A masterclass of powerful speaking – Hari Patience-Davies analyses Oprah Winfrey’s 2018 speech at the Golden Globes.
A few years ago, Oprah Winfrey made history. She’s done it before; in 2004 when she gave everyone in her studio audience a car, and again recently with the interview with the Duke and Duchess of Sussex.
In 2018 she was honoured at the Golden Globes awards ceremony, becoming the first African American woman to win the Cecil B. DeMille award. She took the stage to the sound of enthusiastic applause, and held court for a little under 9 minutes, giving a short but effective speech that took her from her childhood in 1964 to the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements in Hollywood.
It’s a great speech. For our recent How to use your voice webinar I wanted to include examples of excellence for each of the four Ps of vocal delivery (Pace, Pitch, Projection, Pause) and Winfrey’s speech was the one I selected for Pace. She has such vocal control – speeding up and slowing down and taking the audience on a journey through her memories, her hopes and her fears, as well the struggle for African American civil rights and the Montgomery Bus Boycott.
I was so impressed the speech I had to break it down a bit, and I scribbled the content map into my notebook to try and present the journey Winfrey takes her audience on.
The dotted line represents the emotional journey of the speech, moving up and down on a vertical scale from happy enthusiasm to somber reflection. The first few times Winfrey is interrupted by applause (as shown by the purple sections) she pauses and waits for it to die down before continuing, but as her speech turns to #MeToo and #TimesUp she carries on through the cheering and clapping, declaring that “Time is Up!” at the 7 minute mark and then “No one has to say “me too” again!” at 9 minutes.
The whole video clip is 9 minutes and 9 seconds long and is absolutely worth your time to watch. Of particular note is how she uses the pacing of the speech at the beginning to build a rhythm. Winfrey alternates slower speech with quicker, drawing out phrases like “sitting on the linoleum floor” to create moments of sensory detail and connection with the audience. Some of her choices for faster or slower delivery aren’t obvious at first – but she creates a recurrence of the slow and fast sections that is almost like the cadence of a song or poem.
“And I have tried many many many many times to explain what a moment like that means to a little girl, a kid watching from the cheap seats, as my mom came through the door bone tired from cleaning other people’s houses”
But performs it as:
“And I have tried [pause] many many many many times to explain what a moment like that [pause] means [pause] to a little girl, a kid watching from the cheap seats, as my mom came through the door [pause] bone tired [pause] from cleaning other people’s houses.”
Underline = faster delivery
Italics = slower delivery
Winfrey’s even and clear delivery style reflects the seriousness of the message she wants to deliver. There’s no jokes here or witty observations – she praises the need for a free press, talks about civil rights abuses and her hope for a better future. She’s clearly passionate, but not overly emotional, she’s not crying or grinning wildly – instead she lets the cadence of her speech build the emotions for her – in her audience.
It’s incredible really that in a 9 minute speech at an awards ceremony, less than 30 seconds is given to thank yous and acknowledgements. Instead Winfrey takes the opportunity to remind people how far we have come – but that the journey isn’t over yet, and there is a still fighting ahead.