“I watched history in the making last night as Oprah Winfrey received the Cecil B. Demille Award for Lifetime Achievement at the Golden Globes.
Instead of simply reciting a laundry list of thank you’s, she honored the potential of the occasion and delivered an uplifting speech that deeply impacted everyone lucky enough to hear it. (You tube video of her full talk here.)
We all knew we were watching something special unfold right in front of us. We witnessed a sea change in action. It was eloquence at its best. Oratory for a cause.
Here are just a few reasons that nine minute (!) talk was so masterful, so effective.
1. She showed up to serve. She was there to inspire, not to impress. This was about creating a rising tide raising all involved, not about self-aggrandizement.
2. She spoke naturally and without notes. Oprah invested the effort to memorize her talk so she could connect with her audience and speak from her heart instead of being “in her head” reading a transcript, verbatim, from a teleprompter. This freed her up to be “in the moment” and “in flow” so she could fully focus on giving the speech of a lifetime, the speech she was born to give.
3. Her content was superbly crafted and condensed. I can only imagine the weeks of preparation that went into developing the language and distilling it into an “every word matters” momentum that swept us up in its elegance and eloquence. Imagine all the things she wanted to say, yet disciplined herself to edit out.
4. There was no embellishing, no grand-standing. No try-too-hard language that rang false or self-conscious mannerisms that detracted from the message.
5. It had a reveal. Original talks delight us because they introduce something new, something meaningful we hadn’t been aware of before. When Oprah revealed that the investigator assigned to Recy Taylor’s case was none other than … (wait for it) … Rosa Parks, there was an audible “I didn’t know that” gasp from the audience.
6. She started with WHERE.
Oprah’s first words were, “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. I tried many times to explain what a moment like that means to a little girl watching from the cheap seats as my mom came through the door bone tired from cleaning other people’s houses. But … “ Click here for the full transcript.
By putting us in the scene of where she was and what it was like watching a black man receiving an award, we understood the significance of her (the first black woman) receiving this award. It fleshed out the context of what a meaningful full circle Hero Journey story this is. She put us THERE by jumping right into her WHERE. (More about that here.)
7. The truth is in the details. Oprah’s specificity of visual details not only helped us see what she was saying, it caused us to conclude she was telling the truth. We don’t believe vague stories. We wonder if the speaker is making them up, and if the speaker is making this up, what else are they making up? Mark Twain talked about the importance of carefully chosen words: the difference between lightning and lightning bug. She didn’t just watch Sidney Poitier receive his award, she was sitting on the linoleumfloor while she did. That one word linoleum made this story real and relatable and viscerally engaged us because we were picturing the linoleum floor of our childhood.
8. She linked historical and current events. She referenced the true story of Recy Taylor to show that brutality has been happening for decades, and then segued into what’s happening now with Recy serving as a metaphor for all people (past and present) who have suffered abuse and have not been heard, seen, recognized or respected.
9. She didn’t call people out, she called them up. Instead of throwing people under the bus and making this about race or gender, (which would only have created further polarizing divisiveness), Oprah’s goal was to bring people together and galvanize us to move forward in cooperation, not conflict.
10. It featured repeatable, retweetable sound-bites. I’ve written before how crucial it is to create memorable memes if you want your content to go viral. Her enduring one-liners “What I know for sure is that speaking your truth is the most powerful tool we all have.” “Their time is up. Their time is up.” “A new day is on the horizon.”ensure that her message will be shared on social media platforms which means it will reach more people globally and remain top-of-mind for a long time.
11. It was inclusive. She spoke of “phenomenal men who choose to listen” so this was not male-bashing. She enlarged the scope of her intended audience by naming diverse industries which increased relevance and the likelihood that people from all walks of life would feel she was talking to them.
She said, “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 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, in restaurants. 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 our soldiers in the military.”
12. She created an emotional crescendo. Just as a symphony increases intensity to lead to a dramatic finale, Oprah ramped up her energy and vocal volume towards the end. Yet it didn’t feel artificial, it felt authentic. Whatever we want our audience to feel, we’ve got to feel first. If we want people to care passionately and feel empowered, we’ve got to model that by speaking with passion and power. We must launch the emotional bandwagon we want people to jump on in the final minute of our talk.
13. It ends on a note of hope. She closed with, “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.”
The best talks have book-ends, call-backs and continuity. They repeat and refer back to what was said in the beginning to create a satisfying full-circle experience. Oprah used the words she wanted us to remember and act on in her send-off. She wanted us to believe it’s possible to feel hope when dealing with ugliness, to see a new day in the midst of darkness. So, instead of being subtle about that, she used and imprinted the exact “rally cry” words she wants us to carry forward.
In doing all the above, she delivered what I believe has the potential to become this century’s version of Martin Luther King Jr.’s I Have a Dream speech.
What were your observations and take-aways from Oprah’s speech? How did it impact you – as a person – as a leader – as a speaker?
My take-away is that EVERY speaking opportunity matters. There’s no such thing as a throw-away talk. If we’re receiving an award, participating on a panel, presenting a keynote or giving a report at a staff, board or annual meeting; we have a responsibility to honor the occasion and say something that matters.
We can make an enduring difference (even in a few minutes) if we invest the time and effort to craft a meaningful, memorable message – and if we put our mind to it.
– – -Sam Horn”.
I didn’t see hear or read anything about this speech’s particulars until this article I came across on Linkedin. 11/11/18, choosing to wait until the #Oprah2020 furor died down.
No matter your take on the #metoo ‘movement’, Oprah or Hollywood it’s (this speech) Intriguing. Inspiring and uplifting. Shandra