Future President or Not, Oprah Winfrey Gave a Textbook Great Speech for the Ages
The cadence. The inflection. The combination of the personal and the political. Oprah Winfrey gave a master class in writing a powerful, thoughtful speech.
Why was Oprah’s speech at the Golden Globes last night so captivating? That’s easy. She’s Oprah. The cadence. The inflection. The mix of cozy warmth and undeniable power. “Oprah’s hugs could end wars,” Reese Witherspoon declared, introducing her A Wrinkle in Time co-star. By the same token, Oprah could perform a reading of Donald Trump’s Twitter feed and still move an audience to tears.
But she wasn’t reading Donald Trump’s Twitter feed last night. Just the opposite. As a former speechwriter for President Obama, I was struck by how textbook—in the best possible way—Oprah’s remarks were. Behind her extraordinary delivery was a master class in writing a powerful, thoughtful speech.
Let’s start with a section about two-thirds of the way down. (That’s only five paragraphs—a reminder to all of us that if Oprah can keep it short, so can we.) With clarity and concision to stir the heart of even the grumpiest high school English teacher, she states her thesis: “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.”
Even for Oprah, this is a bold statement. And that brings us back to the beginning. Because everything she says in the run-up to her Main Idea is about building the authority to say it.
She starts with an anecdote from her childhood, but she doesn’t tell us her life story. Instead, she picks a moment that answers the question, Why is an entertainer qualified to tell us about justice? She reminds us that she started life as an ordinary person, from an ordinary family, and recalls watching Sidney Poitier become the first African-American to win a best-actor Oscar. She tells us about her own emotions in that moment. But she also describes a sea change first reflected in, and then accelerated by, Hollywood entertainers.
In the next section, she states what she began by suggesting: that the moment she describes back then is a lot like the moment we’re living through now. She also, subtly, begins to pivot from a speech about race to a speech about gender: “It is not lost on me that at this moment there are some little girls watching.”
Then, she does what everyone who gives a speech has to do at some point – she thanks people. A lot of speakers hit pause, acknowledge VIPs, and hit play again, hoping the audience hasn’t lost interest. Not Oprah. She picks only the most important people in her life. She says something short and kind about each of them, in a way that takes us through her biography.
Finally, with the first sentence of the fourth paragraph, she moves from acknowledgments back to the body of her speech with a figure skater’s grace: “I want to thank the Hollywood Press Association. We know the press is under siege these days.” Of course, Golden Globes voters are hardly the ones risking their lives to expose Russian corruption or being jeered at Trump rallies. But sometimes a single common word – in this case, press – is enough to connect two wildly different ideas. .
And Oprah isn’t through making connections. The remainder of graf three is a dazzling series of transitions: from freedom of the press to the importance of truth. From the importance of truth to the power of sharing our stories. Then we reach the big one: “I’m especially proud and inspired by all the women who have felt strong enough and empowered enough to speak up.” There’s a kind of lateral movement - she starts at I’m Accepting an Award and finishes at I’m Going to Say Something About #MeToo.
Having brought us to our final destination, Oprah begins zooming out. This is not just an entertainment industry issue. Domestic workers. Farm workers. Factory workers. Restaurant workers. Technology, politics, business, sports, the military. Paragraph four is explicitly about expanding our focus. Implicitly, it’s about answering the most important question of any speech. Why should we, the audience, care?
Only then, in paragraph five, is Oprah ready for the most moving two sections of her remarks. She abruptly narrows in on a single story: that of Recy Taylor, an African-American woman who had the courage to speak out after being raped in the Jim Crow south in 1944. It’s an extraordinary retelling, worth watching in full. But if Oprah hadn’t already established her authority and told us why we should care about the larger issue, it wouldn’t work in this context. She has. It does. And after telling a powerful story, she zooms back out to the big picture, delivering her equally powerful thesis.
The rest of the speech is about sticking the landing – and because she’s set up everything up so gracefully, it’s not a hard landing to stick. She includes the audience, both in the room and at home, in a call to action. She lays out a vision – “the time when nobody has ever has to say ‘Me too’ again.” If the first two-thirds of her speech were about defining the present, the final third is about defining the future. It’s a classic way to finish. That forward momentum is what brings a crowd to its feet.
It’s also, apparently, what makes the internet decide Oprah should be the 46th president of the United States. But whether or not you’re jumping on Oprah 2020 bandwagon, you can learn from her remarks. Have a clear main idea. Establish your authority. Tell the audience why the issue matters. Alternate between zooming out to the big picture, and zeroing in on personal stories. Once you’ve done all that, wrap up with a vision for the future. Most of us will never deliver a speech like the one we saw last night. But if we follow the example it provided, we can speak our truth in the most compelling possible way.
There’s power in that. Ask Oprah if you don’t believe me.