Analysis of JK Rowling’s Harvard Commencement Speech:
The Fringe Benefits of Failure
In my previous newsletter, I talked about famous people who have overcome their introversion, managing to look and feel comfortable in the public eye. One of my favourite examples to illustrate how this is possible is J K Rowling’s Harvard Commencement Speech. She’s a self-proclaimed introvert and yet her speech, “The Fringe Benefits of Failure”, is not only witty but also moving and inspiring. Here’s the link to watch this talk:
So how does JK Rowling overcome her nervousness and give such an inspirational speech? She actually uses many different presentation techniques and I’ve listed here the most important ones. I’m sure they can also inspire you for your own presentations, whether you’re an introvert or an extrovert:
1.She portrays self-belief. She believes in what she’s saying and speaks with conviction and passion. She’s addressing the graduating students of Harvard and wants to have a positive influence on their future life choices. She shares with them her personal experiences of failure as well as the lessons she learned from the painful mistakes she made. She also evokes the heartbreak of seeing examples of terrible human suffering while working for Amnesty International. Yet, at the same time, she explains how this experience taught her to feel empathy for others. She speaks from the heart and by doing so she gains our undivided attention.
2. She uses humour. It’s important to know that anxiety is contagious, so if you show or express your nervousness to the audience, you’re going to make them feel it too. JK Rowling looks and sounds nervous at the beginning of her talk, and her voice even trembles. She no doubt knew she couldn’t control this fear, so she chose to make a joke out of it, by saying:
“The first thing I would like to say is ‘thank you.’ Not only has Harvard given me an extraordinary honour, but the weeks of fear and nausea I have endured at the thought of giving this commencement address have made me lose weight. A win-win situation!”
Although I don’t usually recommend to my clients that they evoke their nervousness to their audience, I do agree that if it’s uncontrollable the best solution is to do as JK Rowling did by making light of it.
3. A clear structure. The talk is divided into 4 parts: the introduction, the 1st theme (the benefits of failure), the 2nd theme (the importance of imagination) and the conclusion. JK Rowling integrates humour and seriousness into this structure in the following way:
She starts in a light-hearted manner, making us want to continue listening to her. Because she has our undivided attention, she can then move onto her serious subjects and make her message even more poignant. In her conclusion, she mixes seriousness with humour, leaving us feeling like we’ve just been listening to an amusing story with a strong, underlying message.
4. She uses story-telling techniques. We’ve already talked about her use of humour, but there are many more story-telling techniques she uses, including the following:
- The use of contrast:
“Looking back at the 21-year-old that I was at graduation, is a slightly uncomfortable experience for the 42-year-old that she has become.” “… this man whose life had been shattered by cruelty took my hand with exquisite courtesy”
- The use of the rule of 3 (i.e. listing 3 points or facts – this is an important rhetorical device because it’s been scientifically proven that the brain retains 3 ideas better than it would 2 or 4):
“you are young, gifted and well-educated” “I still had a daughter whom I adored, and I had an old typewriter and a big idea”
- The use of metaphors:
“… rock bottom became the solid foundation on which I rebuilt my life”
- The use of ethos (i.e. an appeal to ethics – this is a means of convincing someone of the character or credibility of the persuader):
She makes a few references to her Harry Potter novels, reminding the audience of her fame and giving herself the credibility to share her experiences and give advice to the talented young people in front of her who are about to embark on, for the most part, brilliant careers.
- The use of pathos (an appeal to emotion – this is a way of convincing an audience of an argument by creating an emotional response):
She plays with the emotions of her audience as she shares her heart-wrenching experience working for Amnesty International. After making her audience laugh, she now makes them sit back and think about the horrors that humankind can inflict on each other
- She creates rapport with her audience. Throughout the talk, JK Rowling remains humble. Her voice is soft and gentle but also captivating and convincing. Her body language is unassuming but her message is powerful. She looks shy yet she exhibits self-belief. And she smiles, which is, in my opinion the most important presentation technique of all to remember:)
JK Rowling’s speech lasted 21 minutes, and the standing ovation afterward went on for almost two minutes. What better proof of the overwhelming success of this great talk delivered by one of the world’s most introverted people?!
Please don’t hesitate to contact me, either by phone on +33 (0)6 47 92 44 60 or by email at email@example.com. I’ll be delighted to answer any questions you have about this topic or about my coaching approach in general.
If you’ve enjoyed reading this article, please feel free to share it with family, friends and colleagues.