Five Reasons Oprah’s Golden Globe Speech Rocked

When we are called upon to make a speech, we can go through the motions, and pull together something that is adequate, or we can think carefully about the tremendous opportunity we have for creating change, and craft something that calls people to ACTION.  Thankfully, Oprah chose the latter last night with her rousing Golden Globe speech.  Here are five reasons the speech ROCKED:

  1. She opens with a powerful, personal story – Her story about being a little girl watching Sidney Poitier win the Cecil B Demille award was deeply affecting.  The reason it worked was that she shared personal details about her life, and brought us into the sensory experience of what it was like to be there; sitting on the cold linoleum floor watching the television, seeing her mom come home from a hard day of work cleaning other people’s houses, etc. It’s important to share your story, but it’s equally important to draw the audience into the experience of your story.
  2. She had a single, powerful theme – And she states it clearly at around the 4 minute mark.   “Speaking your truth is the most powerful tool we have”.  It’s important to believe in your theme deeply, and to know your audience well enough, and the occasion well enough, to have confidence that your theme will resonate with them.  
  3. Most of the speech is made of stories that dovetail with her theme – Her story about how Recy Taylor endured a horrible sexual assault, and how it is time for such behavior to end, dovetails beautifully with her theme.
  4. She finishes her speech with a powerful call to action – With a minute remaining in this relatively short speech, Oprah assures all the little girls watching her that a new day is arriving, returning thematically to the beginning of the speech, the image of her watching Sidney Poitier on tv as a little girl.  The conclusion mirrors the introduction; we have come full circle.
  5. She uses language powerfully – Notice the way that Oprah engages language.  She hits her verbs, uses her full vocal range, and projects her voice.

Don’t waste speaking opportunities, folks.  Each one, even the most mundane, can encourage change in people and organizations around you.  Oprah’s speech is just one example of the power of the spoken word.  Speak your truth!

Three Reasons Doug Jones’s Acceptance Speech Was Amazing

It was an electric moment for Alabama last night, and for the country.  Doug Jones defeated Roy Moore in an election for a seat in the U.S. Senate, an election that had broad implications for the state of Alabama and for the country at large.

I’d like to focus on his victory speech.  It would have been easy for Senator Jones to surf the adrenaline of the moment, and disregard good public speaking technique, but he didn’t do that.  He spoke with intention, structure, and purpose.  Here are three things that rock about this speech:

  1. It’s selfless – unlike Donald Trump, Doug Jones wasn’t quick to take credit for his victory. He rightly laid the victory at the feet of the people of Alabama.  Nothing unifies an audience more than selflessness.
  2. It uses southern myth brilliantly –  After giving the victory over to the people of Alabama, Jones credits them for taking the right road at “the crossroads”.  “The Crossroads” is a common motif in the music of the deep south, evoking memories of a hodgepodge of southern people and events: Robert Johnson, the Civil Rights Movement, the Alabama Bus Boycott, Segregation, etc, etc.  But it’s bluesman Robert Johnson who owns the most common iteration of this myth; the story of a man who sells his soul to the devil in order to play the guitar.  Every man, woman and child from Alabama, and many people from other parts of the country will immediately understand the allusion, and likely feel thrilled to be walking in Johnson’s footsteps.
  3. It uses southern myth brilliantly part two – I don’t think you can be a Democrat giving a major political speech in Alabama without quoting Martin Luther King Jr, but the question is, which quote?  I’ll admit when Doug Jones trotted out the “the moral arc of the universe” quote from King’s 1964 speech at Wesleyan University, I was a little weary.  It is a quote that is often overused.  But it really is the best quote for this moment.  This race had everything to do with morality and doing what is right.  The Doug Jones moment, for so many reasons, is personified by Martin Luther King Jr, a man who fought against the establishment in the name of dignity, grace and human rights.

Again, it’s very easy to get caught up in the moment during these big emotional speeches and lose track of what you are saying, It’s very important to remember the importance of structure, allegory, and symbolism when you speak.  I hope Doug Jones will remember this when he runs for president in 2020.

Why We Should Change the English Language and Promote the New Version in Video Games

One Saturday afternoon, after managing to convince Vera, my lovely, wild three year old daughter to stop pretending to teach her dolls about dinosaurs, and lay down for her nap, I settled onto the couch to read the New Yorker.  I got really into an article by Elizabeth Kolbert  called “Going Negative” about carbon removal science, and how it might be able to rapidly eliminate greenhouse gasses, and thus, global warming.  According to Kolbert, Carbon removal science owes it’s origins to a physicist named Klaus Lackner, who came up with the concept after a few beers with a fellow physicist, and a long debate over why “nobody’s doing these really crazy, big things anymore”.

It got me thinking.  What really crazy, big things are happening with the English language?  Sure, there are crazy big concepts about language acquisition, and the philosophy of language, but what about the language itself?  Why is the English language so sacrosanct? Has anyone ever thought seriously about changing it?  Yes, I know, the spoken language changes daily, with many fascinating variants that count as languages in themselves, but that is largely an involuntary, evolutionary process.  But what if we were to deliberately take a variant of English, perhaps standard American English, and change it?  So here’s my big idea: I think we should create a simpler, truncated, more phonetic version of English, and promote this simpler form in cartoons and video games (and by “we” I mean anyone who loves the English language).

Do you know that the English language is one of the world’s least phonetic languages? There are twenty-six letters in the alphabet, but nearly forty-four sounds.  NOBODY knows this.  Most native speakers of English are not aware of this, and many non-native speakers of English aren’t aware of it either.  When my daughter goes to preschool, she is taught the written language first, and a simplified, piecemeal variant of the spoken language second.  She is taught about the letter “O”, and the long and short versions of the sound for “O”, but not all the pronunciations that can be associated with the letter “O”.  She will never be taught the “shwa” sound because there is no symbol for that sound.  She will be able to intuit the sound as she is surrounded by the language on a daily basis, but what about a teenager in Lebanon who spends a good deal of time at an internet cafe?  If she is interested, how will she learn these subtleties?  If the connection between the spoken and written language is hazy to teachers of English, how can we assume that non-native speakers of English, with perhaps a high barrier of entry, will understand the connection, and speak English clearly?

They can’t.  In third world countries, and developing nations, the resources for proper training in English are limited, and many teachers skip over the written-spoken language gap and teach a form of English that is a combination of their local dialect and the English language.  But what if we were to shrink the number of spoken sounds in English from forty-four to thirty-four, and work to make the language more phonetic by spelling out English words and phrases phonetically in easily accessible mediums, like video games and cartoons?  There is precedent for this.  Mandarin has over ten thousand characters, so a simplified version was created called “Simplified Chinese” which utilizes much fewer characters.

So which character’s should be dropped, and why video games?  Let’s start with doing away with the “th” sound.  It has been argued that it is going the way of the dinosaur owing to the fact that it is so difficult for non-native speakers of English to pronounce.  Let’s fold it into the “d” sound for our new “Simplified English”. Yes you will need context clues to distinguish whether a non-native speaker of English is talking about a “din” or someone who is “thin” but it seems a small price to pay for a higher degree of global fluency.

And what about this crazy idea of promoting “Simplified English” to gaming companies? Well, to start with the video gaming market was worth close to $100 billion dollars globally in 2016, up 8.4% when compared to 2015. And guess which country dominated that market? China, the world’s fastest developing nation.  Why not persuade gaming companies to create “Simplified English” gaming subtitles and transcripts?  Why not create simple visual intonation patterns at the bottom of the screen and encourage players to speak or sing along with the characters?  Every international student of a certain age knows how to say “hasta la vista, baby”.  Why?  Simple. Because it’s fun to speak outside your language, and to watch movies or play video games, and pretend. Why not mash up the three?

Obviously this is not a fully baked concept, but why wait to put it out there in a world in which misunderstandings build upon themselves?  When I was at a social event not too long ago I met a young man from Iraq who had immigrated to New York City around ten years ago.  His English was flawless, and being a speech coach, I wanted to know how someone from a war torn country with a fractured relationship to the U.S. had come to speak English so well.  “I watched American cartoons”, he said.  Religiously. Every day. Over and over.  A free, immersive, interactive, fun, ubiquitous tutorial.

wat r ur eyedeeyas for a moar fonetik inglish langwij ikspeereeyuhns? #simplifiedenglish

Two Major Mistakes to Avoid While Planning to Moderate a Panel

As a speech coach in New York City, I am frequently called to help people who are preparing to moderate a panel. I often see the same two mistakes made as clients prepare; the first is making the panel discussion too long, and the second is making it too complex. Here is what you can do to avoid these critical errors.

First, make sure that you’re panel discussion is ONE HOUR, and ONE HOUR ONLY. Even the most lively panel discussion will begin to drag after an hour. Science has shown that our attention span is worse than that of a goldfish, so be sure to keep things moving!

Second, don’t muddy the water by having presentations woven into the event.  If you find dynamic enough panelists, and you are careful to be sure they represent opposing viewpoints (conflict and controversy are good!), your panel should be interesting enough.

If you want to moderate a successful panel discussion, keep it simple; dynamic panelists with opposing views, great curated stories (you do the curating), and a single, simple powerpoint slide to display your event information.

 

What Do You Do If You’re Heckled During a Major Speech?

It all started out so well. She was firing on all cylinders; strong voice, good eye contact, inspired writing with a personal touch, a couple of good self-deprecating jokes. However, Theresa May, giving a conference speech aimed at revitalizing her standing after a disastrous few months, found herself seriously derailed when a heckler handed her a “P45” form which is the British equivalent of a “pink slip”. What went wrong?  

My feeling is she didn’t handle this guy quickly and firmly enough. Let’s see some fire, Theresa! This heckler is making a mockery of you in public, and stealing a crucial moment from you (not to mention creating a major security risk). Maybe say something like, “you may think the problems of income inequality, affordable housing, and the sinking pound are laughable, but I assure you I do not. Get off my stage, young man.” Instead, Prime Minister May takes the P45 when it is handed to her, as if she is obligated to do so, and tries to continue as if nothing has happened. After a moment or two, she makes a nice joke, and hits back a bit, but not before her momentum is lost.

What do you think is the best way to handle a heckler?