Sylvester Who? Mistaken Identity Lands Man on TEDx Stage with Only 48 Hours’ Notice.

Sylvester Chisom speaking at TEDx GatewayArch's Young Innovators Program, Dec 10, 2016

by Doug Lindsay


TEDx GatewayArch spends four months helping speakers get ready for their TED talks.  The process involves professional training, months of access to one-on-one preparation help, repeated group practice (with group feedback), and on stage practice. 

I’ve worked with TEDx GWA for two years, so I’ve had a small hand in helping about two dozen speakers for prepare their TED talk.

We facilitate each step of the process so the speakers can succeed.  But what makes a talk a success?

Your TED talk is your chance to explain to the world your one big idea worth sharing.

Every speaker is an expert.  They’re the best and brightest.  Many present regularly too.  Yet many speakers struggle to prepare their talks.  Why? 

Well, if you can answer this question, you can give a great TED talk: Do you truly know who you are? 

If you do, you’ll have plenty of help to make sure your story shines through.  If not… you have less than four months to figure it out. 

It’s a lot to tackle.

But what if instead of four months to prepare your talk you had only 48 hours?

That is exactly the challenge I gave to one stranger.  His name was Sylvester Chisom and I never should have been on the phone with him in the first place.

Sylvester Who?

TEDx GatewayArch spent ten months planning their big annual conference, but the executive director added a student event to the program with only eight weeks to go.

I volunteered to produce and co-host it. 

The Young Innovators Program would be a special pre-event for high school and college students from traditionally underrepresented communities. 

TED talks are 18 minutes or less, and the big conference lasts all day. 

The Young Innovators Program would be an hour-long event that featured five past TEDx GWA speakers.  Each speaker would have half a TED talk – nine minutes – to split between giving their talk and taking questions from the students. (There is no Q&A in a regular TED talk.)

These were all past TEDx GWA speakers who’d been through the preparation process and who’d done well, so the event should have been a sure thing.  Since they were veteran TEDx speakers, we wouldn’t need to help train them again.

One of the five presenters, however, was MIA.  He’d agreed but then vanished.  We were ready to drop him when one of the volunteers said she had another way to reach him. 

That night my phone rang: “This is Sylvester Chisom.  I hear you’re looking for me.”

I was hoping to hear from a Sylvester, but I didn’t recognize the last name.  Still, his name was Sylvester, he called me… and he knew who I was, what I was doing, and why I wanted to talk with him.  So, we kept talking. 

Sylvester Chisom is an African-American St. Louis-based inspirational speaker who talks about the entrepreneurial mindset’s power to transform lives.

He started a car detailing business at 17.  The business expanded as his vision for his life expanded.  Sylvester’s business, Showroom Shine, was voted best detail shop in the nation four years running at the Steve Harvey Neighborhood Awards.  He works with the University of Missouri St. Louis on an education technology start-up incubator, and he travels as an in-demand keynote speaker.

That’s all great… except that he was the wrong Sylvester!

He hadn’t given a TEDx talk in 2014 like the other guy, and he hadn’t agreed to speak at this event.  In fact, this was the first he was hearing about any of this. 

BUT… He said he thought it sounded cool.

I asked him about his message.  It was a good message.

He, however, had a conflict: The conference was on Saturday, but he had to speak in Memphis on Sunday and had Memphis Grizzlies tickets on the same day as our conference. 

That was an elegant out for us both.  He was busy.  And I loved his message, but I couldn’t just plug some guy into the lineup when the whole premise of the event was to have students connect with past TEDx speakers.

So, our next step was clear – at least to us:

  • He said he would have to change his travel plans if he wanted to speak to students in St. Louis on Saturday morning and make it to Memphis that same evening.

  • And I said I can’t promise anything because he’s not a former speaker, but if I can get an answer some time on Thursday, can he do it?

That Saturday morning Sylvester Chisom took the TEDx stage holding a red bucket and a garden hose.  He told those students that in life you may not always have all the right resources, but you can use the resources you have to begin making your dreams a reality.

I believed him because I’ve seen it and lived it too.  When I was 21, I got sick.  I spent then next 11 years homebound.  I was bed bound 22-hours a day.  No one could tell me what was wrong or what would help me.  I researched my condition from my hospital bed in my living room until I figured out what was wrong.  I developed novel treatments to keep my rare autonomic-adrenal condition at bay, and I eventually developed a surgery to fix me.  I took a long forgotten animal surgery from the 1920s and explained how to turn it into a modern, 21st century human procedure.  I built a team of experts to pull off the surgery, and bet my life on the operating table.  It paid off.  My medical odyssey took 14 years in all.  I stand today, literally, as testament to what one man can do if he starts trying and never gives up. 

I learned that lesson first from my mom, a woman who never gave up.

And in between hosting duties, I sat in the audience that morning watching those students learn that important lesson from Sylvester Chisom.  He told them: “You don’t have to be great to get started, but you have to get started to be great!”

To give a great TED talk, you have to know who you are.  Sylvester Chisom hit the TEDx stage that day with only 48 hours’ notice and was a complete success because he knows who he is.

He may have been the wrong Sylvester, but he was undoubtedly the right man for that talk!


Doug Lindsay is an inspirational speaker and consultant on Hope, Character and Innovation, specifically on the unique benefits of User Innovation to an organization's culture. 


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