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.




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)

How To Speak And Charge Higher Fees: Examples From Bill Clinton, Tragic Survivors, and the Art World

Bill Clinton’s speaking fees are hefty. Over the top, some might even say.

A CNN Political Ticker summarised Clinton’s earnings as a speaker in a blog post titled “First on CNN: Bill Clinton’s $106 million speech circuit windfall”:

According to a CNN analysis of 12 years of federal financial records, former President Bill Clinton had his most active and profitable year on the lecture circuit in 2012, delivering 73 speeches for $17 million from mid-January 2012 through mid-January 2013. That brought his total haul in speaking fees since leaving the White House to $106 million. His previous record for annual speech income was $13.4 million in 2011. […] In 12 years as a private citizen, Clinton has delivered 544 paid speeches and earned an average of $195,000 per event. He has visited 27 states, as well as the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico. His popularity on the international lecture circuit has taken him to 54 countries, where he has earned a combined $57 million, more than half of his total speech earnings. Secretary Clinton traveled nearly one million miles and visited 112 countries as the nation’s top diplomat, which likely makes the Clintons among the most well-traveled couples in the world.

This is probably old news by now.

But in today’s article in The Independent, Tony Blair allegedly turned down speaking at a hunger conference because of his £330,000 fee. I am not here to verify the accuracy of these claims, but the fact that speakers are being paid handsome sums of money can be shocking or exciting, depending on your own socioeconomic position and values.

But the truth is not all speakers are paid that much, especially when you are starting out.

Here are the first two steps to increasing your legitimacy and credibility as a highly-paid speaker.


This is probably the last thing any speaker wants to do, but the longer you have been in a job, the better your credentials. You see, many of your audiences are probably in the middle-class income range and they are potentially, like many others, in a job. Bill Clinton is the first Democratic US President in six decades to be elected twice. His being in presidential office gave him the elevated status and advantage. In Edward Said: The Charisma of Criticism, the author H. Aram Veeser pointed out a very important concept, which he calls “institutional wrappings”. He writes:

Harold Bloom would not be Harold Bloom were he working at Burger King. His identity resides in his institutionality: he is Yale Professor of English Harold Bloom. And that is true, mutatis mutandis, across the board. Derrida would not be Derrida were he not J. Derrida, agrégé of the École Normal Supérieure in Paris.

Although the above-mentioned names are academic professors, it is easy to see how Bill Clinton’s identity as a speaker also “resides in his institutionality”, that is in his presidential office. People who are familiar with Pierre Bourdieu would understand that this is part of a person’s symbolic capital.

But what happens if you do not belong to an institution or organisation? Join one.

Even Bill Clinton is now part of the Harry Walker Agency, the “world’s #1 speakers’ agency” that comprises many people who were formerly in political office, including Julia Gillard, the Prime Minister of Australia (2010-2013); Felipe Calderon, the President of Mexico (2006-2012); Joyce Banda, Africa’s 2nd female President, and President of the Republic of Malawi (2012-2014); and Shimon Peres, the President of Israel (2007-2014).

Scrolling down their directory, I also see Edward Norton, the award-winning Hollywood actor; Arnold Schwarzenegger; Itzhak Perlman, etc. Whether you like what they represent (in terms of values or beliefs), or if you like their speaking style is not the issue, but the fact that they are being represented by an organisation larger than themselves makes their credibility stronger.

Here are a few examples of speaker bureaus and agencies in the UK, in no ranking or preferential order:

1. JLA
2. London Speaker Bureau
3. Vistage Speaker Bureau
4. Speakers Corner
5. NMP Live
6. The Speakers Agency
7. Random House Speakers
8. Inspirational Speakers


Speak for free when you are starting out. But as you gain momentum and popularity, you would need to charge a fee for speaking.

Here are two things that need to be understood: (i) mindset, and (ii) market.


Especially when a speaker is unentertaining or uninspiring, the most common criticism from an audience member is, “Ridiculous how much he’s paid. I can do that too.” That critic may do a better job at speaking than the speaker, but the truth is, she hasn’t. And because she hasn’t, she can’t demand a price tag or a speaking fee.

As a speaker, you would need to pluck up courage and ask for a fee. It can be $150 for a start. Or if you want, stretch that and ask for $500. And then slowly increase the fee to see what the market is willing to pay for your services. The only thing you’d need to handle is “No, that’s too much.”

But it’s not about you. It’s not a validation of your self-worth. Don’t be mistaken by that rejection. It’s about the market.

It’s about the demand-and-supply for your expertise on a subject that can potentially help a group of people overcome certain problems. If you knew how to solve a crisis based on your years of experience in a certain sector, your solution-based speech can save the company millions of dollars preventing them from going through the painful learning cycle. Think about it.

Just imagine that you want to set up a website for yourself, perhaps for branding purposes. But you spend hours and hours working through a free WordPress (like this one), finding out ways to set up widgets, connect to Facebook and other social media platforms, and by the time you’ve acquired some technical know-how, it’s Month 4 — and you’ve wasted time, money, and energy on something that could essentially be delegated or farmed out. Worse, you could have given up during that process and forgot why you even started in the first place.

So, remind yourself that you’ve got valuable information, expertise, experiences that could help other people do their work or lead their lives better.

Rob Lilwall is a random pick from one of the speaker bureaus I found. As an adventurer, he is able to turn his story into learning points, for example, “rising above the pessimists who say that it’s not possible”.

Screen Shot 2015-06-01 at 10.58.57

Let us take a look at other speakers.

Mark OrmrodMark Ormrod, for example, was a Royal Marines Commando in Helmand, Afghanistan. He stepped on an improvised explosive device and, fortunately, survived after an emergency medical procedure. But he lost three limbs. He is UK’s first triple amputee to survive the conflict in Afghanistan. His story, like Lilwall above, is about overcoming adversities, the importance of goal setting, and sustaining peak performances (c.f. his website). His speaking engagements are managed by JLA, the first bureau on the list above.

Phil Britten was a survivor of the Bali bombing. From his website, he recounted his journey as a speaker:

At 11.08pm October 12th, 2002, I was crossing the dance floor of the now infamous Sari Club in Kuta, Bali when terrorists detonated a van out the front carrying a massive 700kg of explosives.

On that night I lost seven of my friends and team-mates from the Kingsley Football Club and was burnt to 60% of my body. Surviving the blast was only the beginning as my biggest battle was yet to come. 

The early years of my recovery were marked by having to overcome the physical, mental and emotional scars as well as completely re-evaluate my life, which was quickly spiralling out of control.  Alcohol and drugs became an easy way for me to escape reality.  Life didn’t feel like it was worth living and I was trapped.  Everything I had and everything I’d worked for was slipping away. Until one day, it all changed. I tried something different. I spoke out. 

Phil Britten Speaking out, therefore, is not just something you need to do to help someone else. I would argue that it’s also part of your healing process. Granted that not all coping strategies need to be articulated or expressed publicly. Yes, your struggles are private. But your experiences are not. One of my coaches, Andy Harrington, once told us that if we were holding back, then we are being selfish with our gifts. Life’s experiences, indeed, are gifts. Phil Britten’s book, Undefeated: The Story of Bali Bombing Survivor Phil Britten, is also available on Amazon.

Get over your own limiting belief that what you have inside does not need a price tag. Speaking out on issues that matter to you, especially overcoming adversities, can be the greatest form of inspiration and motivation to someone undergoing the same pain and struggles. Never underestimate your own story.


Barnett Newman‘s famous blue canvas with a white line was sold for $44 million in May 2013 at a Sotheby’s auction. With a fancy title, “Onement VI”, this abstract oil painting was signed and dated 1953, with a canvas in dimensions of 102 x 120 inches.

A person not schooled in expressionist aesthetics would cry foul and say, “My child can do that too!” But your child is not yet a Barnett Newman, or a Picasso, or a Vincent Van Gogh. This reminds me of a story.

It was told that a woman met a famous painter in a cafe in Paris. Thrilled by the encounter, the lady courteously asked if the painter could scribble or doodle something on the paper napkin, so she can take it home as a memorabilia. The painter looked at her in the eyes and smiled. He took out a broadtip pen and started making strokes and lines, producing a really fine piece of art within a minute. As the painter hands the piece of napkin to the adoring fan, he says, “500 Euros, please.”

“What!” exclaims the lady. “It took you only 1 minute to draw this and you are demanding 500 Euros?” She was furious, shouting loudly in the hopes of embarrassing the artist.

The painter smiles again and replies, “It took you 1 minute to ask me to draw something that took me 50 years to perfect.”

Years of perfection in a craft cannot be “quantified” in a 60-minute speech. It is not the length or duration of the speech that warrants a fee, but the years of experience, preparation, blood and toil that validate the “value” of the speech.

Referring back to the symbolic capital and the need to be affiliated with an institution, the Onement VI had been exhibited in the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York in 1961; in the World’s Fair, Fine Arts Pavilion in Seattle from 1950-1962; in the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, New York School, in 1965; in the Pasadena Art Museum in 1970; in the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles from 1983 to 1984; in the Marisa del Re Gallery in New York in 1985; in the Museum of Art in Fort Lauderdale in 1986; and in the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles from 1986 to 1988. These accolades add to the perceived “market value” of this piece of art. So, it is not the one-day event at the 2013 auction that makes the value of the painting go up. Neither is it a mere painting with a white line across a blue canvas that fetches a price. It is a combination of all these factors: years and experience of artist/speaker, reputation of artist/speaker, affiliation with institutions, comparative prices of similar artworks/speeches, publications, and perceived market value in meeting an “aesthetic” need or demand.

Barnett Newman's Onement VI

In other words, as a speaker, the more events you speak at, the more brownie points you acquire for yourself. The bigger the names, the bigger your branding, and thus, the bigger the speaker’s fee. I reiterate: The more famous you become, the more you can charge for speaking.

However, the business of speaking (and pricing your fee) needs to be differentiated from the making and preparing your speech. Just like in art, the making of a speech can be a personal creative process (you play with words, you make it rhyme, you tell a joke, you bring in a tearjerker here, you round them up for an applause there, etc), but the pricing of your speech and what you bring to the stage is dependent on market forces.

This article cogently explains the business of selling art, or “How any artist can price their art for sale“. There are huge  parallels to the speaking world, but one takeaway is you’d need to know what other speakers are charging. Knowing the comparative rates and your “art” in relation to what other speakers are charging in the same “area of specialty” can help you determine your own price tag. This writer also differentiates “asking price” from “selling price”:

Once you’re done with your evaluating and you’re ready set your prices by comparison, base your prices on what sells, not on what doesn’t. For example, suppose you’ve narrowed your comparables search down to a handful of artists whose art is priced in the $2000-$20,000 range. If the only art that sells is in the $2000-$5000 range, and the expensive pieces don’t sell, this tells you that buyers don’t want to pay the more expensive prices– they’re too high. So $2000-$5000 is probably where you want to price most of your art, and forget about going much higher.

In conclusion, be objective about what you can bring to the stage and how your speech can change the outcomes and results of your audience members. You can either look at their opportunity costs in not getting what you have to offer, or compare your speech and your own credentials with someone in the industry. In the meantime, do not forget to associate yourself with an organisation that helps you in your “corporate” branding.

Tapping Into Metaphors

One great tip that speakers know how to efficiently and effectively use is the judicious utilisation of everyday metaphors. Let’s see how speakers have used the car, for example, to bring home a learning point:

(a) a vehicle to get you from Point A in your life to Point B (desired goals);
(b) are you driving in circles? do you have a map, or a satellite navigation device?
(c) is your car running out of fuel?
(d) who is in the driver’s seat? you or someone else?

Brass Tap

Try to visualise the metaphor and break down all the attributes and characteristics. Be inventive. I have not seen someone talk about servicing the car, or sending it for maintenance checks, or having road taxes paid, or getting the authorities to approve it, or having a manual vs automatic gear stick. What about a car with a sunroof? Or the passengers with and without a seatbelt? Or a traffic fine? There are many ways of using metaphors, and the more creative you are, the more memorable your speech will be in your audience’s ears.

Turn on the tap to your imagination now.