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.