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The Anatomy of an Inspiring Speaker: Jill Bolte Taylor – “My Stroke of Insight”

Ginger Leadership Communications

What was it that made Jill Bolte Taylor’s TED talk ‘My stroke of insight’ one of the most amazing speaking moments of all time? As public speaking expert Sarah Lloyd-Hughes analyzes Jill Bolte Taylor, we’ll see that the magic comes from much more than a good script…

 Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor is a neuroanatomist, trained at Harvard, who experienced a severe hemorrhage in the left side of her brain in 1996. When the fateful stroke occurred one afternoon, she could not walk, talk, read, write or recall any of her life. Her epic and eloquent TED talk is even more astounding as it took eight years for Dr. Jill to completely recover all of her functions and thinking ability. Author of the New York Times best-selling memoir My Stroke of Insight: A Brain Scientist’s Personal Journey she discusses with audiences the experience of her stroke.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. This speech led to Dr. Taylor being one of Time’s most influential people of 2008. 

1. Shocking / Amazing Topic 

In listening to her speech, it’s not to say that you must have had a stroke to have an incredible talk, but we can learn to look for the unusual aspects of our experience to resonate with the audience in order to get our message across. As Jill’s topic obviously will always stand out, think about what stands out about YOUR topic? It might seem very mundane to you because you’ve experienced it already, but when you tell it to other people they might find it incredibly interesting and valuable. Look to your personal life to find equally amazing and/or shocking topics!

2. Spiritual + Science 

This talk was particularly powerful because it combined two disciplines that you would normally consider to be completely removed from each other. In doing so she was actually living her message, representing her words as she was speaking. The combination of very pragmatic information, even though she only uses a very small amount of scientific information and wording, gives her credibility. Utilizing just a few well placed scientific words, coupled with her accreditation as a Harvard professor, causes us to think that what she’s saying must be true. Also sharing her brother’s mental health condition brings a personal aspect to her topic.

The juxtaposition of emotional and scientific data combines the left and right brain and is a very powerful tool. Jill is a scientist and in the world of academia, emotions are a no-no. The more pure data you present, the more accurate you become. As soon as you begin to bring in more color, it’s not always respected, so this is a huge example of bravery for her. This is what makes her speech so very memorable.

Often I have business type folks, particularly in financial business in London, and they say to me “I don’t think I can express that much personality, won’t getting emotional damage my credibility?”. If they dare to go forward they will realize that people will see them as leaders. That they are the ones who say what needed to be said but no one else had the bravery to do so. This is what makes Jill Bolte Taylor’s speech so amazing as she is able to speak emotionally on a topic that other scientists have most likely experienced but dare not speak about – the presence of spirituality in science.

3. Straight from her heart: you live & feel the experience with her 

She’s almost evangelistic in the way that speaks, raising her hands to the sky almost like a preacher. She is letting the force of her personality and the full power of her story come through as she’s speaking. We live and feel the experience with her, being very vivid in the way that she describes the story. We actually learn better when we are open to hearing and sharing in the speaker’s experience. Jill could have shared the left brain vs. right brain in a very logical way but we probably would not have remembered much about her topic. The reason we DO remember is because she shares from the heart, her feelings and emotions from her experiences are what makes it memorable.

4. Living her message

Everything about Jill Bolte Taylor centers around her message, down to the brain she wears on her t-shirt. This is what makes the very finest inspiring speakers “Be the change you wish to see in the world” (attributed to Ghandi).  When speakers are completely congruent with their message you know that you can trust them, you know that you can experience the full depth of their material. You know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that it’s a “lived” experience that you just can’t argue with. Jill Bolte Taylor is someone who has truly lived her message, lived through experiencing what she now teaches. She shows this by telling her stories in such a way that we’re right there with her, right there with her on the floor while she tries to call her friend. We get a look from her perspective outwards, experiencing the left brain right brain message. She switches from the pragmatic space of the left brain through to the expansive and big picture creative space of the right brain. Ownership of her story, fully integrated, living it and knowing it. 

5. Weird Visual Aid

Memorable moments in public speaking come from giving the audience something they’ve never seen before. The biggest memorable moment in this speech being of course that fact that SHE had a stroke. This is not something that many people speak of publicly, especially if you’re a neuroscientist. The second most memorable moment for me was having the human brain come out on stage. How wonderful it is to talk about something and see it physically. She uses it to visually cement her message. This is what we should do when we utilize visual aids, other than just wheeling out something that’s pretty, we want to use the aid to emphasize the message. When making a moment memorable, make sure that the visual aid is equal to the message. If you bring out the brain, USE it to demonstrate the left side and right side rather than just showing it and saying “ooh what a lovely brain!”.  Jill is reinforcing her argument, using every single item to aid the audience in becoming more open and to remember their message.

6. About Her… but also about me

A very useful tip to remember when you’re developing your speech is the power of a personal story. You might think “Who am I to tell my boring life story?”. Remember that once you begin telling your story it is no longer just about you, it now becomes about your audience. If you’re able to tell your story well, the audience begins to empathize with your story thinking “What if that were me?” and begin to experience right along with you. Jill Bolte Taylor does this incredibly well by making her story become a story about the audience. She has already recovered from her stroke, been through it and to the other side, and has made peace with it now. Her story has now become how she can be “in service” to her audience, helping us as the audience to connect with and engage in the important message that she imparts.

Jill Bolte Taylor’s TED talk is one of the finest examples of a personal story. How one single personal story can bring out a powerful personal message. It is an incredibly powerful example of a speech to watch if you’re looking to turn a life experience into a keynote speech.

Ginger Leadership Communications

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