As a result of having a nonverbal learning disability, I’ve often found myself more aware of strangers, their faces, and their voices during social interactions. What is a normal, subconscious part of daily life for most people is a skill that I needed to learn, starting at a young age. I spent years being coached on these by occupational therapists and counselors as a youth, and took multiple classes on nonverbal cues and displays of motion as a graduate student in education. Thus, I end up hyper-focusing on social situations, even when there is no reason to.
Now, I love TED talks, and often watch them while either on the elliptical at the gym or making crafts. Often, it allows me to practice observing the speaker’s behavior while talking, so my NVLD-riddled brain can get a work out at the same time as the rest of my body. Gestures, smiles, expressions, are all a key part of a presentation where our focus is completely on the speaker, and TED talks are famous for this style of communication.
That’s when I saw her for the first time. Elizabeth Holmes. Now notorious for the fraud that she pulled in her blood tests, in early 2015, she was heralded as the second coming of Steve Jobs, a brilliant Stanford drop out who had founded a medical technology company that was going to save the world.
As she strode across the stage at the TEDMed talk, Holmes spoke in a deep, almost robotic voice. Using open-handed gestures, with the precision of a surgeon in an operating room, she told the rapt audience about her new blood measurement technology. Using a carefully orchestrated combination of heavy words and meaningful, open-hand gestures, Holmes spoke of her uncle who had died from cancer, and how important her company, Theranos, was as a result. Her gestures were very precise when she spoke, her eyes barely blinked, and she was very methodical with her patterns of baritone-level speech.
Hearing her voice for the first time, I felt like a dog that had heard a whistle.
My years of being coached and trained to understand facial features and movement had me do a double take as I watched her talk. Her speech had felt so off, so creepy, as she slowly placed each word in a sentence out of her mouth. I didn’t know what to think of it. It felt like a cyborg had come to life, and was mimicking the moves that were expected of a brilliant but sympathetic entrepreneur, who wanted us to believe the work that she was completing. Her words and gestures were meant to display empathy and brilliance, to reflect the work of her blood testing machine. But it wasn’t natural, it was too concise to truly display a glib amount of empathy and belief that one would expect from this form of a talk.
I remember thinking, “I must be mistaken. I’m not neurotypical–and she is saying everything that neurotypical people accept as right. So, as a result, she must be right. She must be good, and brilliant.”
But I couldn’t accept that diagnostic, and I couldn’t believe Holmes. Had I not had the intense therapies that I had as a child, I probably would have taken everything that came out of her mouth at face value. Of course, when I mentioned this to a few friends in my circle of academia and sciences, it was dismissed as me being paranoid. Why, perhaps even jealous. After all, why hadn’t I been brilliant enough to get into Stanford, to found my own company at age 19?
Because of years of being told by peers and professional, that I didn’t understand social cues, I always carry a shred of doubt as to what I truly see on a regular basis. Did I interpret things wrong when I viewed them? Were these people really nice, and I was just being depressed, with a pinch of weird and jealous?
A short time later, when it came out that Theranos was a sham, and that it’s illustrious founder, the TED speaker with the deep voice and conductor-precise hand gestures, Elizabeth Holmes, was a con artist, I felt sheer, unbridled vindication.
(See, Ma, all those years of counseling to help my brain worked, dang it!)
Years of having NVLD had taught me that, if my senses were off on a person’s behavior, then I shouldn’t just trust their words, written or spoken. My brain tells me this too, especially if it’s written down and validated by others.
Meanwhile, I watched Charity Tilleman-Dick’s TED talks, and if anything, she remains my favorite speaker of all time on TED. Tilleman-Dick was no entrepreneur or Silicon Valley wonk, but her vocation required the same amount of drama and precision, as she was an international opera singer. She sang her way through not one, but two, double-lung transplants, and tragically died in April 2019 after battling cancer as well.
When Tilleman-Dick came on the stage, she came with the same presentation and props as Holmes: her voice, her gestures and her story. But Tilleman-Dick’s precision shone with genuine emotion, her speech sometimes trembling with both gravity and joy, sometimes powerful, but still concise and passionate.
I didn’t doubt for a second on Tilleman-Dick’s story, or words. In fact, as an NVLD individual who works within communication (oh, irony!), her speaking is a fantastic example of truly coming across as empathetic, concise, and true. For individuals with NVLD who struggle with nonverbal gestures, I suggest comparing Elizabeth Holmes’ (now debunked) TEDMed speech to Charity Tilleman Dick’s. Watch the movements, hear the story, but most importantly, listen to the voice, and hear the difference between genuine emotion and following the pace and cadence, but not the humanity behind it.
Watch, analyze, and enjoy.
Kristen is currently finishing her doctorate in Curriculum and Instruction at the University of Illinois while working as a non-profit director and wrangling pets, a child, and her red-headed Texan husband. She loves cycling, fiber arts and coffee.Share your own story