Analysis of a Speech by Janine Shepherd

Janine Shepherd is one of those people whose picture should appear beneath the definition of “remarkable” in the dictionary. I chose one of Janine’s quotes as the 100th quote for public speakers, and you can read a short summary of her incredible life there.

Janine Shepherd
Janine Shepherd

Recently, Janine Shepherd told her story at a TEDx event in Kansas. It was moving and motivating. The video of her TED Talk is below. I encourage you to watch it and be inspired.

What I liked

1.  A Powerful Opening

Too often, speakers begin with a safe and boring statement such as, “It’s nice to be here. Today I am going to talk to you about …”. But this how Janine Shepherd began:

Life is about opportunities, creating them and embracing them. And for me, that was the Olympic dream. That’s what defined me. That was my bliss.

She starts with a compelling and powerful statement that is relevant for anyone. She then proceeds to say how it was relevant for her. Moreover, the four sentences above are progressively shorter, giving the whole opening a nice rhythm. I am sure that these four simple sentences were the result of a lot of work and reflection.

Your opening is incredibly important. It is your only chance to make a good first impression. Don’t waste it. Protect it. Make it special.

2.  Excellent Use of Props

Props can enhance a speech or presentation. Janine used two simple props to great effect.

First, the use of five chairs to represent five stages of her life (from her accident to becoming a pilot) is very clever. There is a natural progression and it is easy to follow. I particularly appreciated the moment, at 9:20 of the talk, when Janine is sitting on the fourth chair (after she has left the hospital) and she reaches back to the third chair (the hospital spinal ward) as she remembered her friend, Maria who was still there.

Second, the use of the straws—including placing one on every chair in the audience—was both a great reminder of the story in the hospital and a powerful metaphor for the point that we are all connected. Because the straws were already on the seats, the element of surprise at the end would have been mitigated by the story about the straws in the middle of the talk.

One way to maintain the element of surprise would be to tape the straws underneath the seats and have people reach for them. Of course, this would require more preparation and could be cumbersome for some audience members.

Props can be very effective. Here are ten tips for using them.

 3.  Excellent Use of Humour

Well-timed humour is always appreciated in a speech. It is especially appreciated in a speech such as Janine’s that is filled with many heavy, emotional moments. By making light of her own circumstances, Janine gives us permission to laugh, and that laughter is like a much needed breath of fresh air that prepares us for what is to follow.

And so, we have wonderful examples throughout the talk, such as the following:

  • 2:10 – After describing her horrific injuries: “I was having a really bad day.”
  • 4:12 – After coming out of a long and complicated surgery: “I thought, Great! Because I’m going to the Olympics!”
  • 6:25 – After getting the pile of straws: “Well, there wasn’t much else to do in the spinal ward, so we did.”
  • 11:55 – Her mother’s reaction to Janine’s decision to fly: “She said, ‘That’s nice, dear.'”
  • 12:25 – Showing how she walked into the airport: “I can tell you that I did not look like the ideal candidate to get a pilot’s license.”
  • 14:35 – “Mom said she was forever following me … wiping off my fingerprints … but at least she always knew where I was.”

It is perfectly OK to tell your audience a moving story and bring them down emotionally. But don’t leave them down throughout your talk. Look for moments of lightness that will give your audience a bit of a break. Craft your speech so that there are highs to counterbalance the lows.

4.  Excellent Use of Language

On the TED site, you can see the transcript of Janine’s speech. Have a close look. Those words do not happen by accident. They are the result of hours of writing, thinking, rewriting, cutting, agonizing and writing some more.
Janine uses a variety of techniques—vivid, descriptive language that evokes all of the senses; dialogue; rhetorical devices; and more—to make her speech come alive. Note that there are few complex words. For the most part, she uses simple words. And those are the best words.

Here are some of the phrases and sentences that I particularly appreciated:

  • “[I]t was the perfect autumn day: sunshine; the smell of eucalypt and a dream. Life was good.”
  • “… as I sucked in the cold mountain air, I could feel it burning my lungs …”
  • “I was an athlete. That’s all I knew; that’s all I’d done. If I couldn’t do that, then what could I do? … [I]f I couldn’t do that, then who was I?”
  • “I realized that this wasn’t just my life; it was life itself. I realized that this wasn’t just my pain; it was everybody’s pain.”

Writing a good speech takes time and effort. The reward is worth the effort.

5.  A Willingness to Be Vulnerable

A while back, I wrote a post entitled, You’ve Got to Get Naked on Stage. In it, I wrote that when we allow ourselves to be vulnerable on stage, magic moments can occur. When we speak, the focus should be outward instead of inward. We should focus on our message; show some emotion; be 100% in the moment. Most importantly, we should care about your audience.
Janine does all of this in spades. There is no point in trying to single out a particular moment in which she shows her emotion. Her entire speech is a textbook lesson in how to be vulnerable on stage. And her audience is there with her the entire way.

Be willing to show some of your humanity—your fears and hopes and emotions—on stage. Your audience will appreciate it.


1. Speak a bit more about the audience

It is only at the 17:50 mark (one minute from the end) that Janine Shepherd begins to talk about the audience. I think that there is an opportunity to expand this part, just a little. As heroic as Janine is, she is not the hero of her speech. To borrow a phrase from Nancy Duarte, the audience is the hero. Every speech is always about the audience.

So, for example, Janine could expand on her point that “it no longer matters what you look like, where you come from, or what you do for a living.” She could give examples of different challenges that people might be facing in addition to physical ones and reinforce the point that we are more than our bodies and more than our circumstances.

2.  Restructure the conclusion slightly

I love Janine’s final thought for the audience, and I love the idea of giving everyone a straw. However, Janine’s final words were to ask people to raise their straws and join her. So at that moment, you had some people clapping, some holding up their straws, some looking for their straws. It diminished the power of the moment.

Also, if you listen closely, at 18:20, after the line, “… because we are all connected by millions and millions of straws”, there is a reaction from the audience and even a smattering of applause. That is a clue that there is something slightly amiss with the conclusion. (When I first listened to the speech, I actually thought that this was the end because it was such a great line on which to finish.)

For me, improving the conclusion is not about rewriting; rather, it is about reordering. Below is the conclusion as delivered by Janine.

All that matters is that we continue to fan the flame of humanity by living our lives as the ultimate creative expression of who we really are, because we are all connected by millions and millions of straws, and it’s time to join those up and to hang on. And if we are to move towards our collective bliss, it’s time we shed our focus on the physical and instead embrace the virtues of the heart. So raise your straws if you’ll join me.

Here is one possible way of restructuring the conclusion:

If we are to move towards our collective bliss, it’s time we shed our focus on the physical and instead embrace the virtues of the heart. All that matters is that we continue to fan the flame of humanity by living our lives as the ultimate creative expression of who we really are. Because we are all connected by millions and millions of straws, and it’s time to join them up and hang on together.

For me, the metaphor of the straws is so powerful that it cries out to be the final sentence. Furthermore, I don’t think that Janine even needs to ask the people in the audience to raise their straws. They have already seen them on their seats and they already know their significance from the speech. Sometimes, leaving something unsaid can be the most powerful form of expression of all.

Ultimately, these suggestions are just some minor trimming around the edges of a terrific speech. I “met” Janine Shepherd through social media a couple of years ago and we have stayed in touch since. I am proud to be able to call her my friend. Keep flying high, Janine!

Photo courtesy of Schmiebel

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