Article Category: Speech Critiques

Speech Critique: Elizabeth Gilbert @ TED (Author of Eat, Pray, Love)


One of my favorite TED Talks is that by Elizabeth Gilbert, the author of the international bestseller Eat, Pray, Love. In her talk, Gilbert speaks about the fears and frustrations of those who pursue a creative life, especially during those moments of angst when the creative juices are not flowing, and offers some advice and encouragement.

It is a touching performance. Even though I have seen it numerous times – I use it as part of one of the courses that I teach on public speaking – I never tire of it. Although there is room for improvement, the positive aspects of Gilbert’s talk make it moving and memorable.

This is the latest in a series of speech critiques here on Six Minutes.

I encourage you to:

  1. Watch the video;
  2. Read the analysis in this speech critique; and
  3. Share your thoughts on this presentation in the comment section.

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There is a lot that can we learn about public speaking from Gilbert’s talk. For the purposes of this post, I have chosen three things that I liked and three areas where I see room for improvement.

First the positives:

She speaks with sincere passion.

Garr Reynolds, the author of Presentation Zen, has said that if he only had one tip to give to speakers, it would be to be passionate about the topic and let that enthusiasm come out.

“The biggest item that separates mediocre presenters from world class ones is the ability to connect with an audience in an honest and exciting way. Don’t hold back. Be confident. And let your passion for your topic come out for all to see.”

Gilbert is certainly passionate. It is easy to see that she truly cares about the subject matter and that she wants the audience to understand what she is saying and why. Her passion builds to a crescendo as her talk progresses. Note, for example, her description of the moonlight dances in North Africa (15:53) and her encouragement to the audience to “do your job” (18:27).

When you show your emotions like Gilbert did, it’s true that you are taking a risk. You are going out on a limb. But that’s where the best fruit is.

For me, the passion with which Gilbert speaks is the biggest strength of her talk. It more than compensates for any shortcomings. When you show your emotions like Gilbert did, it’s true that you are taking a risk. You are going out on a limb. But that’s where the best fruit is.

She tells stories.

Stories help us connect with our audiences in a way that all the charts, graphs, statistics and bullet points in the world will never be able to do. They help to make our messages resonate in people’s minds long after the telling.

Gilbert uses the power of stories to great effect. Going through the transcript of her talk, I found five personal stories from her life and five stories about other people. The stories reinforce her points in a powerful way.

Psychologists who have studied the power of storytelling have concluded that people are hardwired for stories. It is perhaps the oldest method of communication. So be sure to incorporate stories in your presentations. You have stories too, and telling them will bring your presentation to life in a way that bullet points never can.

She engages the audience.

As Gilbert’s speech progresses, it seems less like a speech and more like a conversation that she is having with a close friend over a cup of coffee. She engages the audience throughout and that makes her very easy to listen to.

Gilbert does not put on airs. Her voice is natural. She smiles. She makes good eye contact with the audience. She laces her talk with humor at appropriate points. All of these things help to “shrink the distance” between Gilbert and her audience. They make her likable and being liked is very important for a speaker. (Just ask anyone who has ever spoken to a hostile audience.)

Now the areas for improvement:

She needs to slow down and pause more often.

Gilbert makes many important points and backs them up with wonderful stories and anecdotes. However, she often runs her ideas together quickly. Furthermore, often when she comes to a point where it would be good to pause, she fills the space with words like “you know”, “right?” and “OK”. These “filler words” eat away at the fabric of our speeches and make them weaker.

Pausing serves us well in many ways:

  1. It allows our audiences to absorb and digest what we have said.
  2. It can be used to signal that something important is about to come, and thus focus our audience’s attention.
  3. It helps rid us of the bad habit of feeling compelled to fill the silence with awkward filler words.
  4. It makes us look thoughtful, confident, and credible.

It’s been said that music is what happens between the notes. I believe that a great speech happens between the words, during those moments when the audience internalizes our words.

Pauses need only last a second or two, but the effect can be profound. It’s been said that music is what happens between the notes. I believe that a great speech happens between the words, during those moments when the audience internalizes our words. Always remember to pause.

Her hand gestures were frequently distracting.

It’s obvious that, especially at the beginning of her talk, Gilbert was nervous. (Who wouldn’t be at least a bit nervous speaking at TED?) But the nervous energy was frequently released through the wringing and grinding of her hands (see, for example, at 0:30 and 1:05 to 1:25). This is a shame because at other times she used her hands quite effectively to emphasize her points (see, for example, 6:26 to 7:26, 10:20 to 11:03 and 15:59 to 16:40).

Effective gestures can enhance the impact of your message, but they have to be used properly and in moderation. Think of adding gestures to your presentation the way in which a world class chef would add spices to a fine meal: judiciously, to enhance the flavor of the food, but not to overpower it.

Practice getting comfortable with leaving your hands at your side from time to time when you do not need them. That way, when you do gesture, the gestures will be more effective.

She could have related the message to the audience more than she did.

I love the message that Gilbert conveys – that we should do our work as best we can, even if the recognition and acclaim do not come, because it is the doing that is important. I feel, however, that she could have done a bit more to relate it to the audience. Indeed, in the entire speech, which lasted almost 20 minutes, I counted relatively few times when she expressly mentioned the audience:

  • 2:20: “Is it logical that anybody should be expected to be afraid of the work that they feel they were put on this earth to do?”
  • 12:12: “And I would imagine that a lot of you have too.”
  • 14:35: “I fell into one of those pits of despair that we all fall into when we’re working on something that’s not coming.”
  • 15:50: “And I know you know what I’m talking about.”
  • 18:31: “Just do your job.”

Don’t get me wrong. I do not question for one moment the sincerity behind Gilbert’s message. I am simply saying that it would have been nice to hear her talk more about the audience and the challenges that the people there might be facing. Also, it would have been nice for her to state that her message about creativity applies to people beyond the fine arts, because I do believe that her words have meaning for us all.

Never forget that a speech is, first and foremost, for the audience and about the audience.

Never forget that a speech is, first and foremost, for the audience and about the audience. Why should the audience care? That is the question that we as speakers must always ask ourselves.

So there you have it. Some thoughts on a great speech by Elizabeth Gilbert.

Your Thoughts?

What did you think of this speech? What are Elizabeth’s strengths? How could this speech have been made better?

Please share your thoughts in the comments.

This article is one of a series of speech critiques of inspiring speakers featured on Six Minutes.
Subscribe to Six Minutes for free to receive future speech critiques.

Comments icon18 Comments

  1. Andrew,

    Just a short note of (public) thanks for inviting me to contribute to Six Minutes. I am honoured to have made a small contribution to your terrific blog.

    John

  2. John – great choice of speech. I remember hearing her TED talk and connecting it to other’s who speak of “do great work” and “emotional labour” (Seth Godin).

    Passion attracts in a way that no structure, phrasing, voice or intonation can. This is the true power of her speech.

    Pauses would have added power. If you get a CAT scan of a human brain – there is more electric activity and greater blood flow during an intentional silence from the speaker than at any other moment. The audience engage deeper though silence (when the speaker has created the right emotional connection and environment).

    Great reflections. Thanks

  3. Gregory says:

    Love this speech; bringing us a helpful construct for handling our creative genius is a big delivery, Her writer’s word selection made me want to re-examine some of my mundane prose to search for more accurate and involving language. If I could change one element, I’d ask her to use stage movement more effectively for transitions, and to stand still when delivering key points. The critique mentions her nervous hands … her feet also suffered unneeded movement. I’m inspired and will listen to this again.

  4. Merri says:

    Hi John, I appreciate your bringing this choice TED video to our attention, as it is a priceless morsel for the creative, as well as a great presentational study.

    I see part of her skills as a writer has influenced her ability to speak in imagery and visually represent her stories and process through gesture.

    She also gives us unexpected phrasing or responses, such as, when referring to the artist grabbing the tail of the “muse” and pulling it into her only to result in a backwards story – last words first; and then commenting that her process is just that way.

    What an engaging, highly connectable voice she was able to use. Her low pitch exudes calm and credibility even without her use of researched resources. All this during a rapid delivery of her ideas.

    I also agree with the pausing critique, yet one thought occured to me – perhaps it’s through her pacing that she demonstrates that Muse she speaks of. Take it while it’s here – for the Muse doesn’t wait.

    You picked up on some early nervousness, as you cited through her wild gesture. To me, it was a time we all could relate to her. I found myself saying, “she’s a writer, not a speaker”. Forgiving her for her nervousness, accepting her humility.

    Then, she delivered such poignant use of gesture that I saw she could also be a dancer. Her movement kept her energy alive and my attention alert.

    In all, I loved her presentation. Any weaknesses she displayed I actually gave credit to.

    Again, thank you for the study.

  5. I have no criticism of her speaking style (even with the ‘you knows’ interspersed). I found her very natural and engaging while being quite humble in spite of her incredible intellect. Kind of like listening to / watching Noam Chomsky. I was fascinated from start to finish and I felt like I was meant to hear the message to inspire me to get on with my own gift. Bravo! Ole! Allah.

  6. Thank you Conor, Gregory and Mary for your comments.

    Conor, I echo your words about passion and find the information on brain activity during pauses fascinating and extremely important.

    Gregory, your comment about moving with purpose on the stage are perceptive.

    Merri, I agree with your comments and it certainly is not difficult to forgive Gilbert for her shortcomings in this talk. As I said, the great aspects of her speech more than compensate for them. Nevertheless, as speakers we can always improve, and should always endeavour to do so. It is in our interest and the interest of our audiences that we do so.

    Cheers!

    John

  7. Though I agree with your pluses and minuses,John, I would coach Elizabeth to have a better energetic “takeoff.” Starting from a more grounded physical position and allowing silent presence without words. These inside-out tools are extremely valuable to the speaker and palpably impact the message, delivery and the audience. Speaking speed and nervous gestures resolve naturally without coaching a speaker to “slow down” and “add pause.”

  8. Excellent critique – I agree with all your points. Ms. Gilbert IS a passionate, articulate speaker. She does what I am guilty of and trying to change – speaking a bit too rapidly at times and not pausing to punctuate key points to get the audience’s attention. All your suggested areas of improvement are spot on. Thank you!

  9. Eileen Miciano says:

    I am not a crearive genius, yet, but an an ordinary audience even a lesser mortals of average mental intelligence. However, there is a lot of room for improvement in my mind for creative pursuits. This is my observation with Elizabeth Gilbert’s speech. As a Filipino and a not original English user, I find her words very clear, understandable even is she describes her stories with superflous words. No doubt it is easy for her to speak in English as this is I believe her mother tongue, so that is why she can really be creative with it. And, she is brillant. Now, the only thing that bother’s me are these two things: 1. Is that she uses a lot of gestures which I believe shows her nervousness and a lot of these gestures I think are unecessary. 2. She talks continuously non-stop that I feel I am always gasping for air to be able to be able to be on the same space with her otherwise I feel I will be left behind. She’s just too fast. She has to remember that not everybody can talk or think as fast as she is……Otherwise, she is brillantly creative in her own subject.

    1. Ana Ferreira says:

      I agree with you when you say “2. She talks continuously non-stop that I feel I will be left behind.” I believe many non-English speakers are from all over the world are watching TED videos and it would be great if speakers could work on their speech in other to facilitate our understanding. I am from Brazil and thirsty to listen and understand all those beautiful talks that make a huge impact on my life towards my evolution and how I contribute to the world. Thank you.

  10. Patricia Cotton says:

    Thank you! I thought her speech had some really good points and the couuld do betters that you suggested were to the point. I also noticed she uses a lot of filler words which are annoying at times and she could work on those too. Her voice was basically the same even when she was saying something humorous and more vocal variety would have been very nice.
    I learned a lot and thank you for another informative and free newsletter!

    Great work you do, please keep it up!

    Warm regards,

    Patricia Cotton

  11. akh koshur says:

    I found two things to highlight ….
    1. She clasped her hands too much initially, showing her nervousness. This has been highlighted by yourself as well.
    2. I found her manner of speaking as very natural, rather than having the tips of a public speaking at the back of her mind. I think this makes a key difference, and I would like your comments on this … which is better …. . to go naturally as your natural self, or keeping the public speaking tips at the back of your mind.
    3. I found her smile was good, adding value to her speech. But, what about those, who smile, but it is not as fascinating as Elizabeth had.
    What is your view on this?

  12. Uplifting, encouraging, inspiring – Ole! Liz Gilbert! Also, very informative and eye opening evaluation.
    Teresa

  13. Margaret says:

    Just discovered your website (mainly because it was the only download possible of Elizabeth Gilbert’s speech that didn’t freeze my internet connection — why would that be?), scanned your comments and liked what you say you like about her speech. After listening (and intermittently learning about speech-making), I can offer this off-the-cuff reaction:

    All that you said is true – her sincerity, humility and sheer intelligence are captivating and far more memorable than the hands and lost pauses are distracting – but for me, what really nails it is her ending. Bang! Fabulous! She ropes in her niftiest, most compelling story moments from the speech, ties the logic and magic of her points all together and then brings the house down with the repetition of that “Ole” incantation which both honors and captivates the listener. Quite a listen made even more enjoyable because of your prep.

    Nice internet stop for the evening. Thanks.

  14. Thanks John Zimmer for this critique on Gilbert’s speech. I liked the emphasis that you placed on how the speech has to be weaved around the audience, which is mainly missing here. Though her speech was primialrly to help creative people, I am sure it applies to all, so drawing a parallel here as in: “This has happened to most geniuses and they did XYZ to overcome this, this is how I have faced it and worked around it, and this is how you can do it” would have helped put a good summation to the speech. Gilbert’s story-telling skills and visualization (especially the Ala, Ala, God, God) and too strong and easily help overcome her drawbacks of random movement on stage, low voice (nervousness) and rambling at some points. What I partiuclarly liked was the ending: Just dance. Just O-le, dance anyhow! Just..Don’t be afraid…to dance.
    Regards,
    Chitra

  15. Dear John,
    I’m interested in Gilbert’s speech, but I could not recognize all her words since i’m not an english citizen. Can you please send me her full text speech. I hope you would be of help.

    1. Andrew Dlugan says:

      Here is a transcript of her speech.

  16. mason miller says:

    I thought the speech was conversational and geared to the audience. I thought her gestures were good and didn’t feel they were annoying . Might suggest slow down and pause for the stronger points. Mason

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John Zimmer @zimmerjohn — Dec 13th, 2010

RT @6minutes Speech Critique: Elizabeth Gilbert @ TED (Author of Eat, Pray, Love) http://bit.ly/bPw9Um by @ZimmerJohn

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Lee ByungWoo(이병우) @mallian — Mar 19th, 2011

RT @6minutes Speech Critique: Elizabeth Gilbert @ TED (Author of Eat, Pray, Love) http://bit.ly/bPw9Um

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dinaperla @dinaperla — Jul 3rd, 2011

Wow! Unbelievable #TED #speech Elizabeth Gilbert, #Author of #EatPrayLove http://bit.ly/kNVGNE Can relate to every feeling. #Creative minds

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Chitra Chaudhuri @chitrachaudhuri — Sep 2nd, 2011

An information evaluation by John Zimmer: Speech Critique: Elizabeth Gilbert @ TED (Author of Eat, Pray, Love) http://t.co/4BMUP0L

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Chitra Chaudhuri @chitrachaudhuri — Sep 2nd, 2011

An informative evaluation by John Zimmer: Speech Critique: Elizabeth Gilbert @ TED (Author of Eat, Pray, Love) http://t.co/4BMUP0L

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