Stuck in a Coconut

This speech was used in the 2001 World Championships. Since then it has under gone many iterations, and was used successfully in the 2009 Semi Finals of the World Championship of Public Speaking (Connecticut – USA).


In this speech, there are in fact three stories used. Some experts could say, use only one story is this time (The speech needed to be less than 7 minutes). The three stories work for a number of reasons; (i) the cohesive ties are effective; (ii) the first story is delivered in parts, interspersed with the message development; (iii) the stories have different primary purposes – the first is to entertain, the second (Asia) is to inform, and the third (child) is to move emotionally.




I was six years old and I was hanging from the branch of a tree………. “Help can someone help me?”

1. This introduction worked because it is an attention grabber. It has some highly expressive body language, and vocal variety.  It then moves quickly to bring in some humour with 4 quips that potentially will register with most of the audience.

Ladies and Gentlemen: as a child I did not do this very often, but on that day, I had scaled the tree like a little monkey……………. to escape the amorous advances of an older woman…………… Sue-Ellen was 7………….. and I was not ready for commitment, and in a desperate attempt to put distance between us, I had climbed the tree and slipped.

2. There is a need to engage with the audience as soon as is possible. It builds rapport, and enables them to react comfortably with the humour. There is a deliberate use of pausing (indicated by   ‘………’) to increase the effect of the above lines. The story of the tree was marked on stage right, so that when the story comes back into the speech, the speaker moves to the same area.

Hanging from the branch, I yelled again, “Help!, can someone help me?”

Well I wasn’t going to jump. It was a long way down. Oh like all boys I had dreamed of being superman, but unlike the others, I wasn’t stupid. I knew for certain there were no telephone boxes in my tree. Using the telephone boxes in my tree is an unexpected reason. Most would be thinking along the lines of “we all know Superman is fictional”.

3. This scenario is leading up to the message, which at this stage is still not clear to the audience. Again humour is included as the scene is set for the delivery of the message

So I had a choice, Let go or hang on. I decide to hang on.

4. This is the first statement of the message, while it is not overtly stated that the speech is about ‘letting go’

As children we all do childish things like hanging around in trees, and sometimes as adults we still do childish things like not letting go of the baggage we carry around with us. I don’t mean the baggage that litters our hotel rooms – I mean the baggage that litters our hearts and our minds. Baggage we cannot let go because we can’t forgive, forget or get over the past.

5. This section is designed to link the message/idea to the audience. The concept of baggage littering our hearts and minds is unusual. Linked to the common meaning of littering (as in our hotel rooms)  it makes sense. However the concept of our emotional baggage littering our hearts and our minds is a concept which will be new to many in an audience, and therefore be potentially appealing at a cognitive level.

Sometimes as adults we cling to this past like ……  well,  like I clung to that tree.

6. The following section provides an opportunity for expressive body language and vocal variety. Coming back to the story allows it to be resolved and parked by the audience. It also provides an opportunity for more humour. This section also is a good example of the purpose of the language influencing the sentence structures and rhythm of the words. The sentences and phraseology are short and sharp until: “When we as adults……” Here the language structures change to suit the purpose.

So what happened that day? My mother hearing my first desperate plea, and run outside, stood beneath the tree, and she yelled “Let GO!”

I looked down. From three meters up she was not a good target.

Let go!” she yelled again.

I looked down. Closed my eyes, took a deep breath, and yelled, “Dad!” …….. and waited till he came.
When we as adults don’t let go however, the consequences can be far more serious……  It’s like we get stuck in a coconut.

7. The message is now clear, and this statement introduces some of the support material, as well as being an interesting fact. The following is about information sharing. It is factual and is written a such.  There are three elements to it (the next three paragraphs). Each element is shorter than the one before, and is a repetition of the essential message.

In parts of Asia, there was a unique way of catching monkeys. The hunter would take a coconut, cut off the top, and inside they would place some fruit and berries.  The hunter would then tie the coconut to a strong branch of the tree. The monkey would come along, see the food, reach in, and grab it ……… and be caught. It was caught because its hand had made a fist around the food, a fist that was now too big to come out of the hole in the top of the coconut… and the monkey would not let go.

It was caught because it did not realise that to gain the food, first it had to let go of it.

To win, it had to let go.
As an adult I was lucky enough to be taught by a young boy how vital it was for me to let go of the baggage I had trailing behind me.

8. This paragraph links the speaker to the message, as well as subconsciously linking the message to the rest of the audience.

As principal of a school I see hundreds of children …some I see in my office …….  and some of those I see by my invitation.

9. The story of the child is also marked on the stage so any further reference to the child can be achieved to indicating that space eg stage left.

Some years ago a young boy was ‘invited into my office. Ohh he had been there many times before, but this time it was more serious, for that morning he had lashed out in anger and knocked out another child.

As he sat opposite me, I could see that he was different from the other children. His exterior was controlled, almost cold. As I watched the young boy, I saw on the surface this mask …….. and with eyes that have gained wisdom from looking into the hearts of many children, I saw beyond this mask…….. There I saw a deep hurt.

I softened and asked him if there was one thing in his life he could change, what would it be?

A tear welled up in the corner of his eye, and trickled down his cold and controlled face. For this young boy’s heart burst, and with a flood of emotion, he spoke for the first time in four years of seeing his father commit suicide.

10. I do not like spending too much time on subject matter that is highly emotional, so I have moved immediately  to a resolution having disclosed the boy’s trauma. Many speakers indulge themselves by having extended content which is about death, sickness or disaster.

But he let go. He won. He won because I was able to put into his life a grief counsellor, and he was able to put life back into his living.

Recently I saw that boy, now a young man. At his side a beautiful young wife, and in his arms a five week old baby, and in his manner, life!

11. A triplet that works. The overuse of triplets is a common mistake of speakers.

And this time when I looked into his eyes, I saw a passionate love of all three.

Ladies and gentlemen, letting go as a child, I could have ended up in the arms of Sue-Ellen, forever or worse squashed my mother. But not letting go as an adult is far more serious because we can fail to get over it, accept it, forgive it, whatever it may be, but not me.

12. The conclusion allows the bringing of the threads together

I learnt from this young boy, to carry no such baggage. If I had not learnt that lesson, I would not be where I am today.

Rest assured, you will no longer find me hanging around in trees, and unlike the monkeys on Asia, I will never, never, never be stuck in a coconut.

13. The final message is not a “tell agenda” which is common in motivational speakers. It is more a subtle invitation for the audience to think about what might be keeping them “stuck in a coconut’. There is an issue of cultural difference here that needs to be acknowledged.  For some cultures, the motivational tell agenda is acceptable, for others is a ‘turn off’. I have consciously avoided in all of my speeches a strong ‘tell agenda’, because it does not generally land well for audiences here. This speech was for a multi-cultural audience.