A speech coach explains exactly why Oprah sounded so presidential

Oprah spoke for more than eight minutes without lying, attacking the free press, praising Vladamir Putin, or riffing on the size of her button.
Oprah spoke for more than eight minutes without lying, attacking the free press, praising Vladamir Putin, or riffing on the size of her button.
Image: Reuters/ Handout
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

As a speech teacher at the University of Washington, I listen to speeches for utility. Can I use this in class? Will it help novice speakers improve? I think Oprah Winfrey’s recent Golden Globes speech is a useful teaching example. There’s a lot going on in those eight minutes, but I would direct students (and anyone interested in breaking down her talk) to watch for two main things:

1. Winfrey’s speech makes the case for speaking out without ever asking anyone to speak out

Her speech focuses on the unseen influence of speaking your truth. Other commentator discuss the slippage between “your truth” and “the truth.” I’m interested in how Winfrey, through examples, allusions, and metaphors, makes an implicit argument that you should speak out, even though you might not see a direct impact.

Winfrey begins by describing how Sidney Poitier winning the Oscar influenced her as a young girl. Like her, he won the Cecil B. DeMille award. There might even be some “little girls watching as I become the first black woman to be given this same award.” Winfrey herself is another link in an unseen chain of influence.

Later Winfrey details Recy Taylor’s influence on Rosa Parks. Taylor’s willingness to speak the truth of her brutal assault at the hands of a group of white men, “was somewhere in Rosa Parks’ heart almost eleven years later, when she made the decision to stay seated on that bus in Montgomery.” Taylor, Parks, and women who speak their individual truths, contribute, in Winfrey’s speech, to a larger movement.

Winfrey concludes that “the time is up” for “brutally powerful men” because women’s truth has “gone marching on.” This line, of course, was important in the civil rights movement, coming from the Battle Hymn of the Republic. Before that, it was a key line in the Civil War marching song, “John Brown’s Body,” about the executed abolitionist. “John Brown’s body lies a-mouldering in the grave, but his soul goes marching on.” Again, the unseen lingering impact of telling an individual truth.

All this repetition builds to the final paragraph, where Winfrey leans heavy on a sunrise metaphor, asking that women maintain hope in a “brighter morning.” This “new day is on the horizon” and when it “finally dawns” then “nobody ever has to say ‘Me too’ again.” Winfrey never asks listeners directly to have a “Me too” moment. Nevertheless, the argument is clear. Using induction through examples and metaphors, Winfrey invites listeners to risk speaking their truth, even if they can’t see the impact of doing so.

2. Winfrey’s speech sounds good because it pulls heavily from classical style

Ancient Greek and Roman speakers developed a vocabulary for stylistic writing. For example, antimetabole has two inverted phrases (A B; B A). That’s the formula. It worked for JFK when he said, “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.” It worked for Malcolm X when he said, “We didn’t land on Plymouth Rock; the rock was landed on us.” Classical stylistic devices work and Winfrey used about twenty or so in her short speech. Here are a few examples.

Early in her speech, she says, “it is a privilege to share the evening with all of them and also with the incredible men and women who have inspired me, who challenged me, who sustained me and made my journey to this stage possible.” That’s a tricolon, three phrases of the same basic length.  You might be more familiar with Lincoln’s famous tricolon in his Gettysburg Address. “But, in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate, we cannot hallow, this ground.”

At the speech’s halfway point, Winfrey breaks from the content to cluster up about five different stylistic devices. She notes that many women suffered oppression. “They’re the women whose names we’ll never know. They are domestic workers and farm workers.” That’s a tiny bit of epistrophe, repetition at the end of phrases. She contrasts that immediately with some anaphora, repetition at the beginning of phrases.  “They are working in factories and they work in restaurants…” While Obama, I think, had a special love for anaphora, he would also mix it with some epistrophe. In his farewell address, he listed some policy successes “if I had told you that we would open up a new chapter with the Cuban people…. if I had told you that we would win marriage equality…if I had told you all that, you might have said our sights were set a little too high. But that’s what we did. That’s what you did.”

She shifts into some enumueratio (listing topics) and polysyndeton (adding extra conjunctions to a phrase).  “They are working in factories and they work in restaurants and they’re in academia, engineering, medicine, and science. They’re part of the world of tech and politics and business,” says Winfrey. Barbara Jordan had some nice polysendeton in her famous DNC speech, “We must change that deleterious environment of the 80’s, that environment which was characterized by greed and hatred and selfishness and mega-mergers and debt overhang….” Often effective, but not always. Howard Dean tried some impromptu polysendeton during his presidential bid and ended up giving the world the Dean Scream.

When I teach novice speakers, they tend to isolate the style from the argument. They’ll write a basic speech, then pepper in a few stylistic devices. That never works well. The best speeches, the most memorable ones, make their case through style. Winfrey does that.

Ultimately though, Winfrey’s speech was so powerful because it was a kairotic response. In ancient Greek, kairos was a sense of time. Chronos was the ticking of the clock; kairos was the “opportune moment.” That chance to say just the right thing, in just the right way, at just the right time.  Classical rhetors chased kairos; trained for it. We still privilege kairos. Modern presidential debate seems focused on finding and exploiting the “just right response.” So, yes, Winfrey’s speech was well written, but more importantly, it was well timed.

Watch it here: