Friday, April 24, 2015

Famous Speech Friday: Stella Young's "I'm not your inspiration"

Stella Young was an Australian comedian, journalist, and disability advocate who spent most of her life in a wheelchair due to a brittle bone disease. In all three of her professional roles, she was a funny and frequent speaker. And in her TEDxSydney talk, "I'm not your inspiration, thank you very much," Young--who died just a few months later, in December 2014--used a public speaking story to describe her experiences as being "inspiration porn" for non-disabled audiences:
Years later, I was on my second teaching round in a Melbourne high school, and I was about 20 minutes into a year 11 legal studies class when this boy put up his hand and said, "Hey miss, when are you going to start doing your speech?" And I said, "What speech?" You know, I'd been talking them about defamation law for a good 20 minutes. And he said, "You know, like, your motivational speaking. You know, when people in wheelchairs come to school, they usually say, like, inspirational stuff?" (Laughter) "It's usually in the big hall."
And that's when it dawned on me: This kid had only ever experienced disabled people as objects of inspiration. We are not, to this kid -- and it's not his fault, I mean, that's true for many of us. For lots of us, disabled people are not our teachers or our doctors or our manicurists. We're not real people. We are there to inspire. And in fact, I am sitting on this stage looking like I do in this wheelchair, and you are probably kind of expecting me to inspire you. Right? (Laughter) Yeah.
Her talk was good enough to be featured on, where it's had 1.6 million views and counting. What can you learn from her famous speech?
  • Don't be afraid to call it as you see it: Own your viewpoint--it's what will make your talk your very own. We've all heard plenty of presentations with all the juice, pain, and awkward moments sanded down to smoothness. Let your words reflect the world you see around you.
  • Turn a popular form on its head: The inspirational talk by a cancer patient or disabled person has been done over and over again. As Young notes, it has tended to dehumanize these speakers, turning them into "not real people." So why not turn the tables and poke fun at the form? It's a clever device for a speech, and one that really differentiates you in a crowded field.
  • Use humor deftly: No question disability and how we view it in others are serious issues. But that doesn't mean you can't include some humor...or even a lot of humor. Young, who was, after all, a comedian, doesn't disappoint. Letting the audience laugh from time to time also provides a needed catharsis when you're tackling difficult topics. Just be sure you place it carefully and practice.
Watch the video of this funny, wise TED talk here or below.

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