One of my highlights of 2017 was coaching Sara Safari as she prepared her speech Climb Your Everest for TEDxIHEParis last May. I was thrilled to help her share her colors and message with the audience and the world.
My first meeting with Sara was at a Parisian café called Chez Claude in November 2016. She was having tea with a member of my Toastmasters club: Busy Professionals. I introduced myself and asked if she was the guest that I was scheduled to evaluate that night. Sara filled me in on her background as a Toastmaster and expressed worries about telling her usual 50-minute speech in the seven minutes she had allotted that evening. It was a challenge I was curious to see if she could achieve.
As I watched Sara tell her story to our club, I was impressed by her speaking skills, energy, story, and moving message. It was hard to find room for improvement. A fellow member wrote on my meeting agenda, “Did she check all the rainbow boxes?” Indeed she had. In my evaluation I suggested a longer pause for more effect at the end of the most emotional section, and added, as someone familiar with ice-climbing, that I wanted to hear more about what it feels like to be hanging on a wall of ice on Everest with only crampons and icepicks as supports. My comment was inspired and timely as a few weeks after our meeting, I saw a poster for a French comedy movie about climbing Everest which had this image.
Synchronicity! Proof that speeches often connect unknowingly to what people are thinking about in other places. Both speakers and coaches must be aware of this, and when I forwarded this image to Sara, I explained her speech was ripe for French audiences as climbing was in the “l’air du temps” or as we say in English, “right for the time”. It was no coincidence that she had chosen to speak in Paris. And when the TEDxIHEParis came out with its official poster image, there was more proof that the theme of climbing was resonating deeply in the collective unconscious!
After the meeting, Sara told me that she wanted me to be her coach for TEDxIHEParis. It was her intuition that we would be great together. I was excited, but hesitent, as I had been told I would coach another speaker. I did not want to upset the organizers, so explained that I would accept whatever was decided by them. A few days later I heard that Sara’s wish had been accepted, and I was to be her coach.
To prepare, I bought her book, Follow My Footsteps, and read it immediately. I loved it so much that I bought copies for my mother and sister and had them delivered for Christmas via Amazon. By the time I received Sara’s first draft in January, I had already read her book and become a big fan.
Our first discussion via skype centered on speech structure (Indigo depth) and which stories (Red emotions) to use in the speech. Selecting the right stories for her message was key. Sara also expressed concerns about using too much body language in her speech as Toastmasters had taught her to do so. A rainbow speech needs Orange energy so I was in favor of letting her body language communicate as naturally as possible. Big stages need big gestures. Although the red circle used by TED and TEDx does not allow for walking, speakers need to be present and use vocal variety and body language to connect with their audience.
We also tried to clarify the message, and what Sara wanted people to take away from her speech. She had many deep ideas and these all touched on women’s empowerment. Using the metaphor of Everest, I suggested that we were only at base camp in terms of women’s rights, and that the message could be that this was the real Everest Sara wished to climb by fighting so hard to provide for the Empower Nepali Girls Foundation. Sara liked this idea and it became the target message in subsequent drafts. We agreed the speech would end with a strong Green message of hope to offset the tragic red emotions of thousands dying in the earthquake.
We also looked for where humor and Yellow joy could be added to the speech. I suggested Sara add a photo of herself in California on a sunny beach which would contrast nicely with the cold mountain photos of snow and ice. It would also allow Sara to make ironic use of her transformation from “blond California Girl” to mountain climber. (This is ironic because Sara is in fact everything but this image of “blond California girl”) The photo does not appear for long in the video on YouTube, but as it stayed on the screen, the audience began to laugh and the energy in the room changed. I had encouraged Sara to really enjoy this part of the speech and let her joy connect. And it worked better than planned. Her joke line, “I was so excited, I googled How to climb Everest”, got a loud joyful response of laughter from the audience.
As Sara prepared her speech, she travelled to Peru, Iceland, Nepal, and back to California. We kept improving her drafts by skype and email. The organizers of the TEDxIHEParis and friends in California also listened to rehearsals of the speech and added comments and further insights.
The organizers and I convinced Sara to speak about her Iranian origins, her career as an engineer, and her reasons for being connected to the Nepali girls. This is what makes her story unique. Sharing her Blue vision would help the audience hear her story through the lens of someone who had grown up with similar surroundings of discrimination against women. Happily Sara lost her inhibitions about this part of her story and added it to her speech. I also told Sara to name the two Nepali girls she imagined on the mountain. Just saying the two names “Nimsung and Pasang” and a little description “standing before me with their short dark hair and red cheeks from cold, looking at me” adds incredible power to that scene in the speech. Little concrete details like a name can impact deeply.
Photos were discussed, and Sara revealed she had a video which she wanted to include too. The video’s creepiness grabbed me the first time I saw it. I immediately understood we had a Purple WOW moment for the speech. Sara’s vulnerability as she felt death approach was so powerful, and I wondered how she should follow this up. Here is where the rainbow theory helped. I felt there should be a joke or moment of light humor after the video to diffuse the powerful purple color it creates. Thus we opened up the idea that yellow would be the color to add here and prepared a number of jokes to inject it. Incredibly during the real speech, Sara only needed to say, “This is one of the stupidest things I’ve ever done” to make the crowd laugh.
One final challenge was the length of the speech. In our rehearsals it lasted 18 minutes. To be on the safe side, I thought some of the text should go. But what?? Again my rainbow theory helped. I read through the text for what each line brought in terms of color. Around the 12 minute mark I found a large chunk of text which I felt was too deep, too Indigo. Although Sara wanted her speech to have a lot of meaning for her audience, too much “depth” in the middle could kill the flow and make people stop listening or watching. So I cut the text, rewrote a few lines and sent it back to Sara. Suddenly the speech was down to 16 minutes and nothing had been lost. We were ready for the theater and live rehearsals.
My job as coach had not ended, and we practiced in the theater lobby while people ran about preparing the event. Being focused and able to give her speech in such conditions showed me that Sara was had internalized her speech. The only thing left was to let the magic of the stage do the rest.
Sitting in the audience, watching Sara deliver a speech I had seen evolve over six months of work, ten revisions, and practice was a true high point of my year. Her delivery flowed and the crowd responded in ways we had not expected and that was exhilarating to see. Her speech was the second last of a program of diverse and wonderful speakers. Waiting all day to speak is never easy, but Sara’s red emotions, orange energy, yellow joy, and green hope, blue vision, indigo depth, and purple soul flowed out and connected with the audience. As people stood in ovation, I knew her deep message of women’s empowerment had hit the hearts and minds of her crowd.
After the speech Sara introduced me to her family who had been in the audience too. It was wonderful to meet them and hear them thank me for my help and support. It was their first time in Paris and first time they had heard Sara speak. They had certainly waited for the perfect place to see Sara reach another of her goals: Speak at TEDx in Paris with her family present. As always Sara dreams big and delivers BIG too! Thank you Sara for this life lesson. I, like so many others you inspire around the world, am happy to follow your big footsteps.
You can find out more about Sara’s big exciting goals on her website
And if you still have not seen her TEDx talk, Climb your Everest, watch it here because you only have one life, and it’s time to let Sara inspire you…