Analysis of a Speech by Andrew Solomon

Andrew Solomon is an American writer who focuses on politics, psychology and culture. He has written for The New York Times and The New Yorker among others. His book The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression won the 2001 National Book Award and was a finalist for the 2002 Pulitzer Prize.

Andrew Solomon

Solomon’s 2014 TED Talk is both insightful and moving. His premise is that it is the worst moments in our lives that make us who we are. Solomon shares deeply personal stories and encourages us to forge meaning from our biggest struggles. It is worth 20 minutes of your time.

What I liked

This is a great talk. I have watched it four or five times and each time I am moved. What makes this talk so great? Several things.

  • Andrew Solomon speaks with great passion (pathos). His is not a flamboyant speaking style, but his passion comes through clearly.
  • Solomon is willing to be vulnerable. At times, he is achingly vulnerable, yet given the topic of his speech, he did not go overboard.
  • He maintained almost constant eye contact with the entire audience.
  • Solomon has tremendous credibility (ethos) on the subject, both because of his personal struggles as a gay man and also because of the wide-ranging research he has done as part of his work.
  • I liked the pace and tone of his voice. I have read comments by people who say that Solomon’s voice is monotone and almost robotic but I disagree. Solomon might not have used a lot of vocal variety, but in my opinion, his measured, almost professorial style was the perfect counterpoint to the incredibly emotional topic.
  • There were powerful pauses after important moments.
  • Andrew Solomon told wonderful stories. Telling stories is one way for speakers to reinforce their message. From his own stories, to stories about others, Solomon drew us in time and again. I like that he used a mix of personal and other stories. Some people think that you should only tell personal stories but I disagree. Personal stories are great because we have lived them; however, if a third-person story touches the speaker, it is perfectly appropriate to tell it. For example, the story about the woman who had been raped and had a child as a result (3:18) is incredibly poignant. You can read more on stories and storytelling here.
  • Solomon added dialogue to some of those stories. I found the story of the Russian tanks at the barricades (10:10) gripping because the dialogue made it that much more vivid.
  • He used humour to lighten the mood. For the first eight minutes of his talk, Solomon shared stories of adversity. From a woman who was raped, to a political prisoner in Myanmar who almost died in prison, to his own humiliation and the bullying he endured at school, he held the audience in his grip but the atmosphere is fraught. Then, at around 7:50, Solomon said:

“In my own adolescence, I went to extreme lengths to try to be straight. I enrolled myself in something called ‘sexual surrogacy therapy,’ in which people I was encouraged to call doctors prescribed what I was encouraged to call exercises with women I was encouraged to call surrogates, who were not exactly prostitutes but who were also not exactly anything else.”

This line got great laughter and even some applause. But it’s hardly surprising. The audience was ready to laugh. They needed to laugh. The laughter gave them emotional relief. If you deliver an emotionally challenging talk and don’t inject any levity, you are asking a lot from your audience. Humour allows an audience to relax, even if only for a moment.

The effect is the same as that for a swimmer who finally surfaces for air after having been underwater for an extended period of time. See this post for more on using humour in a talk.

  • Andrew Solomon used several good quotes, from St. Paul to a Russian artist to gay activist Harvey Milk. Quotations can enhance the credibility of your words; just be sure not to overuse them.
  • There were effective rhetorical devices.

Epizeuxis – “Percy! Percy! Percy! Percy!” (2:05)

Metaphor – “… you need to fold the worst events of your life into a narrative of triumph” (3:08) / “… find in what looks like sorrows, the seedlings of your joy.” (17:05) 

Asyndeton – “Some of our struggles are things we’re born to: our gender; our sexuality; our race; our disability. And some are things that happen to us: being a political prisoner; being a rape victim; being a Katrina survivor.” (4:12)

Antimetabole – “We don’t seek the painful experiences that hew our identities, but we seek our identities in the wake of painful experiences.” (8:58)

Paraprosdokian – “… who were not exactly prostitutes but who were also not exactly anything else.” (8:15) / “A friend of mine who thought Gay Pride Week was getting very carried away with itself, once suggested that we organize Gay Humility Week.” (14:00)

  • Solomon had a powerful conclusion (his son’s speech at Solomon’s 50th birthday party) that circled back to a figure in one of the stories that Solomon told at the beginning of his talk.
  • Solomon ends with a powerful call to action. “Forge meaning. Build identity. Forge meaning. Build identity. And then invite the world to share your joy.” (19:52)

Suggestions for improvement

What could Andrew Solomon have done to improve on the speech? There were a couple of minor things that caught my attention.

The first is the remote that he held in his right hand. He was not using slides so I am not sure why he had it. Given the complex grammar and diction in the speech—more on this below—perhaps Solomon was using the remote to advance the text on some screen or teleprompter. I didn’t notice any, and Solomon doesn’t appear to be reading, but I can’t be sure.

Second, it did not look great at the beginning of the speech for Solomon to be speaking with his hand in his left pocket or his hands crossed behind his back. It took a bit of shine away from his compelling opening. Few people look good with their hands in their pockets or behind their back. The Tonight Show’s Johnny Carson was a notable exception. But for the rest of us, leaving our hands at our sides when not using them is the way to go.

My final observation is about the text of the speech. I love Andrew Solomon’s mastery of English. Anyone who uses a sentence such as

And the soldier folded his arms, and the artist launched into a Jeffersonian panegyric to democracy such as those of us who live in a Jeffersonian democracy would be hard-pressed to present. (11:00)

has clearly mastered the sophistications of the English language. Solomon is able to pull it off because he knows his material so well and speaks so passionately about it. For many people, however, language of this nature would feel heavy and cumbersome. It language much more suited to a book than a speech.

Indeed, in his book TED Talks: The Official TED Guide to Public Speaking, Chris Anderson, the curator of TED, wrote the following of Solomon’s talk (p. 140):

Solomon is an extraordinary writer, and it shows. This is language that would naturally appear in a book or magazine feature, not language that you would naturally use in a one-to-one conversation with a friend at a bar. The clues are in the language’s lyricism—words like hew and torment. This is a powerful piece of writing, and it’s meant to be heard that way. Even though he was speaking from notes, the lyrical power of the language made us feel we were in the hands of a master craftsman. We wanted the talk to have been prewritten. (By the way, Andrew told me that this actually is how he speaks to friends at bars. I wish I could be a bystander.)

Talks like Andrew’s can be read. Perhaps they should be read. But if you go this route, even if you’re a truly great writer, do your audience the honor of knowing your script so well that you can still give a sense of feeling it in the moment. Mean every sentence. Look up as often as you can and make eye contact. And perhaps, if you want to add a moment of powerful impact toward the end, abandon your script before the last page. Walk away from the lectern, toss away your notes, move to the front of the stage, and speak the conclusion directly from the heart.

Sound advice. For more on reading a speech, see this post.

But again, congratulations to Andrew Solomon for this important, moving talk.

Photo courtesy of PEN American Center

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  1. Great points John – and plenty of links to further content – so thanks for this critique.

    I didn’t notice the remote in his hand, but I think you’re right about him advancing his notes with it. (Looks like there must’ve been a screen high up in the centre of his vision, because he spends a lot of time looking there.)
    What a phrase – “Jeffersonian panegyric to democracy”. It’s stuffed with words of 4 or more syllables, so they’re too long for a speech. I had to look up what panegyric meant, too. At TED, he might’ve had a well-educated audience of native English speakers, but that’s hardly the case once any TED talk goes online. Seems like a case of poor planning (and writing) on his part.

    Anyway, lastly, readers here might also like a detailed critique of Allan Pease’s TEDx talk on body language, which I posted here.

    1. Thanks, Craig. I agree that Solomon’s text would not work for the majority of speakers, but it worked for him. He has a highly sophisticated, intellectual style but that’s who he is. I think that’s the key; he’s being authentic. I note the comment of Chris Anderson that Solomon himself says that this is how he speaks when he goes to a bar! So I don’t agree that it is poor writing. Also, there is enough simplicity and emotion in his stories to help almost anyone get through the more intellectual passages. Indeed, the “panegyric” part comes in the middle of a gripping scene between the Russian soldiers and the protestors and I don’t think it diminishes the power of the story.

      I have seen the Allan Pease talk several times. It is very good!

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