TED Talks in prison: What I learned coaching inmates on their public speaking debuts

The men of Alpha Yard had 10 minutes each to share the most painful and transformative moments of their lives

Published May 25, 2018 7:00PM (EDT)


I looked up at the razor wire atop the 15-foot double electrified fence and thought, this is my last chance to turn back. I was about to enter a maximum security prison, voluntarily and a tad apprehensively. I still had time to change my mind, get sick or just fade into the weeds like that little voice deep inside me kept whispering to do.

I’ve been a speaker coach with TEDxSanDiego, the local version of the influential TED Talks series, for the past five years. Our main event last year attracted a live audience of more than 1,800 at the gorgeous San Diego Copley Symphony Hall. With years of TEDx support experience behind me, along with 25 years in Toastmasters coaching others, my next project would put my speaking coach skills to work at a new venue: TEDx Donovan Correctional.

This wouldn’t be an ordinary TEDx event. We would be helping inmates — many in for life without parole — tell their stories. No emails, computers or phones were allowed. We'd have only one face-to-face visit each week, every Tuesday behind the razor wire, for the first two months. We'd add all-day Sunday sessions for the second two months. There would be very little one-on-one coaching time allowed. Much of our work would be done in the noisy activity room, where we'd meet in small groups instead.

The TEDx team and I signed the book in the entry room, received our visitor badges and proceeded through a series of three electronically secured gates. After passing through a sea of electrified fences, we entered Alpha Yard, one of five autonomous yards, each housing almost 800 men. Alpha Yard houses the high security Level 3 inmates. As we cleared the final gate, we entered the yard and were greeted by an inmate in a wheelchair who said “God Bless You” as we began our 300-yard walk to the activity room. We were inside now. So far so good. As we walked past the men in the yard, many smiled and offered “Good to see you,” greetings.

On that first day, more than a dozen men gathered to audition for a spot on stage, where, in front of three cameras and 200 strangers, they would be telling stories they crafted and practiced with us. They had no idea how to go about it. None had ever spoken before a group before — other than, in some cases, their gangs. Despite their outward toughness, these men appeared to be scared to death. That's one way the inmates are no different from prospective speakers on the outside — getting on stage in front of people, it’s been said, is the number one fear in the world, even surpassing death.

The men gathered were affable but shy. Their average age appeared to be late-40s, and most were African-American. All wore blue, with “prisoner” printed in big yellow letters on their pants. We started this and every meeting with a circle led by our team leader and TEDx organizer, who had become very familiar with prison life through her continuing volunteer work. In the circle she described the game plan. The participants would be divided into three groups: one for prospective speakers, another the core team — the planners, organizers and logistics people — and the last group would create wall art, banners and notecards to promote the event.

The men auditioned by telling a snippet of their stories in first-draft form, and five men were selected by their peers to be speakers for the event. I relaxed as we settled into our work groups. We only had four months to get ready for show time, and now the painstaking work of tuning and rewriting their stories could begin. We had two months of writing work ahead of us before we would even start on delivery, and unlike my usual coaching assignments, we would have to do this without exchanging any materials, email or phone calls.

To protect the inmates' privacy, I won’t use any real names, but one individual stood out to me. As I scanned the group that first day, I noticed a young white inmate standing amongst the older men. I’ll call him Donnie. His shoulder-length hair framed a youthful face that looked like a razor had never touched it. He hugged a guitar like a teddy bear, gazing at the floor and avoiding eye contact as he very quietly plucked the strings. He looked like he had wandered into the wrong room by accident.

Donnie surprised me by returning for our second meeting with his hair cut short and no guitar. When we rehearsed, he was last to mumble through his story.

Experienced writers and public speakers alike know that before a good story is told a good story must be written. In addition to a powerful opening and compelling close, the body of the story must draw the audience in and keep them connected emotionally, either riding a wave or hitting bottom — or even better, both. Writing is re-writing. Even cherished ideas may be discarded in the process. This can be tedious work, especially under the limited conditions that prison offers.

The men had no access to computers. They wrote in longhand their stories of horrendous discomfort, painful choices and powerful heartfelt lessons. Edits were cross-outs, notes scribbled in the margins. Like sculptures, their stories took their shapes inch by inch. But the men were up to the challenge; they pressed on. They had one advantage over people on the outside — supreme focus. It wasn't just because they were incarcerated with few options for distraction. They had learned the hard way to channel their thoughts to one place, one mission, one outcome. This was a revelation to me — it was the opposite of my usual coaching experience.

Week after week, the men hammered away at draft after draft. Some began very guarded and opened up gradually through encouragement and applause (but never hugs, which were off-limits). As coaches, we pushed them to go deeper: “And how did you feel?” “Show me, don’t tell me.” Often, revising a sentence involved revisiting pain.

The talks began to take shape. Meaningful, passionate and in some cases shocking, each one took the rest of the group deep into the specifics of each man's journey. The inmates expressed themselves clearly, with a strong command of language and the nuances of story. They mostly needed help with structure and flow.

Donnie was one of the first to fully memorize his story. He painted a picture of being pulled in opposite directions as a child by fighting parents. He described what it was like to feel hated and irrelevant in his own home. His father had a violent temper and was bitterly, vocally racist, while his mother sought comfort in an illicit affair. And in his story, Donnie exposed his deepest secret, slowly and painfully: He had been sexually abused multiple times by two people he loved and trusted.

Even on the tenth draft, Donnie agonized over every word. I was beginning to feel he could never tell his story in front of an audience. But I was also beginning to root for him to prove me wrong.

By the time they were ready to start rehearsing out loud, most of the men had proven to be as strong of communicators as any I’ve coached over the past 25 years. They were ready to stand up in front of a real audience — a group of fellow inmates — and share their stories for the first time outside of the group. This was a monumental task for men who, as tough as they seemed, normally shuddered at the thought of opening up like this. They warmed up with terror, pacing back and forth, offering little to no eye contact, speaking in low, almost whispering voices. Everyone spoke too fast at first, which is a common issue all speakers have, even the most experienced.

But they kept practicing, and most memorized their talks much quicker than I had experienced in my many years of preparing people. With help from the coaches, they shaped, tightened and trimmed their talks, crafting impactful and compelling openings and call-to-action closes, and delivering with passion and conviction. They talked about transformation from hate to love, about formative moments in their lives, about parenting from prison, about gang life, about coping with massive changes and how abusive childhoods alter lives.

As their confident voices emerged, the back-and-forth nervous pacing stopped. They punctuated with animated facial expressions and gestures. These men were speakers now.

As we approached the final week of preparation, Donnie had written and delivered a passionate, articulate, heartbreaking story. His fellow inmates had applauded him in every rehearsal. After each practice run, his smiles confirmed he felt the love from his small group. But could he deliver that performance in front of a wider audience? Who would show up at the main event — the boy or the man?

One Saturday in March, we ran through a full dress rehearsal. The men mouthed their talks in the makeshift Green Room as they steeled their nerves. Four months of writing, memorizing and digging up passion from the dark corners of their lives came down to one day.

A miracle happened. To a man, each speaker — from the Arsenio Hall-smooth emcee and the Voice of God narrator to every individual storyteller — delivered as strongly as Daniel Day-Lewis telling the story of his mother. I couldn't have been more proud. They were ready.

March 11 was the big day. The art team had decorated the activity room with a magnificent banner and a wall mural that said “Hope.” The members of the core team, who managed all of the logistics of the event, beamed with pride. Two hundred chairs, lined up in perfect rows, faced a stage framed by colorful red and black drapery and the customary TedX seven-foot tall “X” to one side.

After four months of working together, I felt I knew these men. Greeters welcomed us, and other men passed out snacks to inmates and guests. Inmates, starved for outside conversations, approached every outsider with genuine enthusiasm and warm handshakes. When I sat down in the fourth row, my pride began to overtake me. These men in blue had worked, focused, practiced, adjusted, massaged and mastered the difference between talk and expression. Now their day had come — a day I'll never forget.

A musician kicked things off with a beautiful tune about hope on guitar and vocals, "Raise My Hands." The emcee, with his baritone delivery, had been reading hand-held notecards two months before. Now he was outdoing any TV host, introducing each speaker with his own comfortable, upbeat style.

Dressed in their blue uniforms, each man spoke for ten minutes, delivering their talks with passion, authenticity and outward confidence — though on the inside, I know they were all on edge. Just as we had practiced, their unique stories told with authentic emotion claimed the hearts and minds of the audience: tales of abusive parents and families, painful loss, parenting through separation, personal transformation, setting priorities, creating memories that matter and discarding hate for love. The audience was all smiles and tears. Every single talk was rewarded by a rousing standing ovation. Even Donnie's.

He was the last to share his journey. Donnie told the audience about the pain of his home life, which had been consumed by hate, and about overcoming that now through love, which can germinate from the smallest of ideas, no matter how bad of a hand you are dealt in life. This 20-year-old kid delivered an inspiring talk with the wisdom of a seasoned man.

My eyes welled up. Despite having heard all of their stories so many times over the months of writing and rehearsing, I couldn't have felt more emotionally lifted. I wanted to stand up and shout, “Yes!” to say to him and every breathing soul that this event was a real triumph — the top of the mountain.

No other occasion in my life rivaled the pride I felt in their performance. This journey we had launched four months earlier with obstacles at every turn, thanks to these survivors, who are dedicated to excellence and always push themselves further, culminated in just ten minutes for each on stage to say, with their heart and mind wide open, “Here I am and here’s what matters to me.” Ten minutes to connect with strangers and share their deepest, unimaginable secrets. Commitment, we were reminded, is not just a word but a dedication to make every effort the very best. Working with the men in Donovan reaffirmed for me that a good story may be found under any pain, even in the darkest corners.

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By Jim Taylor

For the past five years Jim Taylor has been a TEDx San Diego Speaker Coach. In early 2017, he helped launch a new TEDx talk main event at the Donovan Correctional Facility, one of the most challenging experiences of his life, which he reprised in 2018.

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