Analysis of a speech by Oprah Winfrey

The 2018 Golden Globe Awards were handed out last night (7 January 2018). There were several highlights and many winners, but the overwhelming consensus is that Oprah Winfrey stole the show.

Winfrey, a talk show host, actress and philanthropist was honoured as the first black woman to win the Cecil B DeMille lifetime achievement award. She used her acceptance speech to repudiate racial injustice, abuse against women and attacks against the press.

It was a powerful speech that brought the audience to its feet for prolonged applause on more than one occasion. The speech, in full, is below. My thoughts follow.

    • Oprah had clearly prepared for this moment. Of course, she knew that she was being honoured with the award, but it is obvious that she had worked hard on her speech.
    • And yet, as prepared as she was, her speech felt natural and conversational. That is the result of good preparation. You know what you want to say, but you are not tied to a memorized script.
    • She grabbed the audience’s attention from the start. When you begin a speech, you only have a few moments to hook the audience’s attention, so you want to make those moments count. Psychologists talk about the learning principles of primacy and recency. People tend to remember the first and last things they hear. So the openings (and closings) of your presentation are important.
    • How did Oprah grab the audience’s attention? With a story. Note the details: the year; the linoleum floor (not a chair or a rug, but cold linoleum); the elegance of Sidney Poitier; his white tie and black skin.

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 had ever seen. I remember his tie was white, and of course his skin was black, and I had never seen a black man being celebrated like that.

    • She neatly concludes the story that began in 1964 by stating, “… it is not lost on me that at this moment, there are some little girls watching as I become the first black woman to be given this same award.” (2:15) Circularity is a powerful thing in a speech.
    • There was a good pace to her voice, with many pauses (often helped by applause). And yet, she also knew how to quicken her pace, when appropriate, such as when she thanks a number of people by name (2:50) or recounts the women who have been abused over the years (5:00).
    • Because Oprah did not need notes, she was able to maintain eye contact with the audience throughout, sweeping the room from left to right.

    • She was firm but tactful in her rebuke of Donald Trump’s attacks on the press. She never mentioned the President by name, but everyone knew about whom she was speaking. (There has even been some speculation that Trump might have to contend with another TV Star in the next election.) And that made her words all the more powerful (3:08).

[W]e all know the press is under siege these days. We also know it’s the insatiable dedication to uncovering the absolute truth that keeps us from turning a blind eye to corruption and to injustice. To tyrants and victims, and secrets and lies. I want to say that I value the press more than ever before as we try to navigate these complicated times, which brings me to this: What I know for sure is that speaking your truth is the most powerful tool we all have.

    • Oprah also spoke passionately and eloquently about the abuse and harassment and assaults that women have faced for too long. I especially appreciate how for her, the entertainment industry was only one part of society that has been affected (4:20).

But 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 and engineering and 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.

    • At 6:10, Oprah misspoke. She said that the men who had tried to destroy Recy Taylor were never “persecuted”. I am sure that she meant to say “prosecuted”. There’s a big difference.
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    • She used rhetorical devices.
      • Polysyndeton
        1. “To tyrants and victims and secrets and lies.” (3:28)
        2. “They are working in factories and they work in restaurants and they’re in academia and engineering and medicine and science.” (5:05)
      • Epizeuxis
        1. “Amen, amen, amen, amen.” (2:02)
      • Tricolon
        1. “But their time is up. Their time is up. Their time is up.” (6:40)
        2. “… they, like my mother, had children to feed and bills to pay and dreams to pursue.” (4:45) (Note that this is also polysyndeton.)
      • Anaphora
        1. “To say how we experience shame, how we love and how we rage, how we fail, how we retreat, persevere and how we overcome.” (7:58)
      • Alliteration
        1. “… a culture broken by brutally powerful men.” (6:25)
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    • She had a powerful conclusion circling back to little girls who might be watching Oprah’s speech on television and also calling for the day when nobody will have to say “Me too.” (8:30)
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    • Oprah had a well-structured speech (logos). With her humble beginnings, her well documented career struggles and her undeniable success, she was 100% credible (ethos). She spoke with passion and told moving stories (pathos). Aristotle would have approved.

For another analysis of Oprah’s speech, see Sam Leith’s excellent article in the Financial Times. (If you are blocked from reading the article by the FT’s firewall, the first link on this Google search might work for you.

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Stretch your Speaking – Introduction

Happy New Year! We are one week into 2018 as I write this post. Are you off to a good start? How about those resolutions? Get more exercise; eat better; learn a new language; find a new job. Have you made any progress?

What about your public speaking? What would you like to accomplish in the remaining 358 days?

Whatever your public speaking goals, I’d like to give you another one:

STRETCH YOURSELF

Improving your public speaking skills is commendable. It is something that I constantly try to do. But if you only speak in one type of situation or to one type of audience or at one venue, there is a risk that you will become comfortable and complacent. And when that happens, personal growth tends to stagnate.

If you only present to your department colleagues, if you only give speeches at your Toastmasters club, you may well become adept at those types of speaking engagements. But if you never leave your comfort zone, how do you expect to reach your potential?

Why not stretch your speaking skills this year by actively seeking out situations or audiences that are new? That make you uncomfortable? That scare you? As I have said before, public speaking is like cross-training; the more different kinds of speaking you do, the better speaker you will become. It’s not easy, but it’s worth it.

In the coming days, I’ll share different ways in which you can stretch your speaking in the coming year. These are all things that I have done and will continue to do. And if you have any thoughts or experiences of your own, I’d love to hear from you. Please feel free to leave a comment below or on any of the upcoming posts.

Start warming up. It’s going to be a fun year!

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The benefits of humour and 10 tips for using it in a speech

PG LogoI am one of the co-founders of Presentation Guru, a digital magazine for public speaking professionals.

This post is part of a series designed to share the great content on Presentation Guru with the Manner of Speaking community.

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French author Victor Hugo said, “Laughter is the sun that drives winter from the human face.” When speaking to an audience of dozens, hundreds or thousands, the effect is amplified.

Used properly, humour is a powerful tool that can benefit speakers in several ways: 

  • It creates a bond between the speaker and the audience.
  • It energizes people and keeps them engaged.
  • It can provide emotional relief.
  • It helps the audience remember your points.
  • It leaves the audience with a good impression of the speaker.

To see three examples of humour being used in a speech or presentation, and to learn ten tips for using humour effectively, head over to this post that I wrote for Presentation Guru.

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Quotes for Public Speakers (No. 271) – Timothy Leary

Timothy Leary (1920 – 1996) American Psychologist and Writer

“If you want to change the way people respond to you, change the way you respond to people.”

— Timothy Leary

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Break the Internet

In just days, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) will vote to end net neutrality—breaking the fundamental principle of the open Internet. If you are concerned, and do not want your ability to surf the Internet to be held hostage by your Internet Service Provider (ISP), let your voice be heard.

If you live in the United States, call Congress and tell them to stop it. Wherever you live, check out this great site that offers all kinds of ways that you can protest against this decision.

Net neutrality concerns us all. Please play a part in saving it.

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