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.

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.

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Comments icon13 Comments

  1. robert fineberg says:

    Jacqueline Novogratz, in my opinion, is not a poster child for great speaking. She has a message, but it didn’t hold me as other TED contributors have held me with both content and delivery.

  2. Kevin Wortman says:

    I liked the content and the organization but, I thought the delivery mechanics could have been sharper. I was surprised by the number of ums and ahs and I felt that Jacqueline Novogratz lost audiance eye contact too often with “looks to the floor.” Unless there was very strict timing it also seems that well placed pauses would have provided greater emphasis to a few of the key points as well as adding greater character to the delivery. This is certainly a case where the silence of a well place pause would have been “deafening.” There are many things done well in this speech but, there are equal opportunities to learn.

  3. nick morgan says:

    Overall, it’s a great speech, and I agree with much of the rhetorical analysis showing why it’s a great speech. Novogratz’s nervousness and lack of connection with the audience — except at key moments at the end — detracted somewhat from her overall impact. The “um” at the very beginning goes by so fast that it’s not an issue, and she only uses these verbal fillers once or twice during the speech. Not an issue. ‘Ums’ and the like are only an issue if they get frequent enough that they get in the way of our comprehension and become a distraction. More important was her tendency to rush. There’s hardly a single pause in the entire speech. She rushes through it, and her lack of connection with the audience — in spite of the power, heart, and humanity of the story — comes from this and from her lack of eye contact. When you say something important in your speech, let it land! That is, watch the eyes of the audience to see their reaction. Don’t just look at them — that’s not what eye contact means. It means seeing a response in the eyes of your audience. Novogratz also stood on one leg, looked down frequently, and fidgeted — all of this added to her sense of nervousness and shyness. The best bit came at the end with her description of Jane’s dream. Here, Novogratz did look at the audience for more than a second or two, and the power of the story came through accordingly.
    Overall, a success because of the heartfelt nature of the story, but could have been much better if Novogratz got over herself and delivered the speech to the audience.
    And one final note: I think only one visual mattered: the picture of Jane. The rest was distraction.

  4. James Mulberry says:

    Perhaps another way to describe the crowded conditions would be to describe on average how close individuals lived and worked to each other in their little world of Mathare Valley. This averages just over 11 square feet per individual – a small world indeed!

  5. Mark Stiving says:

    Andrew, I love that you do these. It is a pleasure to watch a speech and then see your well thought out critique. In this case, I especially liked your analysis of contrast.
    I typically evaluate a speech using content, delivery, and structure as my guides. As others have noted, the delivery was acceptable, but not fantastic. She could have improved her eye contact, her pauses, her vocal variety, and especially vary her emotion. She did a great job in talking in dialogue instead of narrative.
    Her content was powerful. What I didn’t get was the message. Although I was moved by her story, it wasn’t clear what I should do, think or feel after that speech.
    Finally the structure was excellent. Like you, I enjoyed her opening, the main story, and her closing.
    Overall an interesting speech and well done for a non-professional (like most of us.)

  6. Nonnie Balcer says:

    This speech REALLY moved me. Interesting that the five people who took the time to criticize this speech in the comments were all men–I mention this because I felt this speech was given in a feminine way, about women, and probably for women.

  7. Jade Handy says:

    Great use of contrast. I especially like how you tied them together using rhetorical repeater patterns to mark them out. Most speakers and everyday communicators, for that matter, just aren’t using these patterns to amplifiy their message. Nice work!

  8. Dale Suslick says:

    #1, Andrew, I love that you do these. Your entire website is excellent.

    #2. Nick Morgan: Who is this guy? He had excellent insights and comments that I agree with. I wonder about the visuals … with limited time for coming up with ideas, speech writing, rehearse, edit, revise and repeat I find adding visual aids as another thing to do which I will do yet do I have to? Or a better question is how and when do I decide to take the time to get it done?

  9. Jean Jeune says:

    Her voice texture is impeccable. It conveys a lot of emotion and sincerity. You may argue that her body movement is a bit disconnected but her voice texture, tone, and pace definitely connects me to this speech. Wonderful Job.

  10. Becky Arwood says:

    Jacqueline’s speech is about escaping poverty and how poverty is can be difficult to escape from. She tells the story of a young woman named Jane. Her goal in this speech was to educate the audience on poverty and its effects. She was a good person to deliver this kind of speech because she had seen the poverty in Africa first hand and had met Jane and knew her story. Her opening was good, she drew in her listeners immediately and jumped right into the topic at hand. She used amazing slides that showed the horrid conditions of the slums and the many people crammed into such a small area. She gave personal stories of walking through the slums. All of these things make her speech memorable and allow her to relate to her audience. Jacqueline did look at her hands quite often and seemed to scan the audience instead of making good eye contact. She seemed a little rushed and nervous. She did have good hand gestures and good posture. Her presentation was well organized and she stayed focused.

  11. Charles Musser says:

    Jacqueline gave a moving speech on escaping poverty. Her goal was to educate her listeners on the poverty in Kenya. She was a good person to deliver the speech because she had visited the poverty stricken area personally. She used powerful visual aids and her presentation was focused. She related to the audience by telling the personal story of Jane, a woman who was raised in the slums. She did look at her hands quiet often but did make good eye contact. She used good hand gestures and spoke clearly. She did appear nervous and rushed in her speaking.

  12. Jessica Navas says:

    I found her speech interesting. I found myself wanting to know about the stories she was sharing and with pictures she was showing the visual aid helped me know where she had gone and what she saw. I was surprised that she said “um” alot during her speech.

  13. Katie Morgans says:

    I thought that the opening of this speech was strong, but it could have been stronger with pauses, to give the audience time to start thinking how they themselves would define poverty. She sparks curiosity, as noted above, but doesn’t allow a moment for reflection, she just keeps going. This continues throughout the speech, as other commenters have noted; well-placed pauses would have helped heighten interest and allow the audience a chance to digest, if you will.

    I agree with the rhetorical analysis for this speech; the use of contrast and the way she relates to the audience makes the speech more compelling. The only thing that bothered me was the metaphor “frothy confections,” because it sounded forced in an otherwise very natural sentence.

    I disagree that looking down added to her authenticity. It looked to me like she was fiddling with the remote control.

    The detailed background information she gave on Mathare, Jane, and the nonprofit organization helped support her credibility. I did wonder, however, about the name of the organization. I had not heard it before and wished that she had said it slower, or emphasized it better. After watching the speech, I could not remember what it was because she said it so fast.

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