Interview with a Speaker Coach

Our TEDxBoise Speaker Coaches took time to answer pressing questions about the life of a speaker coach. Speaker coaches are one of the most important roles in making sure our speakers are comfortable, confident, and articulate in expressing their ideas on the TEDxBoise stage. Keep reading to learn more about our coaches perspective AND what our speakers go through before delivering their talks.

First off, let’s get to know our coaches!

 
    Nancy Buffington combines her past life as an English professor with her current work as a public speaking coach to help people find their voices and tell their stories. Along with coaching private clients and leading corporate trainings, she’s coached TEDxBoise speakers since we started in 2015.

 Nancy Buffington combines her past life as an English professor with her current work as a public speaking coach to help people find their voices and tell their stories. Along with coaching private clients and leading corporate trainings, she’s coached TEDxBoise speakers since we started in 2015.

 Kirsten Holmberg has been part of the TEDxBoise team since our 2016 event and is also a former  TEDx speaker . As a writer, editor, speaking coach, and owner of  Platform Idaho  and the  Idaho Speakers Bureau , she loves all things word-related.

Kirsten Holmberg has been part of the TEDxBoise team since our 2016 event and is also a former TEDx speaker. As a writer, editor, speaking coach, and owner of Platform Idaho and the Idaho Speakers Bureau, she loves all things word-related.

 What's it like to coach a TEDx speaker?

 NANCY BUFFINGTON: Incredibly fun! And fascinating. I get to spend quality time with amazing, deep thinkers, and to hear a much longer version of their talks. I learn a ton about many different ideas and issues.

In terms of the coaching, it’s different for every single speaker. The preparation process is long—4-6 months—so I get to know each speaker well, and we usually form a pretty tight bond because of the intensity around preparing to give a talk on the TEDx stage. Sometimes their journey is mostly about content: assessing and re-assessing the huge amount that they know about their idea, and figuring out what piece is most valuable to share. Sometimes it’s really emotional—because of personal experiences they’re sifting through, or because they have to get up-close-and-personal with doubts and insecurities as they prepare to stand on that red dot. And often it’s a mixture of the two.

KIRSTEN HOLMBERG: In one word, FUN. I enjoy working with our speakers from the beginning—a nascent idea—all the way through to the high-five or hug when they come off the stage. As coaches, we get to bring our speakers into our TEDxBoise and larger TEDx community, which is pretty special. It’s a little like having backstage passes to a concert: we see all the hard work that happens behind the scenes and then relish in watching them bring their efforts to fruition.
 

What do you do with speakers during your coaching sessions?

 NANCY BUFFINGTON: Again, that varies by speaker and topic. But overall, I work with them first on content. I get to see their idea evolve from its earliest, sometimes kind of general version, into something that’s focused, fleshed out and structured. Then we work on delivery—everything from pacing and body language to breathing and anxiety management (sometimes a lot of that last one ☺). And finally, I help them prepare for all those practical details that make a difference during the event: where the cameras will be, how to ignore the huge screens projecting ginormous live versions of them as they speak, what to eat that day so they have energy but don’t get queasy.

 KIRSTEN HOLMBERG: Each speaker seems to need something slightly different, and that’s the beauty of coaching: we can tailor our sessions to suit their needs. Some speakers need guidance structuring their talk. Others need help with body language. Still others are looking for tools to help them overcome the anxiety of taking the stage. We’ll work on whatever is most important that day. Last week one of my speakers needed to be reinvigorated for the effort—so we spent part of the session revisiting the “why” and found a strategy for remaining focused on that until May 5th.

What has surprised you most about coaching these speakers?

 NANCY BUFFINGTON: How totally human we all are. I’ve coached speakers for six TEDx events now, and I coached a TED Fellow too, who’s spoken on the big TED stage. No matter how accomplished, eloquent and polished, it’s been the very rare speaker who doesn’t at some point express doubt about their idea or fear of screwing up onstage. I love how open they are about this—and it helps me support them better.

KIRSTEN HOLMBERG: What surprises (and delights) me is watching each of the speakers surprise themselves. Their self-discovery in the process of crafting their talks is unpredictable and thoroughly enjoyable. They meet unforeseen obstacles, and even if momentarily derailed, ultimately conquer each. They find new aspects and applications for their ideas along the way. They unearth personal strengths (and, occasionally, weaknesses) they didn’t know they had and continue to learn about themselves throughout the effort. I never know where the coaching process will take them—except to the stage. The rest of the journey is a mystery we unfold together.

 What does it take to become a TEDx speaker?

 NANCY BUFFINGTON: You have to have a great, specific idea that’s new, that makes a contribution to our thinking on that topic. It’s not about your desire to be on the TEDx stage—or really even about being an accomplished speaker. TED and TEDx talks are about rich ideas, not perfect delivery. Which you’ve probably noticed. Sir Ken Robinson’s TED talk is a good example: he’s charming but definitely not a “perfect” speaker in the conventional sense. And his talk has been seen at least 50 million times.

What TEDx-style tips can you offer anyone looking to improve their speaking skills?
 

KIRSTEN HOLMBERG: TEDx- and TED-style speaking is, as Nancy mentioned, focused primarily on the idea, not the speaker’s ability. There’s wisdom to apply across all genres of speaking in that practice: by attending primarily to great content—aiming to serve the audience—the pressure comes off the speaker to “put on a great show” and instead liberates them to share their story and knowledge with authenticity. That authenticity fosters connection with audiences and ultimately results in a really meaningful experience for speaker and audience alike.

What else don't we know?

NANCY BUFFINGTON: Most people don’t know that the talks they watch online have been edited. Little “blips” happen often in these events all over the world: a speaker loses their place, trips on a word or on the carpet, the mic suddenly gives out or the slides don’t advance. The videographers do a masterful job editing the talks, so the end result is often much smoother than the original, live version. Which is an important reason NOT to compare your own speaking ability to the talks you see online! They’ve often gone through the film equivalent of air-brushing.

KIRSTEN HOLMBERG: What most people don’t realize is what a lengthy process preparing a TEDx talk is. Speakers apply for a spot on the state about 10 months before the actual event (we fielded applications last August for this year’s event). The selection process takes a few months. After being selected, our speakers begin with a group workshop which officially kicks off the individual coaching process, which is spread out over five or six months. Most people don’t even realize that coaching is part of giving a great talk!