Analysis of a Speech by Ed Gavagan

Ed Gavagan is an architect who lives in New York City. He is the owner of a design firm specializing in boutique residences. In this talk at The Moth, Gavagan tells a very personal story about an incident that almost cost his life and definitely changed his life. It is poignant, emotional and inspirational.

Gripping stuff. Here are four things I particularly appreciated about this talk:

He told a story

The Moth is a very special speaking forum, devoted exclusively to the art and craft of storytelling. And Gavagan’s story was a perfect fit. There was descriptive detail, there were characters, there was emotion. But there is always room in a speech or presentation for a story. Our brains are wired for stories. If you can tell a storyeven a short oneto emphasize a point, it will be more likely to stick in your audience’s mind.

Ed Gavagan
Ed Gavagan

He spoke in a conversational tone

The more Gavagan spoke, the more it felt like he wasn’t giving a speech. It felt like he was sitting across the table chatting over a beer. It is important to know your material and there will be occasions when a certain level of formality is required. But if, instead of speaking to your audience, you can have a conversation with them, it will definitely help you build rapport.

He used humour well

This is an emotional story, no question about it. And there are moments when things get very dark indeed. But Gavagan uses well-timed humour in order to allow the audience to laugh, catch its breath and get ready for the next part.

One example: When Gavagan talks about being stabbed and bleeding and running for help, the audience is completely silent. Then, from 5:40 to 6:10, he recounts how the garbageman jumped off the truck, grabbed him by the shirt, slapped his face and screamed, “Don’t you fuckin’ die on me!” There is laughter and there is applause. The audience is palpably relieved.

It is OK to bring your audience down emotionally. But don’t leave them down the entire time. Look for ways to add light moments to lift your audience back up.

He showed his humanity

I cannot begin to imagine what it must have been like to go through the ordeal that Ed Gavagan went through. The fact that he was willing to talk about it publicly says something about his character. Not only did Gavagan talk about the experience; he shared some of his deepest fears, frustrations, insecurities and emotions. The result was raw and touching and memorable. Audiences do not expect you to be perfect; they expect you to be present. And Gavagan was just that.

Ed Gavagan has given this talk, with different variations, in several fora since speaking at The Moth in the video above. If you do a search on YouTube, you can find several of these other speeches. They are all interesting to watch as the story is told differently each time. But the one above is still my favourite, perhaps because I saw it first.

I don’t know what the future holds for Ed Gavagan, but he is one man who has had more than his fair share of ordeals. I wish him and his family smooth sailing ahead.

Photo a screenshot from The Moth video above

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    1. Thanks, Florian. I have watched four speeches by Ed Gavagan about this experience and in every one he dashes off stage at the end. (For his TED Talk, they made him come back for the applause.) I have no doubt that he did so because recalling the incident is just so emotional for him that he just has to leave. And I can’t blame him.
      Still, your point is valid for most speakers. When we are finished and the audience is applauding, we should stay on stage for a few moments to accept the applause. Otherwise, we deprive the audience of an opportunity to show their appreciation.

  1. Hi John,

    wow, what a speech – and what a series of potential topics, covering amongst others things: entrepreneurship and self determination (the american dream), societal abandonment of the weak (the american nightmare), fate, pointless violence, personal strength (to box; to ride his luck), unprejudiced competence (paramedics), forgiveness (bitterness seemed absent, though there a large dose of eloquently expressed anger), apology (money from gangsters), meaningless-ness (money from gangsters), withdrawal of support (by family), dishonour amongst comrades (business colleague), self belief (to take what was his) …

    I wondered that you only addressed 4 points, then I thought that if you had taken it further, there would have been no end of points to discuss, so 4 seemed a good limit.

    I was struck by the strength of his stage presence. First, he was still, without being rooted. He didn’t need theatrics to convey his message. The story provided the necessary rhetorical power.

    Second, the swell of emotion that you could see come and go – how could he come close to cracking with emotion, then a sentence later, carry on as normal? It was a very well prepared, rehearsed, and delivered talk.

    The absence of a “moral” makes me wonder what the purpose of the speech is; to show others a path to redemption? I think not. To discharge his emotions? I don’t think so. Simply to tell a story, in the way that stories have been told through history, so that people get to know what you know. The story is the message. What do you think?

    1. Hi Ben. Great comments and analysis! I should give you a by-line on this post!

      I kept my analysis to four points for the reason you mention. And, although one can always find room for improvement in a speech, I thought it would be a bit churlish to do so here. It is, quite simply, a magnificent performance given the subject matter. As for the moral, there are several that one could read into it. But the format of The Moth is simply storytelling. The stories don’t have to have a moral, although many do.

      I like the idea of someone standing up and just telling a story for the story’s sake and letting us draw our own lessons. It’s refreshing.

  2. I enjoyed this talk so much! So thanks for sharing it John. Gripping indeed! (Just 10 days ago, I gave a speech about US violence, so this story was very timely.)

    A couple of points stood out for me. The first was his use of what I’d call a punch line – I found his last 14 words hugely powerful, especially with his voice faltering. For me, his last sentence was the moral of the story (as Ben asked about below).

    It was only on listening a 2nd time that I realised the talk circled back to the opening, too, because Ed’s first words were “I came to NY…”

    What’s more, although this was a highly personal story, much of a good story’s appeal is that each listener can identify so strongly with its main character. Given that his story revolved around a bar in NY, and he told it at a club in NY (and I’m sure many of his audience would share his love for the city), in effect he put the audience at the centre of the talk.

    Also, to Florian’s point below, I thought the power of the closing was increased by Ed leaving the stage so quickly. So in talks with a highly charged ending, fleeing could be a good thing! The climactic effect might have been increased by the slightly slow start, too.

    Again, thanks for sharing, and for promoting discussion of what makes a great talk.

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