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May 2024
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Liza Pavlakos: From Trauma to Triumph

How the 2021 Golden Gavel recipient uses her extraordinary life stories to inspire others.

By Stephanie Darling


Toastmasters’ 2021 Golden Gavel recipient Norliza (Liza) Pavlakos knows that stories can change lives—even save them. In fact, rewriting her own narrative was once a matter of life or death. Against all odds, she reversed a devastating life trajectory into a story of soul-healing hope and kindness.

Once virtually voiceless, Pavlakos now uses her extraordinary life stories to comfort and inspire others. Some of the experiences she shares with audiences around the world reveal memories of cruelty and terror. Others—the ones that illuminate her life’s passion for helping others soar above adversity—are joyous and life-affirming.

“Sometimes you have to experience a total breakdown to reach a breakthrough,” says Pavlakos, who will speak at the Golden Gavel Award Presentation during the 2021 Virtual Convention on Friday, August 27, at 8 a.m. Eastern Daylight Time (UTC-4). She joins an illustrious group of previous honorees, who have been celebrated for world-class achievements in leadership and public speaking since the award was first given in 1959.

Pavlakos, who is based in Melbourne, Australia, has been recognized as one of the world’s leading female keynote speakers. She’s also an executive coach, a self-made entrepreneur, human rights advocate, philanthropist, author, and survivor—from an early age—of sexual abuse, domestic violence, homelessness, and abduction. Undoubtedly, some of her stories deliver a jaw-drop to audiences. However, it’s her pairing of both trauma and recovery that has drawn listeners across six continents.

Woman posing in tan coat

“Life will throw at us many challenges, but what I know to be true is that the pain in our hearts will not last forever,” she says. “I genuinely believe what matters is how we view ourselves and our ability to move forward. We cannot change the past, but we can embrace the now.” Simply put, her message to audiences is that everyone can rewrite their stories if they choose.

Pavlakos says she is “honored and humbled” to receive the Golden Gavel award. “My mission has always been to take something ugly and make it into something beautiful by helping others. Through this award, I feel an affirmation from thousands of Toastmasters, who also value personal transformation, to help me carry on,” she says.

Pavlakos, who is of Indian and Malaysian heritage, was raised by an affluent and well-educated family in Melbourne, Australia. Yet in one of her earliest and most persistent memories, she dreamed of becoming an eraser—a tool that can make words and perhaps even life realities disappear. Yet dream as she might, she could not wipe away the unrelenting cycle of childhood sexual abuse by a relative, nor escape new traumas that overtook her as a young woman who was never taught her indisputable right to safety and personal boundaries. She was brutally battered by a boyfriend; she endured an abduction and near-murder at the hands of a stranger.

However, our brains are built to survive, Pavlakos says. She began to rewrite her story. Yet trauma had numbed her senses. She was buoyed at first with something akin to an I-don’t-care-anymore-what-have-I-got-to-lose mindset. However, armed with determination and a growing self-belief, she kept chipping at her nightmarish history until a new story emerged. She became an entrepreneur, teaching herself diverse businesses she initially knew nothing about: staging public events, turning a rundown coffee shop into a popular café, and transforming a small tailoring service into a thriving enterprise known for making quality products and well-trained, supported employees its top business priorities.

What Pavlakos did understand, instinctively, was how to connect with people. That realization catapulted her forward as a successful businesswoman. Since then, she has earned extensive qualifications in business and psychotherapy.

Yet something was missing.

“Every time I heard news about violence toward women or children, it triggered so many emotions,” says Pavlakos, who is herself the mother of five. “I felt there was something I needed to be doing in my life that I wasn’t. I knew nothing about public speaking, but I became convinced that if I could share my story, from my heart, it might help others find inner strength and achieve things they never thought possible. I also wanted to create a legacy of kindness.”

She became driven, yet calmly purposeful, about sharing her “horrific journey,” juxtaposed with the hope and joy those trials so unexpectedly brought her.

“We cannot change the past, but we can embrace the now.”

–Liza Pavlakos

“You’re putting your life out there with such sensitive information. How do you speak of these things? It’s not easy for people to hear,” she says. “Yet you have to believe so strongly, so completely in your stories that you show up to share them anyway.”

“Public speaking is not a platform to unleash our trauma and leave it with the audience,” she adds. “It is an opportunity to share healing empathy, lessons, and life skills.”

Today, Pavlakos’ heart-felt speeches draw large, appreciative crowds. In addition to her motivational speaking engagements, she is thriving in other service endeavors. Through her firm, Positive Breakthroughs, she works with a team of qualified therapists and coaches to provide training, counseling, and professional and personal development guidance to individuals and business teams of all ages, genders, races, cultures, disabilities, and socio-economic situations.

As a coach, Pavlakos has earned high praise from Fortune 500 companies for her team-building expertise. Her foundation, a registered charity in Australia, provides educational support and materials to those in need. Her book, Voiceless No More, will be released in April 2022.

Like Golden Gavel honorees before her, Pavlakos is a master speechmaker who inspires from the heart.

“The work I do is nothing short of a blessing. To me, that’s where the real wealth lies.”

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