Friday, April 27, 2012

Famous Speech Friday: Jane Goodall's "What Separates Us From the Apes"

Most people find it difficult to name a living scientist, and even tougher to name a woman scientist, dead or alive. But if you've flipped through a magazine or watched a nature documentary in the past 50 years, you'll recognize this one: Jane Goodall.

The environmental activist and primatologist is a pioneering chimpanzee researcher who made some spectacular findings early in her career, particularly the discovery that chimps used tools like humans. But she is the first to admit that her fame grew with the countless journalists, photographers and filmmakers who couldn't get enough of her "Jane in the Jungle" story. And when she realized that her story might be the thing that could save her beloved chimps from extinction, she left the forest and hit the road.

Goodall, who turned 78 earlier this month, travels 300 days a year. Most of that time is spent speaking before a variety of audiences--from preschools to the AARP--about environmental degradation and animal and human rights. She remembers her first speech as "a nightmare where I couldn't breathe," and she was surprised to find that the audience didn't seem to notice.

Now, she says, her success in speaking stems from her Welsh storytelling ancestors and her passionate need for her stories to be heard. "The least I can do," she has said to many audiences, "is speak out for those who cannot speak for themselves."

In this 2002 TED talk, Goodall shows why she's been in high demand as a speaker all over the world. She's had a lot of practice, sure, but here are a few other skills that all speakers can steal for themselves:
  • Be there in person. One of the reasons Goodall tours so much, she says, is that nothing beats the persuasive power of being directly in front of her audience. In an interview with Jane Goodall Institute manager and Georgetown University communications researcher John Trybus, Goodall said she's heard a variation on this line from countless audiences: "We've seen you on TV, but when you're there and we're listening to you, it's different."
  • Expand your idea of a prop. In this talk, Goodall has her ubiquitous "Mr. H." monkey doll sitting on the lectern, and she's brought a piece of Nelson Mandela's Robben Island prison wall to make a point about the importance of hope. But even more memorable are her dynamic "sound" props. There's the haunting tinkle of the bell made from a Cambodian landmine, which brings the audience to silence. And then there's her pant-hoot chimpanzee greeting, which brings the audience to laughter. She uses the chimpanzee call in nearly every speech she gives, but it's always striking to see such a loud noise burst forth from a small woman.
  • Speak like Shakespeare? When she was teaching herself how to give speeches, Goodall drew on the lessons of music and Shakespeare's plays. Good music and good theater, she suggests, have a rhythm of up and down, or alternating humor and lightness with more somber passages. It's a technique that she uses here to great effect. She warms up her audience with a few funny stories, moves to a serious core discussion of environmental threats and finishes with a hopeful and uplifting tone.
So what does separate us from the apes, anyway? When it comes to communication, Goodall says, humans have no equal.

(Freelance writer Becky Ham contributed this cracking post on Jane Goodall to our Famous Speech Friday series. Photo from NickStep's photostream on Flickr.)

My post on "How Rush Limbaugh is helping me celebrate Women's History Month" is nominated as one of BlogHer's "Voices of the Year 2012." Follow this link to vote--and thanks for supporting this post.