Coaching a TEDx speaker on how to structure his next speech



Yesterday, I met up with the author of The Lightless Sky: An Afghan Refugee Boy’s Journey of Escape to A New Life in Britain who gave his first TEDx talk in 2014. Gulwali Passarlay is a 21-year-old man in his final year in Politics at the University of Manchester. We met two years ago on campus when I returned from Afghanistan as a PhD researcher.

As we munched away the naan bread with shish kebab at one of the Afghan diners along Curry Mile in Manchester, he tells me excitedly about his next TEDx speech in February 2016. He was told by the organisers that they would have a coach, but he (a) did not have the time to have one, and he (b) felt that having a coach would make him lose his authenticity as he wanted to speak from his heart.

I listened intently.

As a public speaking coach myself who had enrolled in various high-end public speaking programmes, I have observed that some of their ‘top’ speakers often spoke in a formulaic way — and for me, they exuded artificiality rather than spontaneity. They were too ‘perfect’ to be believable. They were too slick to be authentic. On that note, Gulwali was right. But I did not agree with him fully, because just as there are bad coaches in the speaking circuit, there are exceptional ones who show the path towards authenticity, transparency, and believability through public speaking, people who may not want to be famous, or to be made famous yet.

I did not interrupt, but listened intently to uncover his thoughts, biases, and values.

You see, Gulwali’s personal life story chronicles his 12-month journey from Afghanistan to Britain as a twelve-year-old refugee escaping from the clutches of the Taliban, and because he has spoken about it in his 2014 TEDx talk, he has decided to speak about something more general – the refugee crisis. Gulwali explains that the theme of the next TEDx event is “Force”. He then explains that one of this main points is that we should show more compassion towards the refugees in this refugee crisis.

But as Gulwali spoke about his ideas, I took on a skeptical role (as a coach) and asked:

“Why should I listen to you? Why should I care for the refugees?”

He paused. And then quickly said that the audiences who attend TEDx events are often excited about change in the world.

“But why refugees,” I asked again. “I could be interested in environmental issues, or even traffic safety, but what if I was not interested at all at the refugee crisis, how can you get me on to your side?”

After some intensive reflections and discussions, Gulwali finally found something he passionately believed in without losing his authenticity as a speaker on the refugee crisis.

Because his next TEDx speech has yet to be delivered, I will not disclose the information. Imagine telling other people how the narrative of Star Wars: The Force Awakens ends, your trying to help actually robs the listener of an actual experience in engaging with the story.

So it’s always best not to ‘leak it’.
(But as you can see, this is also another way to keep it suspenseful until his actual video is shared on social media.)

Nonetheless, here are the seven steps and questions that helped Gulwali clarify his thoughts and structure his speech – which I know will be useful for anyone preparing a speech.

1. What is the story you want to share?

You would probably have enough life experiences and stories to pick and choose, but choosing the right story for the right audience is a skill. Why would they want to care about your story? What would it add to their thinking? How would your story add value to your audience?

For example, as you reflect on the many journeys on your life, write out the purposes of each major turning point:

When I was (18 years old), I (did this) – and it changed my life (in this specific way)?
When I was (23 years old), something happened to me (what is it?) – and it changed my thinking/ attitudes (e.g. about relationships, life goals, finances, studies, career choices, travel options, spirituality)?


2. How is this relevant to the theme of the conference?

Here, the theme does not have to be literal. Try to do a quick mindmap, or refer to a thesaurus on the way this word/ phrase is used.

For example, synonyms of “force” can also mean”effort”, “potency”, “impact”, “conscription”, “coercion”, “compulsion”, “mass x acceleration” [in Physics], “pressure”, “punch”, “push”, “speed”, “rhythm”, “air”, “power”, “vigour”, “action” and the like.

Try looking for phrasal verbs (i.e. a verb + preposition):
– to force (something) back
– to force (something) down
– to force (somebody) on somebody
– to force (something) out of somebody
– to force into (someone or something)
– to force down (someone’s throat)

Next, as you look back at those major intersections and stories listed in Step 1, see if there’s a connection to the broader themes of “force”. Think symbolically.


3. Why should the listeners listen to you?

Seriously, why should the audience believe you? Who are they and what are their needs? Every speaker at a TEDx event has been carefully selected by a committee to offer a wide variety of topics and experiences, so that, at least from the conference organiser’s perspective, it can cater to every single person in the room. Typically, all the speakers would have a story they are passionate to share – so in order for you to stand apart from the other TEDx speaker, you would need to give them a reason to listen to you.

Sims Wyeth says that you would need to  “[i]ncrease your You-to-Me-Ratio. Talk about their goals, their aspirations, their anxieties” (see link on Inc.). Wyeth is right. Why does it matter to them?

According to Michael Webb, he recommends a few suggestions, such as (i) facilitate listening; (ii) savour meaning; (iii) think synthetically; (iv) offering a missing piece; (v) tie it back to bodies; (vi) show the whole elephant; (vii) keep the bargain; and (viii) make it sing (see link). It is a good read.

Back to Gulwali’s topic, he has to make “refugees” relevant to the UK audience. To many people, the refugee crisis is a “crisis” that does not affect them in the here-and-now. But if there were a weather warning sign telling them that there will be a major snowstorm and roads will be closed, or that the London Underground is going on strike for the next three days and they would need to find an alternative route to get home, then there’s a reason for the audience to pay attention – because it affects them directly.

So, find a cause that has an effect on them. Make linkages, draw consequences, infer from assumptions, etc.

If refusing the entry of refugees into the country is the action taken by the government, or the House of Representatives through a vote (see the US’s debate on the restriction of Syrian and Iraqi refugees in November 2015), or if there is a vote for Britain to carry out airstrikes in Syria against ISIS (see link) affects ordinary lives in the here-and-now, then the consequence could be something they have not considered.

As a speaker, you would need to speak to an imaginary critic in your mind, find a loophole in their argument, and slowly work your way through, so that your cause can now become their cause.


4. How much time are you given for your speech?

The time allocated for your speech will determine the number of points that you need to structure your speech around. According to this website, they state this as a guide. If you are writing your script out, the correlation between the number of words typed out can determine the length of time to ‘speak’ it.

Number of words in a 10-minute speech = 1300 
Number of words in a 15-minute speech = 1950
Number of words in a 20-minute speech = 2600 

How long does a 2000 word speech take? 15.4 minutes
How long does a 2500 word speech take? 19.2 minutes
How long does a 5000 word speech take? 38.5 minutes

But please do use the above only as a rough guide, since speaking is not the same as reading, and you should consider using movements and pauses in your speech that might add to the duration of your delivery.

As a general rule, use about 3 major points in your argument, without the introduction and conclusion. Develop each point for about three or four minutes, and you should be able to hit the 15-minute time limitation quite comfortably. (See Step 6 for more on the 3 main points)


5. How can you start your speech with impact?

According to Jacqueline Smith from Business Insider, she says that there are 7 excellent ways to start a presentation and capture your audience’s attention (see link):

(i) tell a captivating story;
(ii) ask a rhetorical thought-provoking question;
(iii) state a shocking statistic or headline;
(iv) use a powerful quote;
(v) show a gripping photo;
(vi) use a prop or creative visual-aid; and
(vii) play a short video.

I agree with her seven suggestions. But I am going to add three more:

(viii) perform a mime, a role-play, or sing a song
(ix) do a drawing or painting, or anything that you can do in silence
(x) simulate a scenario where the audience is also involved in it.

The last three suggestions are performance-based, and to a large extent, people who have understood the principles of audience engagement and drama processes can engage audiences on a deeper and more affective level. My clients who have undergone a drama-based masterclass with me has understood how easy it is to do an improvisation, a role play, or a mime that gets the audience enraptured and sitting by the edge of the seat. In a previous blog, I gave an example to show a primary school teacher how to do it. See the dialogue section of this blog post under the sub-header “Teacher’s Training”.

6. What are the three main points you want to score with your audience?

‘Three’ is a magic number. It is often referred to as the Rule of Three.

If you remember the fairy tales you’ve read, there are three blind mice, three little pigs, three musketeers, three billy goats gruff, three witches in Hamlet, and even in the Biblical text, the three wise men who presented three gifts to the baby Jesus – gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

In a narrative structure, you have (i) rising action, (ii) climax, and (iii) resolution (denouement). However in some literary circles, Gustav Freytag, for example, insisted on a five-part narrative structure that includes (i) the exposition that occurs before the rising action; and (ii) falling action that occurs immediately after the climax.

In the structure of a joke, you have the (i) set-up, (ii) anticipation, and (iii) the punchline.

Regardless of the theoretical understanding, the preferred method is an odd number, either a ‘3’ or a ‘5’. Even in this post, I have ‘7’ suggestions.

But for the content of a speech, I would stick to 3. Here’s why: it sticks.

In this article, the author also mentioned other uses of the Rule of Three that people today often use, without much thought (see link):

  • The Trinity: The Father, Son, and the Holy Spirit
  • “Blood, sweat, and tears” (Winston Churchill)
  • “Friends, Romans, Countrymen” (speech by Marc Antony, in Shakespeare’s play, Julius Caesar)
  • Faith, Hope, and Charity

Can you see how well it sticks? Let me add a few more to the list:


7. How can you end your speech with more impact?

In another blog, I referred to Les Brown’s way of ending a speech, that is to use a poem (see link). This is a technique that is rarely used because it takes a lot more memorisation than most speakers are comfortable in using – which makes you stand apart.

But here’s my rule, so listen to this carefully:

If you started with a story, go back to the story with a twist. If you gave a quote at the start, repeat the quote at the end as a reminder.

Think of a burger with the seeded bun at the top and the bun at the bottom; both are used to “contain” the contents of the burger: meat, lettuce, tomatoes, pickles, ketchup, etc. You need to end the way you started. It can be a reminder of how you started the speech, or with a slight variation to see things in a new perspective.


By the time Gulwali and I walked out of the Afghan diner, he felt a lot more confident in the way he wants to structure his script.

Then I looked him in the eye and asked, “Did you realise that you’ve just had a coaching session with me?”, he smiled back with a renewed sense of optimism.


Ed Chow is a public speaking coach, story strategist, and a drama educator. He has just completed his PhD in Drama at the University of Manchester. He coaches professional public speakers, business executives, entrepreneurs, educators and students.




Roleplaying: The Key To Overcoming the Fear of Public Speaking

“Do you know what I found?”
“No, what did you find?”
“Don’t blink.”
Tommy puts his hand into the bag and gets ready to surprise his brother with…


Roleplaying is one of the easiest ways to get people to overcome their fears of public speaking.

Theoretically, this is because you are playing another character. And when you are playing X, you are non-X. If you are playing Romeo, you cannot be yourself (Tommy). If you are playing yourself (Tommy), then your own insecurities will show up and you become more self-conscious of who you are, rather than trying to engage your audiences with your message.

When you play another character (or if you put on a role), you avoid the fear of being judged and criticised as you are. For example, if you were acting a timid character and you were seen shaking (even if it was a real visible nervousness on stage), it is interpreted by your audience as you playing that timid character. If you are being loud and boisterous on stage, you are only seen as a character and not yourself (thus get away with ridiculousness and even the occasional rudeness). Again, roleplaying helps the audience to see you as a character, and so you avoid the harsh judgements and criticisms as who “you” are. They could only “judge” your character’s actions, unless, of course, the character is so famous (e.g. Hamlet) that when an actor who plays him badly, it will be seen as an actor not clearly fleshing out Hamlet’s desire for revenge.

Putting on a character is like putting on the Emperor’s new clothes. You become bolder. You become stronger. You become whoever you want to be, conjured from your imagination. These could be stereotypes from fiction (e.g. evil stepmother, big fat pig, cunning wolf, the magician, Prince Charming, damsel in distress, hunchback), but they give you the permission to “play” a new role and be comfortable in a different skin, in a different voice.

But this is only the process.

This means that this is a process during the rehearsal phase, not the performance phase. You don’t “act” when you are on stage as you do not want to lose that sense of authenticity as a speaker. You don’t want to appear unnatural because the sense of flakiness can be seen from miles away, and unless you are a professional entertainer, you will appear gimmicky and unreal. So, how do you act and not-act at the same time?

On performance day, you would need to be vulnerable and honest as yourself. But in order to do so, a long process of discovery has to take place. Lee Strasberg, a famous American director born in Hungary-Austria (now Ukraine), who was most known for his Method Acting once said:

“The human being who acts is the human being who lives.”

But the one who acts is also the one who does, and feels. In other words, before an actor could play a role so well, he would need to understand the character’s strengths, flaws, motivations, desires, and all the back-story needed to flesh out a most convincing portrayal. But to be convincing requires personal work, a deep intense excavation and exploration of your own inner world, your own demons and angels. It is a process of stripping  away those layers of fears, of insecurities, of judgement, and allowing your body to feel free again, for your voice to express again. And this can only be done through drama games and activities that open up different senses: the kinesthetic, the auditory, the visual, the olfactory, the gustatory, the vestibular.

Through drama exercises, a trained drama educator or theatre director would help you to discover these:

  • find the ‘true’ intention of your character
  • express and emote the appropriate feeling
  • be playful and vulnerable
  • work as an ensemble, in collaboration with other actors and technicians

I remember performing in a piece of theatre once, titled ‘The Other Me’, where I was literally stripped to my underwear, with pieces of fabric tied around me as the co-actors walked in a circumference, almost mummifying myself in a push-pull constricted way. I had to deliver a painfully honest monologue. During the rehearsal, I tried different methods to portray that character, through various ways of crying, shouting, whispering, but my director did not like the portrayals. He didn’t feel it was authentic enough. I was probably too self-conscious of being scrutinised in the buff, hence the lines that I had delivered were stilted.

Even on the actual day of the performance itself, the last rehearsal was “barely average”; my character’s monologue did not have enough impact on the audience. Quietly, my director stopped all the activities, took me aside privately and told me to go into MY own inner recesses, to tap into my very dark place, a place that had a mix of horrifying and desirous images, fearful and liberating feelings. I was there in the imaginative world for a few minutes which seemed like Hell forever. He turned off all the lights and told the co-actors to wait for the cue. Blindfolded, I was ushered back to the stage (during the rehearsal – which was just 2 hours before showtime. Just imagine the stress!) and I delivered my lines from that emotionally complex world. Convoluted images of imprisonment, bondage, lust, sex, desire, pain, death, hell, judgement day, intimacy, freedom and confusion oozed out effortlessly from my mouth.

And then I felt it.

A hushed silence.
I knew my audience (my co-actors and directors) felt it too.

I opened my blindfold and cried.
We knew the impact of those words of self-condemnation as spouted by that character. He became believable, finally.

And I had to recreate that memory 2 hours later for an actual paying audience, to make them feel the same way my ensemble felt in the rehearsal room.

That’s “peeling away”. I had to peel away “myself” to reach my core before I could put on that character’s story. And when I did that, I became authentic both in role, and in person.

After that intense process as an actor, there was nothing else I might fear. I had, ironically, become so true and vulnerable as a person that if I were to stand naked on stage, those vulnerabilities I had would have transmuted into other forms of energy needed to create an impactful delivery.

Public speakers, of course, do not need to go through an acting process. But there are processes that are less frightening than what I had gone through. Here are some of the photographs from a masterclass I facilitated to teach entrepreneurs to embody authenticity and structure their stories from a truthful and engaging place.

It was serious fun, seriously.


Masterclass (Pair Activity)Masterclass (Pair Work)Group ImprovisationGamesSleeping ExerciseBag Exercise

George Bernard Shaw once said:

“We don’t stop playing because we grow old; we grow old because we stop playing.”


Some of the participants shared their testimonials with me after the masterclass:

“Thank you, Ed. You have something, Ed, it’s not a skill set; it’s more than that. I don’t know. I can’t put a finger on it. Perhaps it’s what shines through when something is done with passion.”

“It was an amazing experience. I’ve been to workshops for public speaking in the past but THIS really makes a change in me. Its about taking stories like when we are kids […]”

“Before the workshop, my confidence […] was around 20 percent. But after today’s workshop, I can say with confidence that my ability and skill to share my story has increased to 65 percent.”

“I really recommend that if you want to learn some strategies that will help you take your presentation to a higher level, I would recommend come to see Ed. It’s been a worthwhile experience. It’s brilliant. Ed knows what he’s doing.”

“The training is key. Everything we learned today, the drama, the character, how to engage with the audience are very vital for my business.”

“To be honest, before I came, I was a bit anxious and afraid because I was not very comfortable sharing my story […] I was scared. I didn’t know what to say. But finally […] I’m very happy that I did it because I realised that drama and acting is very important when you’re doing public speaking. Because […] I have to do many presentations for my business, I realised that I really needed this session. Thank you, Edmund.”


This very powerful, experiential Masterclass will take place in Manchester on 30 August (Sunday) from 9am to 5.30pm.  Register now to secure a place. Only limited to 10 spaces.

Public Speaking Masterclass in Audience Engagement on 14 August in Manchester based on an Actor’s Craft

This is Edmund Chow’s signature programme for public speakers, storytellers, entrepreneurs and anyone wanting to develop a dynamic stage presence. Here, Edmund uses drama techniques, games and exercises used in the rehearsal room with actors to train non-actors to be “in the body” and to “own the space”.

Date: 14 August 2015 (Saturday)
Time: 0900 – 1730h
Venue: Northern Quarter, Manchester city centre
Reservations: Click here at the Eventbrite page. (Limited to 20 students only)