Video Critique: Majora Carter – Greening the Ghetto (TED 2006)
This article reviews a fantastic talk by Majora Carter titled “Greening the Ghetto” at TED. I loved this emotionally charged talk detailing her fight for environmental justice and her efforts as director of Sustainable South Bronx.
Majora Carter’s TED talk has both incredible strengths — passion, energy, authenticity — and one unfortunate weakness — rapid speaking rate. Both extremes are worthy of public speaking analysis.
I encourage you to:
- Watch the video;
- Read the analysis in this speech critique; and
- Share your thoughts on this presentation.
What is Phenomenal about this Speech?
Guy Kawasaki has written a thorough 15-point speech review, describing the many wonderful aspects of this talk. His entire review is worth reading, but I’d like to quote a few excerpts which echoed my own analysis:
- She immediately provides a clear problem statement. (1:00-2:00)
- She personalizes her story all the way through the speech.
- She shows raw emotions and unveils a piece of her soul when she breaks into tears when talking about her brother being gunned down. (5:10)
- She capitalizes on alliteration: “pimps and pushers and prostitutes” (6:50) and repetition: “economic degradation begets environmental degradation which begets social degradation” (7:24).
- Her presence exudes power and confidence without a trace of arrogance, fear, or condescension.
- She ends with an insanely great call-to-action: “Please don’t waste me.” (17:57)
In short, Majora Carter exhibits incredible passion — more in 19 minutes than many of my college professors in an entire semester. Her message is captivating, and her enthusiasm is infectious. All speakers can learn from Majora Carter.
But… it could be much, much better
This talk by Majora Carter is not without flaws. Here’s what Guy Kawasaki wrote about her speaking rate:
- She speaks rapidly—bordering on too rapidly, but she is articulate at all times. And she slows her cadence for her most important points. You can tell that she’s trying to observe her time limit—communicating that she respects the audience’s time.
While I agreed with much of Guy Kawasaki’s analysis, I believe he is being too generous on this point.
Majora Carter speaks too fast for much of this talk. Period. It does not “border on too rapidly.” It is too rapid.
Her talk is packed with dense information, often delivered at a rate too fast for many in the audience to absorb. Garr Reynolds recently wrote about a presentation by economist Robert Frank. One of Frank’s slides asks these questions:
- How much can I cover today?
How much can my students absorb today?
While Majora Carter may be respecting the audience’s time, she is not respecting the audience’s capacity to absorb information.
I have the luxury of watching this video three times, pausing, and rewinding to get the meaning. This is a luxury that your audience rarely has. More importantly, your audience will rarely give you more than one opportunity. Overloading them with information is not effective.
Her speaking rate is so fast that she trips over her own words multiple times. At times, she seems breathless. Used sparingly, a rapid speaking rate can be used to very good effect by a speaker. However, when most of the talk is delivered at this rate, that’s a clear sign that too much information is being presented.
What’s the Solution? Aggressive Editing.
If you have a 20-minute time slot and 40 minutes of information, the solution is not to double your speaking rate. The solution is to cut the material in half. Keep the best lines, the best stories, and the most powerful images. Be ruthless in trimming the rest.
Depending on your speaking scenario, you may be able to include additional facts, figures, statistics, stories, and diagrams in handout material for the audience.
What about Reading from a Script?
It is generally better to avoid reading from notes, but that in itself didn’t bother me in this presentation. Despite frequently reading, Majora connects deeply with the audience throughout the talk. Her face is expressive, her body is active, and her vocal variety is excellent. She compensates well for the use of notes.
The indirect problem with reading notes is that it encourages rapid delivery. This is a problem that I have personally battled. In the past, I often wrote with red pen in margins of my notes: “SLOW DOWN!” In recent years, I go without notes or with only a few key phrases to guide me along. The time it takes me to occasionally catch my thoughts is time well spent — it allows the audience time to digest what I’ve just said.
Critical analysis notwithstanding, this is still a fantastic talk from Majora Carter. It could have been better with some aggressive editing and a slower delivery. [For contrast, watch this 2-minute video from Majora Carter demonstrating a much better speaking rate.]
Did you enjoy this speech? What did you like most? What did you think of the speaking rate?