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.
Picture of Oprah Winfrey
  • 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 that.

  • 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.

The story about Recy Taylor, and her connection with Rosa Parks, was very powerful and moving (5:20).

  • 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

“To tyrants and victims and secrets and lies.” (3:28)

“They are working in factories and they work in restaurants and they’re in academia and engineering and medicine and science.” (5:05)

Epizeuxis

“Amen, amen, amen, amen.” (2:02)

Tricolon

“But their time is up. Their time is up. Their time is up.” (6:40)

“… they, like my mother, had children to feed and bills to pay and dreams to pursue.” (4:45) (Note that this is also polysyndeton.)

  • 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:

(a) 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.

(b) Nick Morgan’s post in Public Words.

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John delivered a keynote address about the importance of public speaking to 80 senior members of Gore’s Medical Device Europe team at an important sales event. He was informative, engaging and inspirational. Everyone was motivated to improve their public speaking skills. Following his keynote, John has led public speaking workshops for Gore in Barcelona and Munich. He is an outstanding speaker who thinks carefully about the needs of his audience well before he steps on stage.

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I first got in touch with John while preparing to speak at TED Global about my work on ProtonMail. John helped me to sharpen the presentation and get on point faster, making the talk more focused and impactful. My speech was very well received, has since reached almost 1.8 million people and was successful in explaining a complex subject (email encryption) to a general audience.

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John gave the opening keynote on the second day of our unit’s recent offsite in Geneva, addressing an audience of 100+ attendees with a wealth of tips and techniques to deliver powerful, memorable presentations. I applied some of these techniques the very next week in an internal presentation, and I’ve been asked to give that presentation again to senior management, which has NEVER happened before. John is one of the greatest speakers I know and I can recommend his services without reservation.

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I was expecting a few speaking tips and tricks and a few fun exercises, but you went above and beyond – and sideways. You taught me to stand tall. You taught me to anchor myself. You taught me to breathe. You taught me to open up. You taught me to look people in the eye. You taught me to tell the truth. You taught me to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes. I got more than I bargained for in the best possible way.

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World Cancer Day Campaign Manager, Union for International Cancer Control

John gave a brilliant presentation on public speaking during the UN EMERGE programme in Geneva (a two days workshop on leadership development for a group of female staff members working in the UN organizations in Geneva). His talk was inspirational and practical, thanks to the many techniques and tips he shared with the audience. His teaching can dramatically change our public speaking performance and enable us as presenters to have a real and powerful impact. Thank you, John, for your great contribution!

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HR Specialist, World Health Organization

John is a genuine communication innovator. His seminars on gamification of public speaking learning and his interactive Rhetoric game at our conference set the tone for change and improvement in our organisation. The quality of his input, the impact he made with his audience and his effortlessly engaging style made it easy to get on board with his core messages and won over some delegates who were extremely skeptical as to the efficacy of games for learning. I simply cannot recommend him highly enough.

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John joined our Global Sales Meeting in Segovia, Spain and we all participated in his "Improv(e) your Work!" session. I say “all” because it really was all interactive, participatory, learning and enjoyable. The session surprised everybody and was a fresh-air activity that brought a lot of self-reflection and insights to improve trust and confidence in each other inside our team. It´s all about communication and a good manner of speaking!"

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CFO European Dairy Supply Chain & Operations, Danone

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Senior Sales Manager, Sunrise Communications

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