Analysis of a Speech by Elizabeth Gilbert

One of my favourite TED Talks is the one given by Elizabeth Gilbert, the author of the international bestseller Eat Pray Love. In her talk, Gilbert speaks about the fears and frustrations of those who pursue a creative life, especially during those moments of angst when the creative juices are not flowing, and offers some advice and encouragement.

It is a touching performance. Even though I have seen it numerous times – I use it as part of one of the courses that I teach on public speaking – I never tire of it. Although there is certainly room for improvement, the positive aspects of Gilbert’s talk make it moving and memorable.

My analysis was originally published on the excellent public speaking blog, Six Minutes by Andrew Dlugan. Unfortunately, it appears that the site in no longer on line (as of January 2020). So I have updated this post to add the video of Gilbert’s speech and my analysis below.

There is a lot that can we learn about public speaking from Gilbert’s talk. For the purposes of this post, I have chosen three things that I liked and three areas where I see room for improvement.

What I liked

  • She speaks with sincere passion.

Garr Reynolds, the author of Presentation Zen, has said that if he only had one tip to give to speakers, it would be to be passionate about the topic and let that enthusiasm come out.

“The biggest item that separates mediocre presenters from world class ones is the ability to connect with an audience in an honest and exciting way. Don’t hold back. Be confident. And let your passion for your topic come out for all to see.”

Gilbert is certainly passionate. It is easy to see that she truly cares about the subject matter and that she wants the audience to understand what she is saying and why. Her passion builds to a crescendo as her talk progresses. Note, for example, her description of the moonlight dances in North Africa (15:53) and her encouragement to the audience to “do your job” (18:27).

For me, the passion with which Gilbert speaks is the biggest strength of her talk. It more than compensates for any shortcomings. When you show your emotions like Gilbert did, it’s true that you are taking a risk. You are going out on a limb. But that’s where the best fruit is.

  • She tells stories.

Stories help us connect with our audiences in a way that all the charts, graphs, statistics and bullet points in the world will never be able to do. They help to make our messages resonate in people’s minds long after the telling.

Gilbert uses the power of stories to great effect. Going through the transcript of her talk, I found five personal stories from her life and five stories about other people. The stories reinforce her points in a powerful way.

Psychologists who have studied the power of storytelling have come to conclusion that people are hardwired for stories. It is perhaps the oldest method of communication. So be sure to incorporate stories in your presentations. We all have stories, and telling them will bring your presentation to life in a way that bullet points never can.

  • She engages the audience.

As Gilbert’s speech progresses, it seems less like a speech and more like a conversation that she is having with a close friend over a cup of coffee. She engages the audience throughout and that makes her very easy to listen to.

Gilbert does not put on airs. Her voice is natural. She smiles and makes good eye contact with the audience. She laces her talk with humour at appropriate points. All of these things help to “shrink the distance” between Gilbert and her audience. They make her likeable and being liked is very important for a speaker. (Just ask anyone who has ever spoken to a hostile audience.)

Areas for improvement

  • She needs to slow down and pause more often.

Gilbert makes many important points and backs them up with wonderful stories and anecdotes. However, she often runs her ideas together quickly. Furthermore, often when she comes to a point where it would be good to pause, she fills the space with words like “you know”, “right?” and “OK”. These “filler words” eat away at the fabric of our speeches and make them weaker.

Pausing serves us well in many ways:

  1. Audiences can absorb and digest what we have said.
  2. It can signal that something important is about to come, and thus focus our audience’s attention.
  3. Unnecessary filler words are reduced.
  4. It makes us look thoughtful, confident and credible.

Pauses need only last a second or two, but the effect can be profound. It’s been said that music is what happens between the notes. I believe that a great speech happens between the words, during those moments when the audience internalizes our words. Always remember to pause.

  • Her hand gestures were frequently distracting.

It’s obvious that, especially at the beginning of her talk, Gilbert was nervous. (Who wouldn’t be at least a bit nervous speaking at TED?) But the nervous energy was frequently released through the wringing and grinding of her hands (see, for example, at 0:30 and 1:05 to 1:25). This is a shame because at other times she used her hands quite effectively to emphasize her points (see, for example, 6:26 to 7:26, 10:20 to 11:03 and 15:59 to 16:40).

Effective gestures can enhance the impact of your message, but they have to be used properly and in moderation. Think of adding gestures to your presentation the way in which a world class chef would add spices to a fine meal: judiciously, to enhance the flavour of the food, but not to overpower it.

Practice getting comfortable with leaving your hands at your side from time to time when you do not need them. That way, when you do gesture, the gestures will be more effective.

  • She could have related the message to the audience more than she did.

I love the message that Gilbert conveys – that we should do our work as best we can, even if the recognition and acclaim do not come, because it is the doing that is important. I feel, however, that she could have done a bit more to relate it to the audience. Indeed, in the entire speech, which lasted almost 20 minutes, I counted relatively few times when she expressly mentioned the audience:

2:20: “Is it logical to that anybody should be expected to be afraid of the work that they feel they were put on this earth to do?”

12:12: “And I would imagine that a lot you have too.”

14:35: “I fell into one of those pits of despair that we all fall into when we’re working on something and it’s not coming.”

15:50: “And I know you know what I’m talking about.”

18:31: “Just do your job.”

Don’t get me wrong. I do not question for one moment the sincerity behind Gilbert’s message. I am simply saying that it would have been nice to hear her talk more about the audience and the challenges that the people there might be facing. Also, it would have been nice for her to state that her message about creativity applies to people beyond the fine arts, because I do believe that her words have meaning for us all.

Never forget that a speech is, first and foremost, for the audience and about the audience. Why should the audience care? That is the question that we as speakers must always ask ourselves.


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