Contrast, humour and storytelling

Speak like a fish and create bubbles of inspiration!Let’s recharge our neurons today by analysing another speech, and we will stay with the TED.com top 20. With more than 27,153, 640 views at the time of this post publication, this speech “The power of vulnerability” from Brené Brown does attract people. I am watching it for the first time while writing this post, and the title reminds me of some of C. Jung writings which goes along the idea that embracing our weaknesses is what makes us stronger (c.f. the undiscovered self).

First, we have the title: “the power of vulnerability”.

Within the various speeches we reviewed so far, this is the first time the title is not a full sentence. We only have a noun –and you’re right, it’s a strong noun, “power”; and to complement it a preposition and another noun –this time a weak noun, “vulnerability”.  Vulnerability is not directly listed as an antonym of power; however it is listed as a synonym of weakness which is listed as an antonym of power. We have two nouns of opposite meaning, associated side-by-side in an unexpected way. The effect is immediate. The title creates curiosity.

Then, the delivery style of the speaker.

All along she connects with the audience. Her chosen words are very inclusive, “we” “us” “our” “connection” “love” “belonging” “embrace”, and they prime us for feeling connected with her, and connected with anyone in the audience at that moment. I am convinced that if given the opportunity participants would have hugged each other at the end of her speech without any kind of hesitation. She uses subtle use of body language, with no real movement but for the hands; and she shows at all times this great smile. Clearly, she is enjoying herself. She is having fun in sharing the information and in sharing her “spiritual awakening”. Similar to what Sir Ken Robinson does, she uses her stories as anecdotes and jokes; she is actually expressing what is for her “authenticity”, directly applying live one of the ideas she is sharing, the “courage to be authentic”. This is clever, applying directly what you are saying, does encourage people to listen and believe you.

What about the content, and in particular the structure?

We have here a sample of storytelling. There is no real introduction, no real bullet point; instead there is a story with an apex around 9 minutes 10 (about half-time) and a conclusion when we reached 19 minutes 10. The speaker presents her idea as a story containing many stories. The story is actually her being vulnerable and discovering the power behind her own vulnerability.

We have already noticed how the title was built. The speaker stitched together two words which appear contradictory, power/vulnerability. She is repeating this effect all along her speech, and we are finding, associated like complementary magnets, elements usually opposing each other: storyteller/researcher – messy/clean up – breaking down/spiritual opening – It struck/it did not – vulnerability as shame/vulnerability as the source of joy and happiness – I start to study connection/I end up looking at the opposite (loss of connection) – shame and fear of the people not being connected/people that are really good at feeling “Love and belonging” – etc. She goes as far as using this approach to deliver her key points at the apex of the story –around 9 minutes 10- the secret of the people that feels “love and belonging” is around the notion of the “courage to be imperfect”, the notion of “vulnerability as necessary”.  Her key point is actually contradictory to main stream ideas; and from a linguistic perspective she images that point with her choice of words . It also supports her comments about “the ongoing paradox with everything”. We find more samples all along the speech: “what they call success”/“I call it betrayal” – “My mission to control and predict has turned up the answer was to ‘lead with vulnerability’ and stop ‘control and predict’”.

That last repetition is very interesting. She goes from “My mission is to control and predict” –very personal- to the “The definition of research is to control and predict” – very generic, and therefore valid for everyone- back to “My mission…” The effect in the listener head is very cool, it goes as follow: “the speaker experience” to “the general experience” to “my own experience as the listener”. With this form of repetition, the audience has no other option than to fully in engaged in her mission. Brené Brown often uses generalisation in her sentences, making it easy for the audience to associate. For instance, at 7 minutes 25, she said “That’s it!”; whatever the talks we are listening to, when we hear “that’s it” we will always find in our mind a “it” and a “that” we can link together, and therefore we will always make sense of that short sentence.

One more thing around the content and it happens around 15 minutes 37. She suddenly focuses on a “US” audience. It makes sense knowing her audience to do so, it is short enough however it could have impacted her conclusion, and thanks to choosing a few sentences very inclusive using the wording “we”, she rebalances the situation, before the final sentences.

If you have done that exercise on your side, please use the comments section to share your thoughts. Of course you have come up with different details, different impressions, picked-up on other elements. That’s okay. Each listener brings their own sensibility in such analysis exercise.

Still common elements will be there:  the speaker does connect with the audience and creates curiosity, the speaker sparks an emotional reaction at the audience, the speaker uses factual information.

What would you add then?

See you tomorrow for our next episode, “When the content loses the thread.”

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