As you’ve probably heard by now, last night Oprah Winfrey (not that she needs the last name; she’s Oprah to us all) gave one of the best acceptance speeches since forever, one that immediately began the calls for her to run for president.  (And readers sending me the link asking me if I’d seen it.)  Here’s the link to the video:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fN5HV79_8B8.  And the transcript, in case you’d rather read her remarks:  https://www.cnn.com/2018/01/08/entertainment/oprah-globes-speech-transcript/index.html.

What made the speech so great?  Here are five takeaways that you can use to make your own acceptance – and more everyday – speeches better.

1.She began authentically with her own story.  Too many speakers give us their conclusions, telling us their triumphs in retrospect.  Oprah put us back in 1964:

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. 

We hear just the right amount of detail, every bit for effect.  The linoleum floor tells us she was poor.  We’re with her as a little girl, hearing the “five words that made history.”  We get the rhetorically elegant contrast:  “his tie was white, and of course his skin was black.”

2.But she immediately widens the lens, so that the story is not about her, but about history and black women in general: 

In 1982, Sidney received the Cecil B. DeMille award right here at the Golden Globes and 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. It is an honor — it is an honor and it is a privilege to share the evening with all of them and also with the incredible men and women who have inspired me, who challenged me, who sustained me and made my journey to this stage possible. 

By putting herself in a continuum of “little girls” and Black history, we see the larger perspective, and we’re spared the spectacle of an accomplished, famous person congratulating herself.  This is a hard balance to get right.  Acceptance speeches usually go too far in the other direction; Oprah deserves high marks for her tact.

And her sense of history:

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.

3.Then she tells us something we don’t know. One of the great secrets of mastery in public speaking is giving your audience a blend of the familiar and the new. You give the audience something that it knows, so that it can connect with you and feel comfortably in-the-know.  But then, to demonstrate your expertise, you tell it something it doesn’t know:

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 coming home from church. They threatened to kill her if she ever told anyone, but her story was reported to the NAACP where a young worker by the name of Rosa Parks became the lead investigator on her case and together they sought justice. 

This is the moment the speech took off, from a good acceptance speech to something truly remarkable.  Oprah told us something most of us didn’t know, a bit of history, which she immediately made relevant to today:

Recy Taylor died ten days ago, just shy of her 98th birthday. She lived as we all have lived, too many years in a culture broken by brutally powerful men. 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.

4.And she closes with an irresistible call to action. 

I’ve interviewed and portrayed people who’ve withstood some of the ugliest things life can throw at you, but the one quality all of them seem to share is an ability to maintain hope for a brighter morning, even during our darkest nights. 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.

“A new day is on the horizon.”  The audience starts to get to its feet, both because the phrase is wonderful, and because she delivers it with passion (and a clenched fist).  I’m guessing that just about 100% of the men and women in the audience wanted to be included amongst those “leaders who take us to the time when nobody ever has to say ‘Me too’ again.”  By the end of the sentence, everyone was on their feet, cheering and applauding.

5.Finally, Oprah uses her full voice. I’ve posted before on Oprah’s voice – it’s an extraordinary instrument, beautifully used by its owner. Oprah gave us her memories, tears, joy, passion, anger, and triumph, and she did most of that with her hugely expressive voice.  Oprah, Adele, Martin Luther King, Jr – the number of people who can speak or sing using their full voices are few and unforgettable.  The range of pitch and variety, the pacing, the pauses for emphasis – Oprah can play her voice like Jascha Heifetz can play the violin.

Is there anything Oprah could do better?  She should lose the admonishing forefinger.  Nobody likes to be scolded, even by Oprah, and the forefinger makes her look schoolmarmy.  And she’d have to take the speechwriting up a notch if she was speaking to anyone besides a rapturously positive crowd giving her a lifetime achievement award.

I don’t know if this speech truly marked the beginning of Oprah’s presidential campaign, but if it did, then it’s hard to imagine a more auspicious kickoff.

 

 

 

 

13 Comments

  1. I’ve been waiting for this, Nick. Thanks! I found your critique irresistible, and that was before I got to the part where you suggest Oprah lose the “admonishing forefinger.” It’s such a subtle point — Oprah being Oprah and all — but I found it reassuring I wasn’t the only one who noticed.

    But what a story she’s living. And how much fun will it be to keep following, if this was the beginning of her presidential campaign?

    1. Thanks, Maureen. Glad you picked up on the forefinger, too — Oprah may have the authority to admonish that crowd, because she knows them, but that doesn’t mean they’ll like it. And it doesn’t mean she can admonish the wider world. Stay tuned!

  2. No Oprah Winfrey should not be running for or be elected president of the United States of America !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

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