Speaking Tips from TEDTalk #4: My Stroke of Insight (Jill Bolte Taylor)

Jill Bolte Taylor

Video and Transcript

TEDTalk Countdown:  the #4 most-watched video on TED (2008)

The Big Idea: Spend more time choosing to “run the deep inner-peace circuitry of the brain’s right hemisphere.”

The overall construct of the speech: A story of insight arising from tragedy. Jill Bolte Taylor, brain researcher, had the opportunity of a lifetime when she had a massive stroke and watched her brain functions shut down.

Not perfect:
The opening was the biggest problem. She started out saying that she grew up to study the brain because her brother was diagnosed with a brain disorder (schizophrenia) and that she dedicated her career to research severe mental illnesses.

I wondered if her talk was going to be on mental illnesses.

Then she talked about her work mapping the microcircuitry of the brain. She showed a PowerPoint slide with the title “Triple Immunofluorescence.” And she mentioned that she traveled as an advocate for NAMI, the National Alliance on Mental illness.

So, I wondered, again, if her talk was going to be on mental illnesses.

Finally, after about a minute and half, she says “But on the morning of December 10, 1996, I woke up to discover that I had a brain disorder of my own.”

She had my attention, but I still didn’t know where she was going with her talk.

The rest of the talk was about her experience having a stroke and how that experience gave her insight into the feeling of oneness of the right-hemisphere cognition.

To grab her audience more quickly, and also to get to the heart of her presentation, she could have started more like this, for example:

On the morning of December 10, 1996, I woke up to a pounding pain behind my left eye. A blood vessel had exploded in the left half of my brain and in the course of four hours I watched my brain completely deteriorate . . . and at the same time, I experienced a deep inner peace.

What she nailed:

An amazing, memorable and relevant prop: a real human brain.

An incredible story, told with passion and authenticity: I was completely riveted by her description of trying to call for help, taking 45 minutes to try to get through a stack of business cards and then trying to call a number when she didn’t understand numbers. She told the story in present tense, as though she was reliving it “So I take the phone pad and put it right here.”

Humor for relief: This was a dramatic story, and a little humor relieved the tension.

“And in that moment my right arm went totally paralyzed by my side. Then I realized, “Oh my gosh! I’m having a stroke! I’m having a stroke!”

And the next thing my brain says to me is, “Wow! This is so cool.” (Laughter) “This is so cool! How many brain scientists have the opportunity to study their own brain from the inside out?” (Laughter)

And then it crosses my mind, “But I’m a very busy woman!” (Laughter) “I don’t have time for a stroke!”

The Big Takeaway: Turn a tragedy into insight for yourself and for others.

Next week: Brene Brown: The Power of Vulnerability

Speaking Tips from TEDTalk #5: How to Live Before You Die (Steve Jobs)


TEDTalk Countdown:  the #5 most-watched video on TED:  Steve Jobs’ commencement speech at Stanford University, 2005.

Video.  Transcript.

The Big Idea:  “Follow your heart.”

The overall construct of the speech:  Three stories which each make a point that support the overall big idea.

Story 1:  “Connecting the Dots”

Jobs talks about dropping out of Reed College after attending only the first 6 months, but then staying around as a drop-in for another 18 months.  He asks the question the audience is thinking, “So why did I drop out?”  Rewinding to before his birth, he tells the story of his adoption by a working class couple and his feeling that he was wasting his parents’ money trying to figure out what he wanted to do with his life in college.

After dropping out, he stuck around taking classes that interested him, while sleeping on the floor in friends’ rooms and returning Coke bottles for the 5 cent deposit to buy food.  One of the classes he took was calligraphy, which at the time had no hope of practical application in his life, but ten years later became instrumental in the design of the Macintosh, the first computer with beautiful typography.

Story 1 point:  You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backward.  You have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future.

Story 2: “Love and Loss”

In addition to providing another point, this story is an anecdotal proof of his first point.  Jobs tells the story of starting Apple in his parents’ garage at age 20, growing it and then getting fired at age 30.  He was lost for a while, but slowly realized that he still loved what he did.  “I’d been rejected, but I was still in love.  And so I decided to start over.”  In the next 5 years he started a few companies, one of which was bought by Apple.  He also fell in love with the woman would become his wife.  He realized that you’ve got to find what you love—in relationships and work.

Story 2 point:  Love what you do.  Don’t settle.

Story 3:  “Death”

This story is all the more poignant because of Job’s death in 2011, although the original audience couldn’t have yet “connected the dots” looking forward.

Jobs starts out with a quote that he read at 17:  “If you live each day as if it were your last, someday you’ll most certainly be right.”  He then tells the audience that for the past 33 years he has looked in the mirror every morning and asked himself, “If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?”  If the answer is “no” too many days in a row, he realized he needed to change something.  “Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life.”

He then tells the story of being diagnosed with cancer.  His daily question was no longer an intellectual concept.  He pointed out that everyone’s time is limited.

Story 3 point:  Your time is limited.  Don’t waste it living someone else’s life.

Jobs ended with talking about the back cover of the last issue of The Whole Earth Catalog.  It was a picture of an early morning country road.  Beneath it were the words: “Stay Hungry.  Stay Foolish.”  Jobs repeated those words twice in the closing of his speech, saying it three times in 20 seconds.

Not perfect:

The most noticeable “imperfection” was that Jobs read his speech, which reduced his eye contact with the audience.  His speech was very well-written and conversational, so if you didn’t watch the speech, but only listened, you might not have realized he was mostly reading it.  I would have preferred more eye contact, which could have been achieved if he had used key word notes.

His opening was a little shaky, although that served to make him seem more human.

When he arrived at the lectern, he set his water bottle on top, and then, realizing the slanted surface was a bad idea, moved it.  He said three “uhs” in the first 30 seconds.  He touched his lips twice also in the first 30 seconds.  He may have been wetting his fingers to turn a page on his notes, but touching his lips could have been a nervous gesture.

What he nailed:

Using personal stories to make his points. 

“Tell a story. Make a point.” —  Bill Gove, the first president of the National Speakers Association

Stories grab people’s attention and make your points memorable.  If they remember your story, they will remember your point.  And, because they were his personal stories, they were unique.

Being humble.  From the start with his humble thank you, followed by an “I can’t believe I’m here” smile to his admission of dropping out of college, Job’s low-key “it’s not about me” attitude made him very likable.  And when people like you, they are more likely to listen to you.

Getting a chuckle in the first 30 seconds.  This line, delivered at a Stanford University graduation, was a little self-deprecating humor:I never graduated from college. Truth be told, this is the closest I’ve ever gotten to a college graduation.”

The Big Take Away:  Telling 3 stories can make a great speech.

Next week:  Jill Bolte Taylor: My Stroke of Insight.

Speaking Tips from TEDTalk #6: The Thrilling Potential of SixthSense Technology (Pranav Mistry)

The SixthSense Technology

Video and transcript

The Big Idea:  We can better enable our physical world to interact with the world of data, which ultimately will help us to stay human.

The Overall Construct of the speech:  A demonstration, mostly via video.  Some of the demonstration video appears in the #9 TEDTalk, The SixthSense Interaction, which was presented several months prior to this talk in 2009 (and I discussed in a previous post).

Not perfect: 

I was momentarily confused at the beginning with his opening sentence:  “We grew up interacting with the physical objects around us.”  I thought, does he mean “we” in the inclusive sense of “you and I” or “we all”?  Or, does he mean “we” as a reference to himself and some others (as in “My friends and I”).

He could have enhanced his meaning with gestures, gesturing out to the audience, to indicate the “we” included them, but he didn’t.

In addition to the slight confusion of meaning right off the bat, the next few sentences contained syntax (sentence structure) errors (such as, saying “we everyday use” instead of “we use everyday” and “unlike our most computing devices” instead of “unlike most of our computing devices”).

Next, the first couple of static PowerPoint slides with words distracted me.


I wondered why he put a red exclamation point on the left.  I wondered why the word “leverage” was offset.  Why were some words bolded?  And what did that sentence mean?  His verbal description was more to the point.

Combine bad PowerPoint, confusion of meaning, syntax errors and then add in Indian-accented English and you have a difficult beginning.

But maybe this beginning wasn’t so difficult for the live audience in India.

Fortunately things got better quickly.

What the speaker nailed: 

He captured his sense of wonder and conveyed it to the audience.  He started out describing how he took apart 4 computer mouses to see how he might use a computer to interact in the physical world.

Mouses taken apart

And then he showed all the clever and inexpensive inventions that his investigations led to.

A few . . .

A pen that can draw in 3-D:

pen that draws in 3d

Placing an object on a map (instead of using keywords) to find a location (such as finding an airport coffee shop by placing a mug on the airport map):

Airport Map

Taking a picture using gestures:

Taking a picture using gestures

A paper “laptop”:

Paper Laptop

The Big Take Away:  Content trumps delivery.  What you say (or show) is important.

Next week: How to Live Before You Die (Steve Jobs)

Speaking Tips from TEDTalk #7: Your Body Language Shapes Who You Are (Amy Cuddy)



Video and transcript here

The Big Idea:  Amy Cuddy shares how “power posing,” standing or sitting in a posture of confidence, even when you don’t feel confident, can affect testosterone (dominance hormone) and cortisol (stress hormone) levels in the body, causing you to feel and be perceived as more confident.  It’s not “fake it till you make it.”  It’s “fake it till you become it.”

The overall construct of the speech:  A persuasive, informative speech, supported by research.

Not perfect:  Amy Cuddy’s talk was so inherently interesting and her style so authentic, that it was easy to overlook imperfections on the first viewing.  On the second viewing, I took notes.

Most noticeable, given the subject of her talk, were indications of insecurity:

1. Filler words:  uh, um.  She had a couple dozen of these.  Noticeable, but generally not distracting in a 21 minute talk.  She also used quite a few “so” and “and” connecting words.

2. Touching her face/chin.  She touched her lower face/chin a half-dozen times.  The reasons for this seemed to be that she needed a moment to compose herself (in an emotional part of her speech), or she used the gesture to gather her thoughts, or she might have had a slightly dry mouth.

Emotional control:

Amy Cuddy emotion

composing thoughts:


Amy cuddy hand on face

3. Hair in face.  Her hair style, which may have simply been a style choice, hid part of her face.  When I see women (or men) with hair over part of their faces, I wonder if they are trying to hide themselves.  Plus, when the audience can’t see your face, you’ve lost some connection.

Amy cuddy close up2

4. Fast-paced, with sniffing breaths.  Her overall pace was rather fast and often punctuated by quick breath intakes through her nose.  On one hand, it was good for her vocal cords to breath through her nose rather than her mouth (breathing through your mouth can dry out your vocal cords), but on the other hand it did make her quick breaths more noticeable.  She could have slowed down and have taken longer breaths.

5. Slightly hunched posture.  Her posture was slightly hunched at the shoulders, giving her a slightly defensive look.  Related to this was her overall tucked-elbow gesturing.  She rarely was expansive with her gestures.

And now, I will reveal a bias, which I’m pretty sure most people share:  I am more critical of a woman’s appearance than a man’s.  Amy Cuddy is a beautiful woman.  More than once I thought, “She has flawlessly beautiful skin.”  I also found myself critiquing her classy outfit.  “That black makes her fade into the background . . . her wide necklace cuts her off at the throat . . . that lipstick is too purple.”

I took away a personal lesson from my realization of my bias:  As a woman, I really do need to pay closer attention to my appearance than a man!  It might not be fair, but that’s how it is.

Enough of the trivial critique.  Amy Cuddy really did hit it out of the ball park with this talk.

What the speaker nailed:

Gave a practical take-away from research.  After supporting her point that your body language not only affects what people think about you, but what you think about yourself (and that you can change your thoughts by changing your pose), she gave a call to action:  Try a power pose and share the science.  She proved that this was practical advice with her research results on power posing before job interviews.

Engaged the audience’s imagination.

“Imagine this was the person interviewing you” and showing a picture of an expressionless interviewer.

Expressionless interviewer

Used simple visuals, mostly pictures.

She started her talk with some humorous visuals of body language, which relaxed the audience (and probably her, also).

This was probably one of the more complicated visuals, which explained how the experiment was conducted in which cortisol and testosterone levels were measured after either low or high power poses:

Amy Cuddy Experiment

As might be expected, some of the research results were shown in graphical form:

high low

Arrows in the colored bars would have more clearly indicated a decrease or increase of cortisol (high power poses decreased the level of cortisol, the stress hormone and low power poses increased it).

Was vulnerable and preemptively addressed a common objection.

The idea of “fake it till you make it” can lead to the objection of “I don’t want to feel like an impostor.”  She addressed that objection head-on with a personal story, that at one point made me tear up, and made the audience break out into applause.  If you don’t have time to watch the whole video, at least watch this story (from 16:12-19:28).

The Big Take Away (especially applicable to public speaking):  Fake it till you become it!

Next week:

Pranav Mistry: The thrilling potential of SixthSense technology