Oprah Winfrey accepted the Cecil B. de Mille Award at the 2018 Golden Globes with a riveting speech that opened with a childhood memory not many people will forget. With just a few words, Oprah painted a picture for the audience that acts as a reminder to all aspiring (and seasoned) speakers about what it takes to deliver a powerful speech.
“In 1964, I was a little girl sitting on the linoleum floor of my mother’s house in Milwaukee watching Anne Bancroft present the Oscar for Best Actor at the 36th Academy Awards. She opened the envelope and said five words that literally made history: the winner is Sidney Poitier. Up to the stage came the most elegant man I had ever seen. I remember his tie was white and, of course, his skin was black; and I’ve never seen a black man being celebrated like that. And I tried 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.”
What makes this opening story so powerful is Oprah’s skillful use of language and detail; it’s not hard to imagine a black child sitting cross-legged on a linoleum floor staring at a television set watching a glamorous movie star open a white envelope, and then, lean into a microphone to announce the winner’s name. In my mind’s eye, I can see a striking black man in a perfect tie glide up to the stage to receive his award.
The details are exquisite in their precision: linoleum floor; house in Milwaukee; Anne Bancroft; Oscar For Best Actor; 36th Academy Awards; five words; white tie; cheap seats; bone-tired; cleaning other people’s houses.
The retelling of the moment and its significance took Oprah 124 words and less than one minute to tell. Her entire speech was less than 10 minutes long, including the many standing ovations and rally cries she received during the delivery of it.
There’s a lot business professionals can learn from Oprah’s Golden Globes acceptance speech including the most important lesson of all: when it comes to delivering high-impact presentations, less is more.
Many business leaders and professionals dream of delivering ovation-worthy speeches that inspire audiences to think differently, act differently and shake-up the status quo. They dream of sharing their big ideas on large stages with audiences around the world with power and poise. Few, however, manage to pull it off.
Many speakers get bogged down in irrelevant details, long-winded tangents and self-serving stories that serve to distract, rather than inspire their audiences. Instead of shepherding listeners to greener pastures, too many speakers take their audiences down long, meandering paths that lead nowhere. The key to delivering a powerful and memorable talk is to abstain from long-winded monologues.
Pick a theme and stick to it.
I work with speakers from all over the world helping them to develop content and, invariably, I see many of them falling into the same trap: they try to pack too much in one speech, afraid to leave something out. I see this especially with my subject matter experts who have decades of knowledge they want to share with their audiences.
Of course, there’s nothing wrong with wanting to share what you know. But you can’t do it all in one shot. It’s kind of like going to a buffet and eating everything all at once; chances are, it’s going to make you feel a little queasy. Similarly, when you share too much information or too many storylines with your audience, it’s going to make them feel overwhelmed and maybe even a little queasy. In her Golden Globes speech, Oprah focused on the theme of gender and racial equality; she delivered flawlessly.
So don’t try to pack in too much. Pick a theme and stick with it.
Choose your vocabulary carefully.
Oprah’s choice of words was, no doubt, careful and deliberate. She was intentional in her vocabulary. She used succinct and emotional language to powerfully convey exactly what she wanted to say and, more importantly, what she wanted the audience to feel. “A kid watching from the cheap seats”, for instance, evokes an image in the listeners mind that speaks volumes. Instead of given a lengthy explanation of her poor and humble childhood, Oprah painted a vivid picture with just seven words.
Remember this: You can say a lot with a few words. So choose your words carefully and let them do the heavy lifting. After all, The effective presenters know that being clear and concise is their most powerful tool.