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.

What Makes for A Great Presentation Opener?

One of the trickiest parts of crafting a speech is figuring out how to start it.  Some recommend launching into a story, others recommend letting the audience know where you are heading with the speech, and others suggest using a startling statistic or fact.  I don’t think there is a “right” way to start a speech, but there are a few things that matter.  An opener should be short, and create an immediate impact on the audience; a laugh, a giggle, a sigh, a gasp, etc.  Here are a few great speech openers from some recent TED Talks:

1) Monica Lewinsky –  Ms. Lewinsky is one of my favorite speakers.  I really love this TED Talk.  It’s chock full of courage, wit, pathos, and great storytelling.  She starts the speech with a hilarious, BRIEF story about a young man who tries to pick her up at a bar.  Check it out to hear his pick up line…

Needless to say, humor is one of the best ways to open a speech.  If you can get the audience laughing at the top, they will be more receptive to your ideas.  What makes this opener so brilliant is the way Mrs. Lewinsky manages to get a laugh out of a terribly painful and embarrassing moment in her life.

2) David Miliband – One powerful way to open a speech is to tell a story, but the type of story you tell matters.  In an opener, you need to keep things brief, and personal.  Watch the way Mr. Miliband uses his family heritage to make a startling point about immigration:

3) Anne Lamott – I think this opener is both subtle and startling.  What’s subtle about it is Ms. Lamott’s delivery, which is pleasing, but subdued.  What’s somewhat startling about it is the way she talks about her grandson’s nightmares.  Openers can incorporate paradox:

So what are your favorite openers? Post here or at my twitter.

Is it Possible to Speak too Slow while Presenting?

One of the biggest concerns of my executive presentation training clients in New York City is pacing.  “How fast should I speak” is a question I get a lot.  I tend to think you cannot speak too slow while presenting.  Adrenaline is a powerful substance, and it tends to take over a speech.  Without awareness, it’s all too easy to rush.  But there are those that think speaking too slow is a legitimate problem while presenting.  Let’s compare two TED talks, and analyze their rate of speech, starting with Laura Galante’s speech on Russian hacking:

I think Laura’s pacing is good.  She takes a clear pause at the end of each thought, and highlights important words with her intonation.  By taking her time, she makes complex material clear.

Now let’s check out Bendetta Berti’s TED talk from 2016:

Interesting comparison on a number of fronts.  I would say she is speaking much too fast, especially toward the middle of the speech.  Occasionally, she will take a break at the end of each thought group to allow her thoughts to land, but in general, she is rushing through ideas and concepts.  The problem is made worse by the fact that she is mispronouncing some important words, and dropping the “th” sound entirely.

I did my best to find an example of a TED-talker who was speaking too slowly.  I couldn’t find one.  So I stand by my original premise; you cannot speak too slow while presenting.  What do you think?  Comment below or tweet me your thoughts.

Should ESL Executives Focus on Mastering the Written Language or the Spoken Language?

There are two English languages; the spoken language and the written language.  Broken English happens when the speaker does not understand the difference between the two.  In many other languages, one symbol equals one sound, hence the spoken and written languages are one.  This is not the case with English.  There are 26 letters in the alphabet, but there are 44 sounds in well spoken English.  One letter in English can have many sounds, and one sound in English has no letter equivalent at all.

But because many foreigners assume that the written and spoken languages are essentially the same, that the English language is phonetic, they assume that if they master the written language, they will be mastering the spoken language as well.  Because English is not a phonetic language, it is essential that students understand that the spoken and written languages are largely distinct, and learn their separate rules and logic.  Over time, the vague connection between the two can be gleaned.

What happens to your English if you don’t understand that the “o” symbol can be pronounced many different ways? “Hot” sounds like “hope”.  “Pot” sounds like “Pope”.  And on and on.  Mispronunciation becomes common because the speaker is pronouncing the 26 letters of the alphabet, rather than the 44 sounds of English.  To avoid this, it’s important to be sure to learn the spoken language concurrently with the written language, and with the same vigor.

Understanding the difference between the spoken and written language is only half the battle.  If you want to speak English excellently, you must fight against a larger, more insidious force than this basic misconception.  Do you know what it is?  Your Iphone.  Unfortunately, we live in a society that prizes the written language to the detriment of the spoken language.  How many of your friends prize public speaking, and can’t stand dawdling on their Iphones? None? Yea me too.  Since Guttenberg’s time, we have canonized writing, and eschewed speaking.  To win the battle of better English, you have to resist the pull of the written word, on your computer screen, Iphone, tablet, TV, ect, and begin to open your ears to the sounds of English.