Article Category: Speech Critiques

Speech Critique:
Jacqueline Novogratz (TED 2009)

This article reviews a wonderful speech by Jacqueline Novogratz about escaping poverty, which was delivered at TED in 2009.

In this speech, Novogratz demonstrates several strong speech techniques, including:

  • A direct opening which immediately captures interest and provokes curiosity;
  • Contrast as a rhetorical device;
  • Relating to the audience;
  • Complementary visuals; and
  • Masterful delivery.

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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Speech Opening

Novogratz opens her speech with the following:

I’ve, um, been working on issues of poverty for more than 20 years, and so it’s ironic that the problem that and the question that I most grapple with is how you actually define poverty. What does it mean?

Overall, this is a strong opening which quickly establishes the direction for the speech.

  • It establishes her as an authority on poverty (her ethos!)
  • It creates surprise. How can this expert not know how to define poverty?
  • By asking the question “What does it mean?”, Novogratz also sparks curiosity. The audience is now engaged, and they are trying to answer the question along with her.
  • There is no wasted time. She jumps straight in.

Unfortunately, she also does what I often do — utter an “um” or a similar filler word in the opening sentence. I suspect this indicates a bit of nervousness (because that’s what I think causes my similar behavior).


I love the way Novogratz uses contrast.

In this first example [1:15]:

And when we were walking through the narrow alleys, it was literally impossible not to step in the raw sewage and the garbage alongside the little homes. But at the same time it was also impossible not to see the human vitality, the aspiration and the ambition of the people who live there.

Novogratz repeats the words “impossible not to” to emphasize the contrast between “the raw sewage and the garbage” and “the human vitality, the aspiration, and the ambition“. This is wonderfully done, enhanced with photographs to make the words real. Additionally, note the use of the rule of three in the latter sentence.

Later in the speech [6:00]:

I thought I wanted a husband, but what I really wanted was a family that was loving. And I fiercely love my children, and they love me back.” She said, “I thought that I wanted to be a doctor, but what I really wanted to be was somebody who served and healed and cured.

Here, she provides successive sentences with a contrast between the original dream, and the reality which provides happiness to Jane.

This passage is particularly powerful because it circles back to follow up on Jane’s two dreams which were introduced earlier in the speech [at 2:20]. This technique — to introduce a concept early in a speech, and then refer back to it much later — is a powerful one that you can emulate in your speeches.

Giving Meaning to Numbers

Early in the speech [approximately at 0:50], Novogratz describes the Mathare Valley. As part of this description, she wisely decides to provide context by giving the dimensions of the slum. She says:

Now, Mathare Valley is … about three miles out of Nairobi, and it’s a mile long and about two-tenths of a mile wide, where over half a million people live crammed in these little tin shacks …

This is good, but it could have been better. How long is “a mile wide and about two-tenths of a mile wide”? Do you have a real-world sense of this?

I think it would be better to frame this in a way that more people relate to when grappling with the size of this neighborhood. When I think neighborhoods, I immediately think city blocks. So, perhaps this would be better:

“… and it’s eight blocks long and two blocks wide, where over half a million people live…”

Relating to the Audience

Several times during the speech, Novogratz deliberately relates her speech back to her audience.

Early in the speech [1:55], she says:

It was also the day after the inauguration, and I was reminded how Mathare is still connected to the globe. And I would see kids on the street corners, and they’d say “Obama, he’s our brother!” And I’d say “Well, Obama’s my brother, so that makes you my brother too.”

This short anecdote highlights the real connection between the people of Kenya and her TED audience (mostly American).

Later [3:35], Novogratz describes Jane’s economic activity:

And that turned into what she does now, which is to go into the secondhand clothing markets, and for about three dollars and 25 cents she buys an old ball gown. Some of them might be ones you gave. And she re-purposes them with frills and ribbons, and makes these frothy confections that she sells to women for their daughter’s sweet 16 or first Holy Communion — those milestones in a life that people want to celebrate all along the economic spectrum.

Why does she give the detail about the purpose of these dresses? Is it important that the dresses are for “their daughter’s sweet 16 or first Holy Communion”? Yes! These tiny details help the audience to relate to the Kenyan women, because they can easily picture a young woman wearing a special dress on her 16th birthday. Indeed, many in the audience have worn such a dress.

Finally, in the conclusion to the speech [6:40], she says:

And in the middle of this economic crisis, where so many of us are inclined to pull in with fear, I think we’re well suited to take a cue from Jane and reach out, recognizing that being poor doesn’t mean being ordinary. […] We owe it to the Janes of the world. And just as important, we owe it to ourselves.

This is a fantastic conclusion.

  • This speech was delivered in February 2009, when the economic crisis was surely on the minds of many in the audience.
  • Novogratz recognizes the strong emotion many were feeling at that time (fear), and hinges her argument on it.
  • She uses contrast wonderfully again (“inclined to pull in” versus “reach out”).
  • She concludes with an inspirational call-to-action which appeals to the audience’s self-interest: “we owe it to ourselves”.

Complementary Visuals

Imagine this speech without the photographs.

Though this speech is strong with the words alone, it is much more effective with the complementary visuals. Without the visuals, Jane is a character in a story. With the visuals, Jane is real.

To truly appreciate the impact of the photographs, try to imagine this speech being delivered with bullet-point text slides.

Eye Contact

Novogratz delivers her speech without a script or cue cards of any kind. This allows her to connect more directly with the audience.

She frequently looks down, usually as she recalls precise details of a story. I thought this added to her authenticity. As she gazed down, I imagined that she was “seeing” the scenes before her.

More often, Novogratz looks directly at the audience with passion in her eyes.

It is worth noting that the speech opening and closing are both delivered while looking intently at the audience. This provides maximum impact, and suggests that these lines were rehearsed several times until they were memorized. This, like many other traits demonstrated by Novogratz, is something we should all emulate.

Your Thoughts?

What did you think of this speech? What are Jacqueline’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.
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