David Massey

January 13, 2018 at 6:22 pm

What’s in Oprah’s speech?

Many will have seen, enjoyed and applauded Oprah Winfrey’s speech at last week’s Golden Globes, but what are some of the elements that made it so powerful?

Why do we listen to a speaker? Well in Oprah’s case it may well start because she is famous, becuase of the occasion or because of the massive interest in the #metoo campaign.

That’s all very well but how can our interest be maintained beyond the first 30 seconds? Here are 5 things she does to keep her audience’s attention.

  1. Real stories with details

She opens with “In 1964, I was a little girl  …” and goes on to colour in this picture for us with details that touch all the senses and pull on memory. It is easy to follow and listen because we can all relate to and remember being young. We are all immediately curious to understand where the story is going.

She parallels her story with that of Recy Taylor in 1944, which reminds me of Obama’s presidential acceptance speech in Chicago in 2008 where he spoke of an America through the eyes of Ann Nixon Cooper. I also seem to recall that Oprah was in the front row that night!

  1.  The power of three

Many examples of using groupings of three. At around 2:37 we hear “… incredible men and women who’ve inspired me, who’ve challenged me, who’ve sustained me …” – perfect balance in the repetition. It gives the powerful words a chance to be heard.

  1. Personal belief

We are interested in a speaker (and so keep listening) when we learn something about them, whatever they happen to be talking about. The use of expressions such as I valuewhat I knowI’m inspiredIn my career, what I’ve always tried my best to do etc allows us inside Oprah’s thoughts, beliefs and values.

  1. Machine gunning

Listen at 4:55 – “They are domestic workers and farm workers … etc ” Not the power or magic of three this time, but a longer list, fired out with clarity and precision to cover all walks of life. I counted around 13 jobs she lists. How many did you get (and relate to)?

  1. How you say it

Now all of the above is fine on paper, but how are you going to deliver it. Listen for the varieties in pace as she speeds up (as in the machine gunning above) or when she slows down and … pauses. Short sentences, no new words we don’t understand; clear intonation and pronunciation; clever use of repetition their time is up, their time is up. The variation of volume: bold and loud, soft and intimate.

What are you going to say?

So those are just 5 areas to be thinking about. What do you notice? What do you think of the speech? Leave a comment below. And if you believe in your world (at work or on any occasion where you have to speak in public), you can never be Oprah, then you are right – and your audience doesn’t want you to be her. They just want you to be you!

Oh, and if you’re worried about forgetting your lines, don’t! We see at 6:51 that Oprah is reading from the autocue!

It usually takes me more than three weeks to prepare a good impromptu speech. (Mark Twain)


  • About 1000 words, delivered (with interruptions) in around 9 minutes.
  • Full transcript available on many websites including The Atlantic.
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