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A lesson in storytelling from Oprah

Posted by  Shawn Callahan —January 12, 2018
Filed in Business storytelling, Insight

Oprah Winfrey gave a powerful speech at the 2018 Golden Globes accepting the Cecil B. de Mille Award. It seems to be talked about everywhere with some even suggesting Oprah should run for the US Presidency.

One of the reasons her speech was so powerful were the stories she told and how they helped the audience feel things while she weaved together some big ideas that were top of mind for many.

In this post I want to point out the stories Oprah told and the role they played in her speech so that you can seek out your own stories to include in your next talk. Maybe you will also be able to inspire people to their feet.

After Oprah settles the audience her first words open with a story. The time marker is clear. “In 1964 …”

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, of course his skin was black, and I had never seen a black man being celebrated like that. And I have 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.

Great stories are visual. Who can picture the little girl watching a tiny black and white TV with Anne Bancroft presenting the Oscar to Sidney Poitier? Small, specific details bring a story to life. The little girl wasn’t just sitting on the floor. She was sitting on the linoleum floor.

Oprah is setting up her first theme: so many little girls are watching us, idolising us, seeing us as role models.

This story is also a reminder of where Oprah came from, meagre beginnings in Milwaukee with a mum who worked hard for her kids. She links back to this story a number of times.

And we learn all this in just 1 minute and 3 seconds. Don’t be fooled to think stories take too long to tell.

Oprah now moves out of story mode into her first big idea. She sets it up by saying the media is under fire and she applauds their dedication to uncovering the absolute truth. And then Oprah makes it clear what her talk is really about.

I want to express my gratitude to all the women who have endured years of abuse and assault because like my mother, had children to feed, bills to pay and dreams to pursue.

“And like my mother …” she links back to her opening story and we immediately get a flash of Oprah’s bone-tired mom. We know this image. It’s familiar. It resonates.

Oprah builds the idea that no one is immune. We are all in this together. After listing a range of jobs and professions she tells us: they are names of women we will never know …

And with that Oprah moves to her next story.

And there is someone else, Recy Taylor, a name I know and I think you should know too. In 1944 Recy Taylor was a young wife and a mother. She was just walking home from the church service she attended in Abbeville, Alabama when she was abducted by six armed white men, raped and left blindfolded and by the side of the road coming home from church. They threatened to kill her if she ever told anyone. But her story was reported to the NAACP where a young worker by the name of … Rosa Parks who became the lead investigator on her case and together they sought justice. But justice wasn’t an option in the era of Jim Crow. The men who tried to destroy her were never prosecuted. Recy Taylor died 10 days ago just shy of her 98th birthday.

We are now reminded, in a visceral way, of the terrible injustices done to women. It makes us sick to the stomach. Recy was innocent, just coming home from church. And then there’s the contrast of six men, armed, white, with power over her.

To help understand why Recy Taylor’s story has such impact we need to appreciate that there is a kind of story impact hierarchy. It comes from how we have evolved as a species and learned to survive. It’s in our DNA.

At the top of the heap is anything to do with death or bodily harm. We can’t help but want to know what happened when someone dies or is attacked so we can avoid that situation for ourselves. We feel strongly so we don’t forget it. Our heart goes out.

Other powerful story topics include children’s safety, sex and love and power.

Oprah then makes the connection between Recy’s story and how the men were not brought to justice and what is happening now and how perpetrators where also getting away with it. And just as we are feeling low she flips it on its head with a rallying cry that brings people to their feet:

But their time is up … their time is UP … their time is up.

The speech has now shifted to the next gear. And Oprah refers to a story that is well known in the US. And because it’s well know she doesn’t have to tell the whole story.

It was somewhere in Rosa Parks’ heart almost 11 years later when she made the decision to stay seated on that bus in Montgomery. And it’s here with every woman who chooses to say “Me too.”

And with those words Oprah connects the brave efforts of Rosa Parks with the brave efforts of women speaking out about injustice and abuse that was been the focus of the #metoo movement.

To finish her speech Oprah reminds us of the many interviews she’s done and how a pattern has emerged from the many thousands of people who have faced the very toughest situations and thrived.

They maintain hope for a brighter morning even during our darkest nights.

This metaphor is the pivot point for the end of the speech. We are at the peak, Oprah’s voice is raised and everyone is standing. She then beautifully connects the end with the beginning by addressing the girls watching tonight.

So I want all the girls watching here now to know THAT A NEW DAY IS ON THE HORIZON.

AND WHEN THAT NEW DAY FINALLY DAWNS …

IT WILL BE BECAUSE OF MANY MAGNIFICENT WOMEN, MANY OF THEM WHO ARE RIGHT HERE IN THIS ROOM TONIGHT, AND SOME PRETTY PHENOMENAL MEN, FIGHTING HARD TO MAKE SURE THEY BECOME THE LEADERS WHO TAKE US TO THE TIME WHERE NOBODY HAS TO SAY “ME TOO” AGAIN. THANK YOU.

This is storytelling at its best.  We can learn from the use of stories to connect with the audience (to the point where they all stand up and start a continuous applause) and we can learn how to use them to build the biggest point of all.

Oprah told this story orally – no pictures, no backdrop, and by doing so allowed us, the listeners, to build those pictures in our own minds, which are the most powerful pictures of all.

We may not have the stage that Oprah had, or her oratory skills, but we can all use stories to connect, influence, inspire and make things happen.  Take care in planning how you use them, and stories will deliver for you and your message too.

To be an effective business storyteller requires practice. Our programs are designed to work in a no-nonsense way in a business setting combined with lots of practical tools and tips and ways to practice. Learn more here

About  Shawn Callahan

Shawn, author of Putting Stories to Work, is one the world's leading business storytelling consultants. He helps executive teams find and tell the story of their strategy. When he is not working on strategy communication, Shawn is helping leaders find and tell business stories to engage, to influence and to inspire. Shawn works with Global 1000 companies including Shell, IBM, SAP, Bayer, Microsoft & Danone. Connect with Shawn on:

2 Responses to “A lesson in storytelling from Oprah”

  1. Sukh Mishra Says:

    Useful post, did observe consciously how stories plugged appropriately made the speech so powerful and inspiring

  2. Peter Spence Says:

    A masterful analysis of Oprah’s Golden Globe Awards speach by Shawn Callahan, highlighting the enormous power of stories, well structured and well told.
    Many thanks.
    P

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