Today’s post is about a remarkable young man named William Kamkwamba.
William comes from a poor village in Malawi in southeast Africa. Life there is hard. The main source of income is farming. When the rains don’t come, conditions become extremely difficult for people. In 2001, Malawi was hit by a famine and William’s family had to survive on one meager meal per day.
William’s village of approximately 60 families had few, if any, amenities. There was no running water; there was no electricity. When things got really desperate, William was forced to drop out of secondary school because his parents could not afford the school fee (the equivalent of about USD 80 per year).
But William loved to learn and he was particularly fascinated with science. When he was 14, William visited a small, charity-sponsored library and began reading everything he could find found about physics and mechanics, even though he did not speak much English. One day, he discovered a book entitled Using Energy. It featured a series of windmills on the cover and inside explained how to build a windmill. William knew that the one thing his village had lots of was wind and so he did the next logical thing … he built a windmill!
The story of this enterprising young man soon started to garner attention around the world. When he was 19, William was invited to speak at a TED Conference in Arusha, Tanzania. With the assistance of TED curator Chris Anderson, he told his story.
But William’s story did not end there. He co-authored a book entitled The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind, had a documentary film made about him and was invited to several places to talk about his experience, including The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. Best of all, benefactors raised money so that he could complete his secondary studies in a good school in South Africa.
And, William was invited back to TED. This time, however, he would not have Chris Anderson to help him on stage. This time, he would be on his own.
So, what can we learn about public speaking from this second TED Talk?
- William’s transformation as a public speaker from his first TED Talk to the second one is remarkable. He embodies the principle espoused by Ralph Waldo Emerson in the tagline to this blog: “All the great speakers were bad speakers at first.” William is well on his way to becoming a great speaker. Anyone who has doubts about their ability to improve their public speaking skills need only watch these two TED Talks to realize what is possible when we try.
- William speaks in a loud and strong voice.
- He uses some nice self-deprecating humour about the nervousness that he felt when he gave his first TED Talk (0:50 – 1:10).
- He tells a story (starting at 1:15) which is one of the most powerful ways to make our messages stick with our audiences.
- His slide presentation is well designed. The images are well chosen, quickly understood, and support the message rather than detract from it.
- He uses pauses effectively. One of the things that impressed me most about William’s speech was his poise. He didn’t rush from point to point; instead, he paused to let the audience absorb what he had said. One particularly dramatic use of the pause: “The food passes through our bodies; we drop down to nothing.” (2.07 – 2:12)
- He has great eye contact with the audience. However, from what I can tell from the video, it appears that, for the most part, William looked straight ahead. It is important to acknowledge the people along the sides of the room. But this is something that comes with practice.
- One area for improvement would be to control the side-to-side rocking movement that began right from the start. These types of involuntary movements can be distracting for the audience. One way to counteract them is to find a quiet place just before speaking and do some stretching, swinging of the arms, etc. to provide an outlet for the nervous energy.
- William’s speech has a wonderful circularity. He begins by talking about his first TED Talk (0:18) and he comes back to that experience at the end (4:43). Bringing your talk full circle and linking the ending to the beginning is a terrific way to give it a polished feel. It also helps to crystallize the message in the audience’s mind.
- William ends with a powerful message for the audience—trust yourself and don’t give up on your dreams. He makes the speech about the audience, which is the way it should always be.
Well and truly a remarkable story about a remarkable young man. The lessons that we can learn from William extend far beyond the domain of public speaking.
William’s second TED Talk was in 2009. Since then, he has graduated from secondary school and is now studying engineering at Dartmouth College. No doubt, the world can expect more great things from him in the future.