Learning From Great Speakers – Isabel Allande – Tales of Passion

One of the most inspiring speeches I have heard from a woman was delivered by author and feminist, Isabel  Allende at the TED conference in 2008. A great model for all aspiring women speakers.


What we can all learn from this speech is the power of storytelling.  Isabel is herself a writer and so has mastered the craft of storytelling. Throughout the speech she make points and then illustrates with a story, weaving in an array of humorous anecdotes and jokes to keep all entertained.

However her speech was written out and then read, and if you have read others of my posts you will know that I am not a fan of writing a speech out.  However my reasons for this are simply the huge amount of work it takes to make a written speech work well.
As you watch this video you will see just how much work Isabel has put into the 18 minutes and I want to take this opportunity to highlight some of the important points you will need to consider if you plan to write a speech out.

Speech Length

I have worked with written speeches a lot – especially when competing in Toastmasters contests where it is important that the speech runs to a specific time limit.  In Toastmasters most contest speeches are 7 minutes.  What I discovered for myself is that it takes about 7 minutes to deliver a 900-1000 word speech – about the length of a feature article.  This does depend on you rate of delivery – but it’s a reasonable guide.
Isabel Allende spoke for 18 minutes so I would guess that the speech was about 2500 words.

Writing to be heard

Next you need to consider writing style. If you are going to write your speech out, I strongly recommend that you use a recorder to speak it first before transcribing. And when you have a draft, try to hear your speech as you edit.  Be careful not to change it to written English.

When we read, we often re-read passages. Most of us learned to write on the assumption that the material was going to be read.  If it is only going to be heard, you have to make it much simpler. Shorter sentences are essential.  You have to think about vocal variety, body language and especially timing. All of these factors are difficult to convey in written language – but you will need to be sure that you are able to perform the speech to bring it alive otherwise the audience will fall asleep.


Speaking is the art of storytelling so make sure that you fill your speech with stories, especially stories from your own life and experiences. Look at how well Isabel weaves in the stories and anecdotes – in fact the entire speech is structured around the stories – most of them stories from her own life or stories she is able to relate to her own experiences.


This speech from Isabel Allende is about passion – but all your speeches should be about your passions. Speak about a subject you have earned to right to speak on, but more importantly speak about a topic you are passionate about. This is where I find it difficult to transfer information from a script to a speech.  And the only way to do it is to put in a lot of hard work.

Practice, Practice, Practice

There is no substitute for this. I once delivered a quite complicated speech about financial services technology to a conference of 1500 financial advisers.  Throughout the day speaker after speaker got up clearly reading from the autocue/teleprompt and I heard nothing but complaints in discussions over coffee.

What they did not know was that the organisers had insisted on scripts from everyone – and despite my dislike of working from scripts I had to comply.  I also hate trying to remember a script because unlike acting there is no opportunity for a prompt when you forget a line and I have had a few embarrassing moments when I lost my way on a memorised speech. So I also was going to use the autocue.

There were three huge screens visible from the stage, but not visible to the audience so that I was not constrained to a lectern – but I had also spent about 50 hours rehearsing and practicing this speech so that I pretty well knew it by heart.  When I finished a number of friends, some professional speakers, congratulated me on not using the autocue.

As you watch Isabel Allende it is clear she is using a written script – but see how much eye contact she maintains, how fluid her stories and jokes are and how well she uses timing and gestures to convey her speech; all indications of the hard work she put into this presentation.

Writing and delivering a scripted speech is not easy. Just writing a good speech of that length will take a couple of days – practicing and rehearsing a few more. When I deliver a speech from notes I can usually prepare it in a day – I only ever speak about something I am already totally familiar with so I already know the content.  When I have to do the same speech from a script I know I need to allow about a week of preparation.


Posted in Great Speakers, TED Talk, Women Speaking and tagged , , , , , , .

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