Analysis of a Speech by William Kamkwamba

Today’s post is about a remarkable young man from Malawi in southeast Africa named William Kamkwamba.

William Kamkwamba
William Kamkwamba

William comes from a poor village. 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 Kamkwamba 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 by William Kamkwamba?

  • 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.

Photo courtesy of Erik (HASH) Hersman

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  1. Great post … I love seeing how much he improved.

    And I loved your analysis … I’m speaking at an event tonight and will be tweaking my speech now because of this post – thanks!

    1. Hi Janet, thanks very much for the comment. William’s story is great in so many ways, including the improvement in his public speaking.

      Glad that you enjoyed the analysis. Best of luck with your talk tonight. Break a leg!

  2. Oh thank you for pointing this out. I’m using this tomorrow for my students in public speaking / story telling in business schools in Lyon. I wanted to use the first speech a while ago but it wasn’t good enough in public speaking to justify studying it. His progress is astounding. His message is extraordinaire.

    1. Thanks very much for the message, Barbara. It is always nice to hear from someone who is just “down the road” from Geneva. You’re absolutely right about William’s progress and his message.

      Je vous souhaite une excellente leçon demain avec vos étudiants.

  3. I liked the analysis and in particular the following:
    1. Good example of a before and after video; i.e., William has made progress but is not yet perfect.
    2. You’ve hit all the main points.
    Here’s what I would add:
    1. His message didn’t really come till the end. We didn’t know if he was looking for money or trying to inpsire us until the end!

    1. Hi Mel,
      Thanks for the comment. You raise a good point about the importance of not keeping your audience in suspense for too long about the focus of the speech. I think that this is something that many people often forget when they present because they are so close to the presentation. However, what might be obvious for them will not necessarily be obvious for the audience. As for William, I agree with you that there is certainly room for improvement. But boy, has he ever come a long way already!

  4. Hi John,
    Firstly, thanks for your analysis. Good job. This video is of course very inspiring for people who are in their hardship in life. This clearly elucidates people with talents can flourish irrespective of their economic starta. I wish this guy great success in life.
    Greetings from India.

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