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

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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