When a Wordsmith is Passionate

Taylor Mali is a rare find. He is an American slam poet, humorist, teacher and voiceover artist. He is also an extremely passionate public speaker.

For those who have the pleasure of introducing him at a speaking event, but do not have the time to prepare their own introduction, Mali provides this short autobiography on his website:

“[Taylor Mali] measures his life in a variety of ways: He has 10 years of experience as a professional spoken word artist; he has one book, one DVD, and four cds; for 10 months, he was the official voice of Burger King; he was a national poetry slam champion four times; three times he appeared on the HBO original series “Russell Simmons Presents Def Poetry”; for nine years he taught college, high school, and middle school; and once, in a single SCRABBLE game, he earned a score of 581; but MOST IMPORTANTLY OF ALL, after hearing his work, 607 people have told him they will now become teachers. Please help me welcome the man who wants to create one thousand new teachers, Taylor Mali.”

I discovered Mali a few months ago by chance on YouTube. I was immediately hooked. His raw style, his ability to forge simple words into a powerful message, and his passion make him an incredibly compelling speaker.

Here is one of my favourite works of his. It is entitled “Undivided Attention”.

Even though slam poetry is a very specialized form of public speaking, there is much that we can learn from Mali for our own speeches. For example:

  • He is passionate about his subject.
  • He makes terrific use of vocal variety.
  • He knows when to pause for effect.
  • He uses simple but effective gestures; for example, when talking about the crane holding the piano.
  • He makes wonderful use of (a) alliteration: “It dangles, spinning slowly, in April air … Chopin shiny”; (b) simile: “hanging like the second-to-last note of a concerto” and “Let me teach like a Steinway.”; and (c) consonance: “so hinderingly dangling” and “the neck of the movers’ crane”.
  • He uses tricolons and repetition: “on the edge of the seat, the edge of tears, the edge of eight stories up going over”.

Remember these points the next time you have to give a speech. Think about the text as you draft it. Use similes, alliterations and other grammatical devices — judiciously, of course — to add flair to your words. Think about where a pause would be powerful. Think about where a gesture would help. Above all, think about what the subject means for your audience and why they should care. Then infuse your delivery with passion.

To end this post, I want to share another of my favourite poems by Taylor Mali. It is entitled “What Teacher’s Make”.


About John Zimmer

International speaker, presentation skills expert, lawyer, improv performer
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12 Responses to When a Wordsmith is Passionate

  1. Pingback: Speak with Conviction | Manner of Speaking

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  3. Monex says:

    Taylor Mali is a four time slam poet champion and a High School Teacher in New York. Taylor Mali’s first book contains most of the poems on his first two CDs.

  4. florian says:

    Great stuff!!!

    For me, the first one proves me right. When I train my rhetorical rookies, I always advise them to avoid saying say ‘thank you’ at the end of their speeches. “… like the first snow….” you see it, you feel the coolness, don’t destroy the moment by saying “thank you!” Let the snow fall on the audience. Smile, step back, they know it’s over.

    • John Zimmer says:

      Thanks, Florian! I love the metaphor: let the snow fall on the audience. When it comes to speeches I am with you. Thanks, but no thanks! Imagine Martin Luther King: “Free at last! Free at last! Thank God almighty we are free at last! Thank you very much for coming.” Ahhh … no.

      When giving a speech, end with a powerful line that crystallizes your message in your audience’s mind. Powerful doesn’t necessarily mean loud or flashy. It means “memorable”.

      Where I do think it is OK, and indeed appropriate, to finish with a “thank you” is at the end of a long training session, particularly a muliti-day training session. In such cases I like to thank the audience for their participation and their work during the course. But after thanking them, I finish with some words of encouragement for taking the skills that they have learned and putting them to use in the future. So in that respect, it is similar to the notion of ending on a strong note when giving a speech.



    • Avoiding saying thanks is ideal, but I’d put thanking the audience very low on the list of presentation sins!

      After all, 3 of the most-watched TED-style talks end with thanks, as you can see in my post on pros and cons of speakers saying thanks. (It also gives examples of better ways to end.)

  5. Jessica Pyne says:

    Great post, John. I’m also a fan of Taylor Mali, and think that his work is fantastic, both to listen to and to read. Each one of his poems has a strong message (another personal favourite is Like Lily Like Wilson) and I love how I am always moved by this. He’s great at speaking, but also at carefully crafting his poetry to deliver the message with real force.

    • John Zimmer says:

      Hi Jessica,

      Thanks for the comment. You are spot on about his word crafting ability. Words like that don’t just happen. They come at the end of a process of reflection and editing and polishing that many people often take for granted. I am not familiar with “Like Lily Like Wilson” but will look it up. Thanks for the tip!


  6. Dave Folstad says:

    Challenging post as I saw Taylor’s delivery was strong, unforced and enthusiastic. What teachers do sounded righteous and thoughtful. I suspect he is the favorite teacher of some successful and confident graduates.

    • John Zimmer says:

      Thanks for the comment, Dave. I agree with your assessment. I am sure that he has had a profound influence on many lives. As I understand it, he no longer teaches but speaks and writes poetry full time. But you can tell that teaching will never be far from his thoughts.


  7. Keith Davis says:

    Hi John,

    Great idea … taking tips from poetry.

    Voice variety is so important to keep the audience interested.

    I love aliteration but it can be overdone and sound contrived. Much better if the repeated sound is not at the beginning of the word as in: “so hinderingly dangling”

    Another great post on how to incorporate the skills of other art forms into Public Speaking.

    • John Zimmer says:

      Hi Keith,

      Thanks for the comment. I agree with you that alliteration can be overdone. It’s the same with similes and other grammatical constructs. I people that you should add them the way a chef would add a fine spice to a meal: judiciously so as to enhance the flavour but not overpower it.



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