Friday, February 3, 2012

Famous Speech Friday: Diana Nyad on dreams, determination and defeat

I was lucky enough to see this talk in person at TEDMED 2011, and I've been waiting for the chance to bring it to readers of The Eloquent Woman ever since. Alone on a stage, Diana Nyad told us the story of how she decided at age 60 to attempt again the one major swim that had eluded her, the more than 100-mile, 70-hour swim from Cuba to Florida.

The story is one of dreams, determination, and ultimately, defeat--and how she handled it. The first half of this talk describes the dream and her motivation, as well as the preparations she made. And because no one in the audience had likely tried such a swim, she shared details that brought alive what it might be like to try, in effect putting the audience in her place. "You're swimming with the fogged goggles. You're swimming at 60 strokes a minute, so you're never really focused on anything, you don't see well.  You've got tight bathing caps over your ears trying to keep the heat of the head--that's where the hypothermia starts--so you don't hear very well. You're really left alone with your own thoughts."

I mentioned she was alone on stage, but throughout this talk, Nyad referenced others: her mother, the team of medics and crew and CNN-ers along for the swim. And then there were those thoughts. Part of her preparation was to help her stick to 60 strokes per minute, and avoid boredom. "I had a playlist in my head of 65 songs... I couldn't wait to get into the dark in the middle of the night, because that's when Neil Young comes out. And it's odd isn't it you think you'd be singing Leonard Cohen's Hallelujah out in the majesty of the ocean, not songs about heroin addiction in New York City. But no, for some reason, I couldn't wait to get into the dark of the night and start singing, "I heard you knockin' at my cellar door/I love you baby and I want some more/Oh, the damage done." She sings those lines, swimming with her arms as she does.

Just before the midpoint, the swim--and this talk--take a turn as Nyad confronts the one thing she couldn't prepare for: Box jellyfish attacks she endured, not once but twice, from a sea creature that's not supposed to be in those waters. Burning sensations, paralysis, cramped breathing, convulsions followed, and more swimming. By the time she admits, "This body couldn't make it," you're feeling wrung out, yourself.  And just like the swim, it doesn't end with the attacks. Nyad brings the talk home by pulling it back to the audience, asking the people listening to consider their dreams. Here's what you can learn from this famous talk:
  • Physicality can move the viewer through your narrative:  As an athlete, Nyad moves with prowess through water. On stage? Just as smooth. In fact, she makes an art form out of it--and any speaker can learn from her. Watch her "swim" through the air, facing the audience directly, as if we're a jellyfish in her path. Watch her stalk the stage, pausing for effect. Watch her hands show you the scars from her swim. You won't want to look away. Nyad needs no prop. She's a classic example of how the speaker can use gesture and movement to hold attention throughout a story. 
  • Don't just dive in and hope for the best. Training is critical: This is a story that took place over many months; even the swim in it took days. Yet Nyad's talk clocks in at 16 minutes and 42 seconds, more than a minute shy of the 18 minute limit for TEDMED talks. This was not a talk thrown together, but one planned, edited, and rehearsed as much as her moves in a long-distance swim. She doesn't just dive in and hope for the best. Her training here makes the "swim" of a speech seem effortless.
  • Leave them thinking:  As she turns away from her defeat, Nyad opens it back up to the audience. "I wouldn't mind if every one of you came up on this stage, tonight, and told us how you've gotten over the big disappointments of your lives, because we'll all had them, haven't we? We've all had a heartache. So my journey now is to find some sort of grace in the face of this defeat," she says. She leaves the audience thinking about that by concluding with a paraphrase of poet Mary Oliver, the same question that got her back into the water in the first place: "What is it you're doing with this one wild and precious life of yours?"
Here's the video of this famous speech, and reader Maryn McKenna prompts me to include a link to the poem Nyad quotes. What do you think of the speech? Share your impressions in the comments.

(Photo from KlickPharma's photostream on Flickr)

Looking for famous speeches by women? Check out The Eloquent Woman Index of Famous Women's Speeches, with a wide variety of women speakers, types of speeches and topics to inspire your next speech. Each one comes with lessons for speakers, plus video or audio and a transcript, where available.

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