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.
    • 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)
    • 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)
    • 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 two excellent analyses of Oprah’s speech, see:

  1. Sam Leith’s 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.
  2. Nick Morgan’s post in Public Words.

About John Zimmer

International speaker, presentation skills expert, lawyer, improv performer
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30 Responses to Analysis of a speech by Oprah Winfrey

  1. Thanks for the analysis – I agree with a lot of what you say and Oprah certainly raises a lot of important issues in her speech – some points can be looked at more closely I think – firstly, I really question whether her ethos is 100% – she is worth 2.7 billion dollars, can she really claim to speak for poor people? Her humble origins would seem to be merely a distant memory at this point – if she is going to be taken seriously, she needs to address that elephant in the room because people must be able to reconclie stories about her extremely wealthy lifestyle with her ethos to speak for poor people.

    Secondly, it seems that this speech is highly influenced in style by Barack Obama to an amazing degree actually – it is difficult not to notice how presidential in tone it is rather than being a speech for an audience at an awards ceremony audience.

    Thirdly, her vested interest as the owner of a media corporation raises an issue for her ethos to speak on the topic of media and perceived limitations on media in the modern era.

    Fourthly, on the issue of features of style, you quite rightly point out the presence of polysyndeton, epizeuxis, tricolon, anaphora and alliteration – perhaps I missed the clarifications, but I don’t see where you discussed the purpose of having each of these in her speech – if the principle behind using features of style is that they serve the speech or more precisely augment the meaning of the words they are applied to in some important way, then we must always be on the look out for a very good reason why any given feature of style was used – if there isn’t a good reason, then the speech is serving that feature of style rather than the other way round and something is wrong structurally with the speech.

    Thanks for your analysis of the speech and please take these comments as part of a dialogue from a fellow analyser of speeches.

    • John Zimmer says:

      Great comment! Thanks for taking the time to share your thoughts. Always great to have a dialogue. To respond, briefly to your points:

      1. I disagree (respectfully) with your position on her ethos. Her difficult childhood and the many hurdles she faced when starting out on TV are well documented. Those experiences leave lasting marks, even when the person overcomes them and rises to a much higher status. I’ve talked with many people who are doing well and it is always fascinating to hear their origin stories and how deeply they affected them. Further, given that Oprah has done so well, and given her philanthropic work, she has the ethos to speak to the issue of helping the underprivileged.

      2. I agree that the tone was political and we can debate whether that was the appropriate tone to strike, but Oprah clearly knew that she was being given a platform and would be watched by millions, so she chose to take advantage of that platform for something in which she believed.

      3. Her ownership of a media company doesn’t bother me when she speaks on issues related to the media. After all, whenever anyone speaks on a subject, it is almost always because they have some interest (financial, intellectual, emotional) in the subject. If her ownership were somehow a secret that just came out, one could question her bona fides but that is certainly not the case here.

      4. I take your point on the use of rhetorical devices. I did not go into the details of the rationale for the use of each one in this post; however, if you click the links to the different devices, it will take you to the original posts in which I discuss, generally, the effects of using the devices and how they can enhance the speech.

      Thanks again!

  2. amy says:

    thank you so much! georgia and i are doing the same exam and this has saved us! georgia says thanks again! :))

  3. georgia says:

    your website is amazing and just saved me in my next exam.

    • John Zimmer says:

      Hi Georgia. Many thanks for the comment. I love being a superhero and saving people! 😉

      I wish you the best of success with your other exams and with your future speaking.

  4. Pete says:

    Amazing and super talented writer, currently doing a university assignment on Oprah’s amazing speech, really helped alot , thankyou!

  5. Keerthi Banothu says:

    I really enjoyed your analysis and also greatly appreciated that you linked the rhetorical devices to pages that defined the device and provided examples. Really helped me with my english assignment!

    – a junior in high school

    • John Zimmer says:

      Hi Keerthi. Thank you so much for taking the time to write. I am glad that you enjoyed the post and found it helpful with your English assignment. Best of luck with the rest of your academic year!

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  7. phyllis zimmer says:

    Hi John,
    Enjoyed your analysis which I think is as good if not better than the Financial Times. I found it sounded scripted and used well used lines. It was a great show and one of the first awards show I didn’t fall asleep half way through!!!

  8. msagj says:

    John, what an excellent review of a brilliantly executed speech!

    Regarding your mention of Oprah’s use of the word “persecuted” as opposed to “prosecuted”: the definition of “persecuted” is “subject (someone) to hostility and ill-treatment, especially because of their race or political or religious beliefs.” So, I would argue that she could have said (and perhaps meant) either word, as by definition, both are quite true!

    • John Zimmer says:

      Many thanks for the comment, Kayla. I am glad that you enjoyed the post. It was a pleasure to listen to Oprah’s speech and go through it line by line.

      I respect your view on the persecution / prosecution issue, but there are two reasons why I am confident that Oprah meant to say “prosecution”:

      1. In the sentence and a half before the operative sentence, Oprah talks about how Recy Taylor and Rosa Parks were seeking justice but that it just was not possible given the social realities of the time. Here is the precise language: “… Rosa Parks became the lead investigator on her case and together they sought justice. But justice wasn’t an option in the era of Jim Crow. The men who tried to destroy her were never persecuted.” Persecution is not justice; indeed, it is the antithesis of justice. Prosecution of a crime, on the other hand, is justice.

      2. I don’t think that Recy Taylor or Oprah Winfrey are the kind of people who would subject someone, anyone, to hostility or ill-treatment because of their race, politics or religion. Thus, while I have no doubt that they would have liked to see the rapists prosecuted, I do not believe that they would have liked to see them persecuted.

      So I stand by my original statement that Oprah misspoke. But it doesn’t take away the fact that she delivered a wonderful speech.


      • Totally right on the persecution gaffe, for all the reasons you listed. I’m a little surprised that Oprah made that mistake, but at the same time I’m glad that anyone can err, even Oprah!

        • John Zimmer says:

          Thanks, Sarita. Yes, there is no such thing as perfect public speaking. Everyone can improve. And everyone makes mistakes.

  9. Juanita says:

    A million thanks for this John. What a wonderful analysis! I’ll be sharing this with all of my speaker friends. 🙂

  10. Barbara says:

    Reblogged this on BARBARA OLIVIERI and commented:
    John Zimmer è colui che si può definire un “professional speaker” (figura professionale non ancora pienamente nota da noi).
    Il suo blog è stato menzionato come uno dei blog più interessanti (ed influenti) relativi al “public speaking”.
    Ed essendo un argomento (quello della comunicazione in pubblico) che mi interessa molto, lo seguo e lo leggo con una certa assiduità.

    Ebbene, questo articolo che “re-bloggo” è una analisi molto interessante ed approfondita del discorso di Oprah Winfrey alla premiazione dei Golden Globe.
    Un discorso che ho guardato ieri (ma lo riguarderò anche nei prossimi giorni, con occhio via-via sempre più tecnico) e che considero come forse uno dei discorsi più potenti che io abbia mai ascoltato.

    Dicevo che me lo sono guardato/ascoltato/osservato ieri.
    E sebbene sia partita con un atteggiamento analitico e di studio della struttura e della “delivery”, sono finita con le lacrime agli occhi.
    Ho pensato a come mai.
    Che cosa stava facendo questo discorso su di me?
    Perché non è un discorso recitato, teatrale, o in forma di arringa.
    E un discorso colloquiale, ma che ha una potenza emotiva che arriva da una grande profondità ed entra in profondità.
    E che va in crescendo (come un’onda lunga, come scriveva Sara a commento del mio post su Facebook)

    Il testo del discorso (in inglese) è a questo link:…/oprah-winfrey-golden-globes-sp…

    Qui sotto invece il reblog dal sito “Manner of spaeking” di John Zimmer (testo in inglese).

    • John Zimmer says:

      Mille grazie, Barbara. Era un piacere per me di leggere il tuo messaggio. Sono contento che hai trovato il mio post utile.

      • Barbara says:

        Thanks to you John!
        It is always inspirational read your blog: it’s full of interesting suggestions.
        And a big thank you (and applause also!) for your italian!

        • John Zimmer says:

          Grazie. Ho studiato l’italiano quando ero nel liceo. Però, qui a Ginevra, parlo più francese che italiano ed allora quando ho l’opportunità di parlare o di scrivere, io prendola.

  11. mattgold44 says:

    You’re spot-on as usual, John – terrific analysis! I didn’t watch the ceremony, but watched the video this morning, and again while reading your article. I also caught the “persecuted” mistake, and wonder how many others did. That said, her speech was quite powerful, and was even better the second time around around.

  12. Love this, John, but you might want to know that “Sam Leith’s excellent article in the Financial Times” is hidden behind a paywall. I would have loved to have read more. Can you repost excerpts from it here, perhaps?

    • John Zimmer says:

      Glad you like the post and thanks for letting me know about the Leith article. Odd because I was able to access it without a subscription. I’ll look into this tomorrow and see what I can do. It’s late here and I have a full day with a client tomorrow. Cheers!

    • John Zimmer says:

      Hi again. When I got home this evening, I clicked on the FT link in the post and found that I too was now blocked by their firewall. But then I Googled “Sam Leith Oprah” and the article popped up and I could read it. Give that a try. If it doesn’t work, I have copied the entire article and pasted it below. I am going to trust that the FT is OK with me sharing it here.

      Oprah Winfrey’s speech was a masterstroke of delivery

      Financial Times, 8 January 2018

      “Their time is up,” Oprah Winfrey said. The applause gathered. A handful of people got to their feet. “Their TIME is UP!” she repeated, louder, and more chairs emptied. She left a long pause, and when she repeated the phrase a third time she did so quietly, almost as an afterthought, a calm restatement of what was now an obvious truth: “Their time is up.”

      That was a little masterstroke of delivery. A tricolon whose third term — calm, reflective, not so much a call to action as the confident reflection on a done deal — bespoke power, control and certainty. Here was what will be looked back on as a defining speech of the #MeToo moment; and, perhaps it’s not too much to speculate, on the history of the Winfrey presidency.

      For a speech to work well, a speaker has to have personal authority, or ethos, and they have to hit the right moment in time — what the Greeks called kairos. Ms Winfrey’s acceptance speech for her Cecil B DeMille Lifetime Achievement Award at the Golden Globes last night hit both of those targets centre-bull.

      Kairos-wise, here was an awards ceremony in a room filled with Hollywood liberals in revolt against a profoundly illiberal presidency, and vibrating with the energy of a movement whose origins were in Hollywood misogyny but which has broadened into a worldwide campaign. It does not do Ms Winfrey down to say that she was playing to a friendly crowd.

      And Oprah is ethos on a stick. Here was a woman, and a woman of colour at that; a woman of colour who made her own success from a poor background; a woman of colour whose breakthrough role was in The Color Purple, a film about triumphing over racism and sexual abuse; a woman of colour whose career as a talk-show host has centred on the sharing of personal stories (“Speaking your truth”, as she put it) and who has been saying “Me Too” for decades.

      Her speech did everything she could have hoped it would. No barn was left unstormed. It was a speech about storytelling (“Each of us in this room is celebrated because of the stories that we tell, and this year we became the story”) and bearing witness — themes that unite the political moment with what Hollywood exists to do.

      And she told stories herself. She opened with a description of her as a child in 1964, sitting “on the linoleum floor” watching Sidney Poitier becoming the first black man to win an Oscar. That linoleum is a brilliant touch: a metonym for her humble origins (not carpet; no couch) and an enargia, putting the listener in the room. And in invoking Poitier — who as she points out went on to win the very award she was now accepting — she aligned herself with the moral and cultural bona fides of a strong ancestor. She even quoted him: “Amen, amen, amen, amen.”

      She brought in another spiritual ancestor, Recy Taylor — whom she placed in a lineage that runs directly, and personally, through Rosa Parks to the present day, deftly weaving the civil rights struggle with the theme of sexual abuse and implying their essential identity. The pathos of being able to say that Recy had died 10 days ago just added to the effect.

      She shaped her audience like a champ — asserting the sisterhood of the women in Hollywood who suffered and spoke out against harassment with unnamed millions in any number of industries, and giving the phrase force with a well turned tricolon: “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”. And she included men as allies: “[Recy’s truth] is here with every woman who chooses to say, ‘Me too’. And every man — every man — who chooses to listen.”

      She used lists effectively — and hit cadences like the award-winning film star she is: “How we experience shame, how we love and how we rage, how we fail, how we retreat, persevere and . . . How. We. Overcome.”

      She also — as with that sotto repetition of “Their time is up” — played that very effective trick of looking at the moment both in and out of time: moving her speech from the moment of change here and now to an image of the future as if inevitable: “A new day is on the horizon!”

      Was it an accident that this section of her speech echoed Martin Luther King’s “I Have Been To The Mountaintop” speech? Was it an accident that the story of Taylor — the living witness to a century-long change in history — echoed Barack Obama’s invocation of Ann Nixon Cooper in his 2008 election night speech? If so, these were happy accidents. And if I were Donald Trump, there’s one rival TV star I’d be eyeing with particular nervousness as 2020 approaches.

      Sam Leith is author of ‘Words Like Loaded Pistols: Rhetoric from Aristotle to Obama’

  13. Excellent analysis for a powerful, powerful speech.
    Thank you John for your insights and for sharing this!

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