Friday, September 20, 2013

Famous Speech Friday: Sarah Kay's "Tshotsholoza"

You've seen spoken-word poet Sarah Kay on the blog before, demonstrating the power of poetry in public speaking with her 2011 TED talk. But this long interview with On Being highlights another talk she gave at the Acumen Fund in New York City. It's called "Tshotsholoza" after an Ndebele folk song originally from Zimbabwe but popularized in South Africa. She tells a story set in Cape Town's District Six, where 60,000 residents were forcibly removed during Apartheid.

Kay found the nugget of this story--the idea that a man with homing pigeons had lived there, and the pigeons kept returning to his home after he'd been forced to leave--from a photograph in a museum in District Six. Then she added and embellished it so you can see the setting, an elaborate invisible visual:
Noor Ebrahim had 50 homing pigeons. He lived in District Six at the center of Cape Town. Noor Ebrahim lived in District Six at the center of Cape Town where there were 12 schools and Holy Cross Church, and Aspling Street mosque and the Jews on Harrington Street, with the Indians and the Malayas, the natives and the immigrants, the blacks and the coloreds. Noor Ebrahim lived in District Six at the center of Cape Town where there was Beckenstat Bookstore and Parker's Corner Shop where you could buy paraffin for the stove, fish oil, bull's eyes and almond rock, where you could walk down to the public bath, pay a tickey, get a 15-minute shower and find yourself in between the businessmen and the gangsters bathing side by side right there at the corner of Clifton and Hanover streets. Noor Ebrahim lived in District Six at the center of Cape Town with 50 pigeons and his family.
In the interview, she talks about using concrete details to make the story come alive:
So something that I can smell, something that I can taste, something that I can touch, something that I can hear, something I can see — that is what I can relate to. So even if you're talking about an experience that I haven't had before, if you're telling me about it in a way that you invoke my sensory memory and my sensory understanding of the world, we're talking about the same universe and I can understand what you're saying. That makes sense to me in a way that abstract terms sometimes don't. So even if I hear a story about somebody's experience that I could never have imagined, if they're explaining it using these very concrete and real sensory details, I have an access point and I am enthralled with that story.
What can you learn about storytelling from this famous speech?
  • Anchor your story in a place: This story was inspired by and is steeped in a specific place, and Kay takes the time to describe it so we can "see" it. Listen to the video with your eyes shut once. You'll be able to picture it in your mind's eye. That's the most compelling way to ensure that your audience will remember what you said, again and again.
  • Use details wisely: So many speakers--especially those with technical topics--think detail is an all-or-nothing factor in presentations and speeches, as in you have to put them all in or leave them all out. But judicious use of detail is what makes this story sing. Think about the most compelling, most concrete details, the ones your audience can best relate to, and put those in.
  • Play with cadence, pauses and timing: Kay plays with all these elements, so that her storytelling evokes ancient ways of relating a tale rhythmically and with speed, pauses and cadence as elements of emphasis. Try using these factors to take your next speech up a notch, particularly where you're telling a story.
Here's the video of her talk. What do you think of this famous speech?


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