Google “great speeches,” and you’ll find page after web page of lists of the greatest speeches ever made. John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Jr., Nelson Mandela, Abraham Lincoln…all the usual suspects are included. That’s about to change.
After Oprah’s acceptance speech for the Cecil B. DeMille Lifetime Achievement Award last Sunday (Jan. 6, 2018) at the Golden Globes, there’s no denying this media maven has claimed her stake as one of the world’s greatest modern-day orators.
Love or hate her, Oprah spoke with the kind of conviction, grace and authority that moves and inspires people across generations, races, socio-economical-political divides, and even genders.
And while her speech — which so brilliantly balanced both the personal and the political, along with great grace and authority — appears to have been ingeniously engineered, it’s actually an almost perfect reflection of conventional textbook speechwriting.
We may not all be famous entertainers, politicians or human rights activists, but we can certainly apply what we’ve learned from Oprah’s iconic speech to move, inspire and motivate people with our words…whether we’re speaking to small audiences of major donors, a dozen passionate volunteers, a few key government stakeholders, or massive assemblies of people.
So, let’s break this speech down and glean what we can from one of today’s most powerful and inspiring orators.
(I’ll be quoting portions of the speech throughout this blog, but you can read the transcript in full at: http://www.oprah.com/own/oprahs-acceptance-speech-at-the-golden-globes-full-transcript)
From the Top
“In 1964, I was a little girl sitting on the linoleum floor of my mother’s house in Milwaukee watching Anne Bancroft present the Oscar for best actor at the 36th Academy Awards. She opened the envelope and said five words that literally made history: ‘The winner is Sidney Poitier.’ Up to the stage came the most elegant man I ever remembered. His tie was white, his skin was black—and he was being celebrated. I’d never seen a black man being celebrated like that.”
Oprah immediately engages her audience with a story. Actually, it’s not necessarily even a story. It’s more like a moment. A brief moment that encapsulates just enough detail and sentiment to convey a few important points: She’s human, she comes from humble beginnings, she was deeply moved by what she saw, and she was inspired.
And while this personal anecdote enables us to relate to her a bit better (because who hasn’t had an inspiring TV moment when you thought anything was possible) this was about more than just establishing a personal connection. In a few minutes, this moment will qualify her, an entertainer, to talk about injustice on a massive scale.
1) Use a personal story to connect with your audience. Be human, be humble, be authentic. Make sure your story is connected to the main point you intend to make. This is your launch pad, and if done right it can also be the event you circle back to in your closing statements.
2) Consider a story that’s not only compelling, but also inclusive of the evidence needed to justify your authority to speak on an issue.
For those of us who experience a bit of anxiety on stage, a personal story will help calm your jitters. After all, it’s easy to talk about yourself. When you tell a real story, you don’t need to read a script. Just some parameters and structure around it in advance and then speak straight from your heart.
If you don’t have a compelling story to share, come out swinging with something equally fascinating: a startling fact or statistic, a thought-provoking question, or, if you’re truly funny, a light-hearted self-deprecating joke. (Humility is important, people.)
By the time you’re ready to move on you’ll be feeling much more comfortable on stage and you’ll have the audience in the palm of your hand.
Now, let’s figure out how to keep them there.
It’s not about me…
From her intro, Oprah seamlessly transitions into the launch of a graceful but powerful tirade against the big ugly issue plaguing not only the entertainment industry, but the entire world.
The transition begins with some very brief words of thanks to those who helped her achieve her dreams. She then goes on to express her gratitude to the Hollywood Foreign Press Association and ultimately to all news publishers committed to telling the truth. This is where things get interesting.
“…which brings me to this: what I know for sure is that speaking your truth is the most powerful tool we all have. And I’m especially proud and inspired by all the women who have felt strong enough and empowered enough to speak up and share their personal stories. Each of us in this room are celebrated because of the stories that we tell, and this year we became the story.”
What just happened? Isn’t she supposed to go on at length about how grateful she is to her friends, fans, and the press. She certainly has bragging rights, yet she’s not boasting about herself or her successes. Instead, she shifts the focus to the audience and one of the biggest issues plaguing women today.
And she can do that. She’s Oprah freakin’ Winfrey after all. She may well be the most influential woman in America right now. As a leading figure in the entertainment industry (where the magnitude of this issue was first brought to light) one could argue she has a social and moral obligation to address this pressing issue.
Guess what? As an expert in your field dedicated to fighting injustice, inequality, inhumanity, etc., you’re equally qualified to address the big, important issues your audiences need to know and care about. So be bold. Speak truth.
1. Remember, it’s not about you. It’s about the people you’re talking to. “Each of us in this room are celebrated because of the stories that we tell….” Focus on how great your audience is, and they won’t turn a deaf ear your way. (Do your research in advance so you know your audience and understand their interests.)
2. If you need to thank people, keep it brief. The quickest way to lose an audience is with a long list. Don’t forget, it’s their time that matters, not yours.
3. If there’s a current event or issue you need to speak to, get to the point. Here, Oprah lauds those women who have shared their personal stories. This speech is not just about a poor black girl inspired by an entertainer who made history, it’s about women having the courage to speak up. And it’s about to be about a whole lot more!
But I’m not a Hollywood actor. Why Should I Care?
Ok, Oprah. You are awesome. Every actor in the room is awesome, especially the women. But why should I care? How on earth does this apply to me?
You’re about to find out.
“…it’s not just a story affecting the entertainment industry. It’s one that transcends any culture, geography, race, religion, politics, or workplace. So I want tonight to express gratitude to all the women who have endured years of abuse and assault because they, like my mother, had children to feed and bills to pay and dreams to pursue. They’re the women whose names we’ll never know. They are domestic workers and farm workers. They are working in factories and they work in restaurants and they’re in academia, engineering, medicine, and science. They’re part of the world of tech and politics and business. They’re our athletes in the Olympics and they’re our soldiers in the military.”
Would you look at that. Oprah takes an issue that’s heavily plaguing the entertainment industry and politics and quickly puts it into context, showing us the bigger picture and how it’s directly affecting regular, every-day people just like you and me.
Lesson Learned: Once you’ve disclosed the problem, present the implications of that problem and how it matters to everyone listening. Answer the question, “why should I care,” from your audience’s perspective. This might be the most critical thing you can do to inspire your audience to respond to your impending call-to-action.
Here’s an example of the mental process I might go through when I’m told about an issue that’s not on my radar.
Executive Director of Save the Streaked Horned Lark Foundation: The Streaked Horned Lark is near extinction?
Me: Bummer. It’s a cute bird, but why should I care? How could this possibly affect me?
ED: Because the extinction of the lark will directly impact the eco-system in Pacific Northwest, which will impact agriculture and could result in significant increases in the price of dairy, fruit and veggies. It could also affect the livelihoods of the farmers.
Me: That’s sad, but I’m not a farmer.
ED: The cost of berries could triple.
Me: What? Berries will be more even expensive? What will I put in my smoothie? Now I’m going to get fat.
ED: Did I mention the entire economy of the Pacific Northwest is going to be affected.
Me: So, the job market will become even more competitive. How will I ever land my dream job? PEOPLE UNITE! We must save the Streaked Horned Lark!
Oprah does it better, but you get the point. People are inherently selfish. Show us how the issue directly impacts us and we’ll be a heck of a lot more likely to act.
Does Your Audience Need More Convincing? Probably.
I cannot emphasize the importance of storytelling enough. Whether you’re writing a newsletter, a social media post, your annual report, or a speech, nothing captivates an audience better than a well-told story. Oprah gets this.
“And there’s someone else, Recy Taylor, a name I know and I think you should know, too. In 1944, Recy Taylor was a young wife and mother walking home from a church service she’d attended in Abbeville, Alabama, when she was abducted by six armed white men, raped, and left blindfolded by the side of the road….”
Oprah initially captured our attention with a story that gave us a glimpse of the world through her eyes. Now she pulls us in even deeper by showing us the world from the perspective of an innocent woman who was brutally assaulted.
It’s disturbing. Maybe too disturbing for some. But it’s also an extremely powerful reminder of those who suffered unspeakable horrors for the rights we enjoy today, and why we need to continuing fighting hard to protect those rights.
Thankfully, Oprah quickly follows the story with a bold statement that inspires hope:
“For too long, women have not been heard or believed if they dare speak the truth to the power of those men. But their time is up. Their time is up.”
This statement could actually be considered the thesis of Oprah’s speech. Notice how everything that came before it was building up to this one passionate rally cry, spoken with fierce determination and absolute authority.
1. Sharing your own story probably isn’t enough. Give us a story of a client or beneficiary. Are you mentoring at-risk youth to keep them out of gangs? Tell us how the life of an ex-gang member was radically changed. Are you standing up to police brutality? Share a survivor’s story. Are you helping refugees affected by war and trauma? Take me through a refugee’s journey. (But please, dear nonprofit professional, do not share a story at the expense of a client’s dignity. Be sensitive to their privacy, future and safety. There is an appropriate way to share harrowing stories. Your job is to figure out how to do it in the most ethical way possible.)
2. Don’t leave us more depressed than we were when we came in. Follow your story up quickly with a hopeful, inspiring message.
3. Determine your key message (main idea, call-to-action, that thing you want your audience to do) in advance and structure your speech so that everything you say builds up to it.
4. If possible, deliver a memorable and quotable one-liner. You know the kind: “Ask not what your country can do for you: ask what you can do for your country,” John F. Kennedy. “Be the change that you wish to see in the world,” Mahatma Gandhi. “And the greatest of these is love,” Jesus. “Their time is up,” may not be the most profound one-liner we’ve heard, but it sure is powerful, especial when accompanied with one of Oprah’s TV screen-penetrating gazes that sees straight through your polished exterior and into your filthy soul. Time’s up people. If you even think about harassing someone, Oprah and her star-studded troupe of warriors in black sequence will take you down.
5. Speak with passion, conviction, and authority. If you’re an expert in your field and a relentless champion of your cause, this shouldn’t be a problem. History has showed us time and again – from Jesus, to JFK, Martin Luther King, Jr., Nelson Mandela and now Oprah – the power these traits play in memorable oration.
Wrapping it up
Oprah’s just taken us through some pretty intense scenarios. She’s successfully captivated our attention, made us understand why we should care, and delivered a powerful message. She’s taken us on a journey into the past, brought us back to the current situation, and is now going to wrap this puppy up by ushering us into a hopeful future.
“So I want all the girls watching here, now, to know that a new day is on the horizon! And when that new day finally dawns, it will be because of a lot of magnificent women, many of whom are right here in this room tonight, and some pretty phenomenal men, fighting hard to make sure that they become the leaders who take us to the time when nobody ever has to say ‘Me too’ again.”
The past and present may seem bleak my friends, but there is hope. If we refuse to tolerate harassment, if we have the courage to come forward and say “Me too,” if we unite to fight this inexcusable behavior, we will be victorious. There is hope for a brighter future.
1. Be hopeful. Be inspirational. Make sure your audience doesn’t leave thinking your issue is too big to fix. Because if the problem is too overwhelming, no one’s going to bother investing their time or money into fixing it. Tell your audience what your solution is and show them how they can help achieve that solution. Give them a sense of purpose and hope for the future.
2. Make your audience feel like a part of the solution. Notice how Oprah places the responsibility for change on the shoulders of the “magnificent women” and “some pretty phenomenal men,” “many of whom are right here in this room…” as she closes? Assume everyone listening shares the responsibility for facilitating change. Don’t ask them for help. Talk as though they’ve already decided to help. It’s not a choice, it’s a given. You might be surprised by the power of subtle persuasion.
There are so many other important topics we cover when it comes to making a great speech (body language, tone, theatrics, understanding your audience, etc.) but you can easily uncover those things by Googling great speeches.
We’ll probably never bring the house down the way Oprah did in her speech last week. But my hope is that by taking a lesson from her we can at least raise the roof a bit while raising the money and support we need to continue making the world a better place.