Can We Talk? Ingrid Betancourt's Amazing Eloquence

When authenticity and character are more important than technique. 

By Florence Ferreira

Any Toastmaster who watched Ingrid Betancourt address the media and public in the immediate days following her spectacular rescue from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia learned an invaluable lesson on the relation between extemporaneous speech and authenticity.

When I heard of how this woman – along with 14 other hostages – had been liberated by Colombian commandos on July 2nd, I immediately went online to catch the event on video. All I knew about Ingrid Betancourt was that she was a French-Colombian politician who had been abducted by rebel forces in 2002 and held captive in the jungle ever since.

As I watched the landing of her plane at a military airport in Bogota, I expected to witness the emergence of a human wreck, with the ensuing immediate evacuation to a medical facility. Instead, Mrs. Betancourt came out looking bubbly and surprisingly composed, even carrying her own backpack.

Like the other millions of viewers around the world who heard her first few words (in Spanish or its translated form), I was spellbound; and for five consecutive days, I listened to every one of her multiple deliveries, interviews and press conferences. My interest, which was initially prompted by curiosity and compassion toward her unimaginable saga, quickly shifted to fascination with her eloquence and “onstage presence” under the circumstances.

The Toastmaster in me replaced the news “voyeur,” and I found myself instinctively wrapped up in the role of evaluator – a very humbled one.

“They got us out grandly,” she exclaimed, as she described her brilliantly masterminded deliverance just a few hours earlier as “an extraordinary symphony,” “a miracle with no historical precedent,” an “operation [that] was absolutely impeccable,” and “a moment of pride for Colombians” – all figures of speech that would have kept a grammarian busy at a Toastmasters meeting. And she merrily swung back and forth between Spanish and French in the next few days, with the same oratorical dexterity.

Woven into the obvious articulacy were also some lengthy pauses and hesitations, some emotional looms, some awkward gestures – in other words, transgressions to the usual rules of proper public speaking. Yet these were the most powerful moments. For all of her poise and facile use of language, it was the times she grasped for control or expression that moved us the most. These were the instances that told the real story – the nearly seven years of deprivation and brutality she and the other hostages endured, chained by the neck day and night, sleeping on mud, often under torrential downpours, forced to march without boots for days, infected by jungle parasites, undernourished, arbitrarily humiliated and abused, and with no opportunity to either read or converse.

Mrs. Betancourt, who is already called by some “the Colombian Nelson Mandela,” not once expressed hate and bitterness against her oppressors. Her captivity seemed to create in her a greater sense of grace and generosity of spirit. She went right to our hearts and souls with statements such as “I am free of envy, vengeance and bitterness… The people who stayed behind there, I forgive them...The first thing we have to do is change hearts. We have to change the vocabulary of hate. When I dreamed of being free, I told myself that I could not engage in hate or rancor... The guerrillas are our enemy, but we shouldn’t insult them. We should show them how to seek a dignified exit through peaceful negotiations. If we don’t defeat them correctly, we will sow the seeds of hate for the future.’’

Being a polished, technically-versed speaker is important, but nothing is more powerful than authenticity and character. When you speak with your heart, even if you lack practice and bend a rule, you will impact your listeners.

During her first address at the military airport in Bogota, Ingrid Betancourt said, “I’m sorry, but this has to be a hug,” and she moved away from the microphone to embrace the founder and host of “Voices of Kidnapping,’’ a radio program that broadcasts messages to hostages from their family members. She explained that the words read over the airwaves helped her fend off suicide. I wept, as did everyone else on site.

When authenticity and character are present, even leaving the lectern will be forgiven! 

Florence Ferreira is an intercultural communication consultant, founder of SpeakGlobal and member of Boca Raton Toastmasters and the Florida Speakers Association. Reach her at