Friday, July 22, 2011

Famous Speech Friday: Jill Bolte Taylor's "stroke of insight" TED talk

There's a reason this speech appears on TED's list of most-watched TED talks, with more than 8 million people having watched it via downloads,, iTunes and YouTube. It made neurologist Jill Bolte Taylor famous, leading to an interview with Oprah, a book, a movie in the works, and a place on TIME magazine's list of 100 most influential people of 2008. That's because this talk describes what happened when this brain researcher had a stroke herself:
But on the morning of December 10, 1996, I woke up to discover that I had a brain disorder of my own. A blood vessel exploded in the left half of my brain. And in the course of four hours I watched my brain completely deteriorate in its ability to process all information. On the morning of the hemorrhage, I could not walk, talk, read, write or recall any of my life. I essentially became an infant in a woman's body.
That happened due to a golf-ball-sized blood clot pressing against the language centers of her brain. Bolte took eight years to fully recover, a fact that makes this eloquent speech an even more stunning accomplishment. The audience is led through the unraveling of a mystery as Taylor describes exactly what it felt like to be having a stroke and trying to figure out what was happening to her. It's dramatic: Will she be able to dial the phone to call for help? It's visual, with an unusual prop and expressive gestures. It's intensely personal and emotional, and while it's loaded with technical details, they are delivered in language anyone can understand. Here's what you can learn from this famous speech:

  • As props go, nothing beats a real human brain: You'll hear the audience gasp as she brings out the brain, testament to one of my favorite rules of thumb for props. If you have access to an object that helps you explain what you're describing, and it's unusual, hard-to-find, rarely seen or intriguing, use it. Scientists have this as a distinct advantage when they speak, and should use it more often.
  • Humor can underscore an improbable experience and connect with the audience: She can afford to do this now that she has recovered fully, but Bolte injects humor throughout the speech, often making gentle fun of herself as she describes trying to figure out what was happening. Make no mistake, it takes enormous learning, effort and skill to pull off a detailed description of what is happening to your body as it stops functioning. But Bolte helps the audience get through it with humorous comparisons, imitating a golden retriever to show how her language skills had disappeared or joking about how she suddenly forgot about her work and every source of stress in her life, making it sound like a good thing.
  • Gestures help the audience understand a technical process: Bolte uses gesture effortlessly. When she says "I woke up to a pounding pain behind my left eye," she gestures with one hand near left side of her head. Those small accompanying gestures actually help your audience to comprehend what it is you are saying.
  • She mixes the emotional with the eloquent: When Bolte describes feeling all her functions fail, she says, "And in that moment, I knew I was no longer the choreographer of my life." You can hear her choke up as she continues describing this moment, which might have been the moment of her death had things gone another way. It is a humbling moment: For all her expertise and understanding of what was happening, she was no longer in control.
This talk isn't just technical, but also is inspirational to many, as Bolte shares insights from this near-death experience and describes her recovery and what it means to her today to be alive. What do you think of this famous speech?

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