acting and presenting, what could I learn from this?
"But in my first session we were reviewing the speech of a world champion and I was shocked by how little I knew," she said.
After only a couple of years Shurooq started to compete in regional contests.
She topped her group, then her area, and won the 20th district Toastmasters Humorous Speech Contest before being encouraged to try for the World Championship.
With just three years in Toastmasters, Shurooq was up against 20-year veterans.
"I was fuelled by a strong belief in myself that I could do it," she said.
"I saw myself on that stage. I wanted to be there, I wanted my chance to inspire."
Since returning from the contest a few days ago, she has discovered that her win was inspirational.
"A lot of people didn't think you could reach that far in the competition," Shurooq said.
"Now that they have seen me doing it, they are all aiming for the world championship."
She has no plans to continue competitive public speaking, although she said she would not give up the hobby.
"I think I've learned what I can from the competition," Shurooq said. "I want to move forward.
"I'm more than happy to help anyone who wants to compete but it's a big journey – a tough journey."