Talk Deconstruction: Bryan Stevenson

Bryan Stevenson is a lawyer, social justice activist and the founder of the Equal Justice Initiative. He has gained international acclaim for his work challenging bias against the poor and minorities in the criminal justice system. Bryan is an inspiring person and an intelligent, engaging speaker who has a lot to teach us.

In this talk, given as part of the Zeitgeist Minds series, he does a lot of remarkable things.

Here are five key aspects of Bryan’s talk that you might find instructive and inspiring:

  1. The Structure. His structure is simple and clear, making it easy to understand and remember his talk. At the start, he uses compelling statistics to establish the size of the problem and why we should care about inequality and injustice. Then he clearly outlines the four key things the audience can do to curb the troubling trends and change the world: (1) get proximate to the problem; (2) change the narrative; (3) be hopeful; and (4) do uncomfortable things. He then closes with a powerful call to action, reminding the audience that “your work and worth can only be measured by your battle wounds”.

  2. Storytelling. For each of the four solutions Bryan outlines, he tells one major story to illustrate the importance of the solution and the impact it can have. It’s not enough to state the facts or to posit solutions. It’s easy to think that the magnitude of the data points will carry the day, yet numbers alone fail to humanize your ideas. Providing examples and telling stories makes your subject real, relatable and moving. Bryan uses stories masterfully to engage his audience and facilitate understanding and action.

  3. Lack of Slides or Notes. Bryan doesn’t use notes or a single slide, proving that you can speak powerfully without any visual aids or prompts, particularly when you have a clear structure supported by stories.

  4. Use of Language. Bryan has a tremendous command of the English language. His factual content and the case he makes for more equal justice is made almost lyrical by his rich use of language and beautiful turns of phrase.

  5. Delivery. Bryan is a calm, confident speaker. He doesn’t move around much on stage and his gestures are understated and natural. He uses a conversational tone of voice and uses a lot of eye contact to make his content, concepts and call to action accessible.

You can watch his presentation here. You may want to watch his talk straight through and then take a look at the deconstruction so you can appreciate the whole and then the specific aspects that make it remarkable. Or you can steal some glances at the commentary below as you watch through the first time in the player above.

00:25Bryan shares some confronting statistics about incarceration in America to establish the problem that needs to be addressed.
4:10He tells a personal story to underscore the importance of “getting proximate to a problem” so meaningful action can be taken and relevant solutions can be put in place. Because a group of lawyers came into his community and forced the school board to open public schools to African American children, he went to high school and was able to go onto college.
06:18Bryan tells a story about a 14 year-old boy who was placed in an adult prison while he awaited trial. This child was brutally and repeatedly assaulted and wept for an hour when recounting his experience. Bryan extrapolates from this story to highlight the fear and despair experienced by the 10,000 children who are under the age of 18 and serving time in adults jails and prisons across the United States.
09:11He asks a confronting and powerful questions such as who is responsible for this? If you don’t feel moved at this point in his talk, you might want to check your vital signs.
11:22Bryan uses evocative language to outline the importance of changing the narrative about race in America: “We are all burdened by the legacy of racial inequality that has never been addressed. We are all infected by this disease, this narrative of racial difference that our parents and our grandparents did not address. We were silent when we should have been speaking. And because of that, it bothers and burdens all of us.”
14:06Reflecting on the history of civil rights in the United States Bryan says: "For decades, we humiliated people of colour. For decades we burdened and we battered and we excluded people. For decades we told people you’re not good enough to go to school with the rest of us, you’re not good enough to vote.” He makes effective use of repetition, using the phrase “for decades” over and over again to emphasize the intractable and persistent nature of race narrative in the US.
15:25Again, using powerful language, Bryan provides sobering comparisons to South Africa and Germany to support his assertion that a different kind of conversation about race and slavery is required in the United States. South Africa and Germany confronted the impact of apartheid and the holocaust with truth and reconciliation and physical, visible reminders of these dark chapters in their history. In the US, he suggests, people look for ways to exit conversations about race, rather than ways to mark and discuss and resolve the history so a new future can take shape.
16:09Bryan makes repeated use of the phrase “I am persuaded” and in doing so he invites the audience to consider whether or not they are also persuaded which allows listeners to decide for themselves.
17:05To illustrate the importance of staying hopeful, Bryan tells a story about a prison guard who didn’t believe he was a lawyer and forced him submit to a strip search before allowing him to see his client. After hearing Bryan present his client’s case in court, this guard changed his mind and told Bryan to keep fighting for justice.
22:12In the final minutes of his talk, Bryan again uses powerful language to provoke and prompt us into action: “We have to do uncomfortable things. You do not create justice by only doing comfortable and convenient things."

Bryan’s talk works because he lays out his structure clearly at the beginning and continues to come back to the four things that will help us create positive change. He captivates and compels his audience through stories, examples and evocative language that connect with the intellect and emotions of his audience.

This one is worth watching twice.

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