This article reviews the 2015 TED talk by Suki Kim about her experience living undercover as a teacher for six months in North Korea.
Aside from the powerful core message, Kim’s talk also has several speaking lessons for us, including:
- how to read a speech without being flat and emotionless
- how to use pauses effectively
- how to align words with facial expressions to convey emotion
- how to make every word count
This is the latest in a series of speech critiques here on Six Minutes.
I encourage you to:
- Watch the video;
(If it does not appear below, watch it here.)
- Read the analysis in this speech critique; and
- Share your thoughts on this presentation in the comment section.
Lesson 1: You can read a speech.
What is your first response when you see a speaker reading their speech? Are you expecting it to be engaging? Boring? Flat?
When you choose to read your speech, you accept certain disadvantages:
- The lectern acts as a barrier, making it harder to connect with your audience.
- Body movement is limited by virtue of needing to stay close to the printed words on the page.
- Eye contact is reduced.
- Air flow is restricted (due to a lowered head), which limits the resonance of your voice.
But, it is possible to deliver an effective speech while reading, and Suki Kim demonstrates this by compensating in a variety of ways:
- Her preparation is obvious. At many times throughout the speech, she had clearly committed the words to memory, and didn’t need to rely on the page.
- She uses pauses expertly, and varies the pace of her vocal delivery.
- Her face and eyes convey a great deal of emotion.
- Her writing is so strong, and her story is so powerful that I forgot she was even reading after the first minute or two.
Could this speech have been even better without reading it? Perhaps. I sense that isn’t really Suki Kim’s strength, however. She chose to read this speech, and this speech was undoubtedly very effective.
Lesson 2: Master the pause.
Too often, TED speakers (and all speakers) tend to rush their delivery. The strict time constraint tempts them to speak faster to “fit all their content in” rather than ruthlessly edit their material.
Suki Kim, on the other hand, gives a perfect demonstration of how to use effective pauses. Consider the opening 73 words of her speech which include nine lengthy pauses:
In 2011, [pause]
during the final six months of Kim Jong-Il’s life, [pause]
I lived undercover in North Korea. [pause]
I was born and raised in South Korea, their enemy. [pause]
I live in America, their other enemy. [pause]
Since 2002, I had visited North Korea a few times. [pause]
And I had come to realize that to write about it with any meaning, [pause]
or to understand the place beyond the regime’s propaganda, [pause]
the only option was total immersion. [pause]
Note the significant words immediately preceding the pauses. By pausing as she does, Suki Kim allows the weight (and significant contrast) of these words to linger in the minds of her audience:
- “North Korea”, “their enemy”, “their other enemy”
- “any meaning”, “regime’s propaganda”, “total immersion”
I can’t recall any other speech where the speaker used pauses more effectively. I encourage you to listen to this entire speech, focus on the pauses, and learn from her skill.
Lesson 3: Be expressive.
Reading a speech tends to blunt the emotions of speakers, resulting in monotone and expressionless delivery.
Suki Kim avoids this pitfall. Indeed, she expresses many intertwined emotions: love, frustration, confusion, hatred, regret, friendship. Her words contribute to conveying the emotion, too, but that’s the point! Her words were in perfect harmony with the expressions she conveyed through her voice, eyes, and facial expressions. As just one example, note her expressions on the video during the following passage very near the end of her speech:
[~ 9:10] Once, toward the end of my stay, a student said to me, “Professor, we never think of you as being different from us. Our circumstances are different, but you’re the same as us. We want you to know that we truly think of you as being the same.”
By sharing such honest, raw emotions, Suki Kim helps the audience feel these emotions too.
Lesson 4: Make every word memorable.
The advantage of reading your speech is that every word can be carefully crafted, and every phrase you write will reach your audience, untainted by a potentially faulty memory. As a professional writer, the strategic use of words is Suki Kim’s strength, and her speech is packed with dozens of evocative phrases.
Consider just a few of the examples quoted here.
I was born and raised in South Korea, their enemy. I live in America, their other enemy.
The emphasis on “enemy” is powerful, especially as the second and third sentences in the speech. These are the sentences which Ms. Kim uses to introduce herself to her audience—as an enemy of North Korea. By mentioning America, she pulls her audience into this “enemy” relationship.
I went there looking for truth. But where do you even start when an entire nation’s ideology, my students’ day-to-day realities, and even my own position at the universities, were all built on lies?
Note the contrast between “truth” and “lies”.
North Korea is a gulag posing as a nation.
Everything there is about the Great Leader. Every book, every newspaper article, every song, every TV program — there is just one subject. […]
The school was a heavily guarded prison, posing as a campus.
“North Korea is a gulag posing as a nation” may be the most powerful sentence in her speech. The repetition of “posing” a few sentences later (in “posting as a campus”) emphasizes this.
Repetition of the word “every” at the beginning of successive phrases is anaphora, a powerful rhetorical device.
But something also felt wrong. During those months of living in their world, I often wondered if the truth would, in fact, improve their lives. I wanted so much to tell them the truth, of their country and of the outside world, where Arab youth were turning their rotten regime inside out, using the power of social media, where everyone except them was connected through the world wide web, which wasn’t worldwide after all.
I love the use of “world” and “world wide” here.
The figure below shows the most commonly used words in her speech.
More from Suki Kim’s Memoirs
If you’d like to know more about Suki Kim’s 6-month experience undercover in North Korea, I recommend Without You, There Is No Us: My Time with the Sons of North Korea’s Elite.
The book is a New York Times bestseller.
Jon Stewart, during an interview with Suki Kim on The Daily Show said:
It’s a book like no other book that I’ve ever read. It’s a look into a society, into a culture, but […] objective and humanizing and terrifying.
What do you think?
What did you think of this speech? What are the best aspects of this speech? How could this speech have been made even better?
Please share your thoughts in the comments.