Oprah’s speech on Friday to 960 students and their families had the hallmarks of what you’d expect from a master orator: personal stories, wisdom, insights, humor and short, motivational sayings that are pure gold on social media. She also gave the students a lesson in communication that’s hard to teach but critical to develop–how you deliver your words matters, and it matters a lot.
I was watching the Twitter feed during Oprah’s 20-minute commencement speech. Some people said they had goosebumps. Others said the speech made them cry.
Oprah didn’t evoke these feelings from her words alone. Her words are nicely written, but the sentence structure gives words their beauty and power. The speech was written to be delivered, and delivered to stir people’s emotions.
Three public speaking tools that can stir emotions
Specifically, Oprah used a few classical rhetorical techniques to make the words sound emotional: alliteration, anaphora and crescendo.
Alliteration means starting a series of words with the same letter or letters. It’s pleasing to the ear. In her commencement speech, Oprah called on the students to become an “Ambitious army of truth-seekers who will arm themselves with the intelligence, the insight, and the facts necessary to strike down deceit.”
She encouraged students to use their skills to bring light to darkness. Instead of meeting hysteria with hysteria, she advised, see through it and transcend it. Then, she quickened the pace of her deliver to build to an emotional crescendo:
“That is how you overcome the sniping at one another, the trolling, the mean-spirited partisanship on both sides of the aisle, the divisiveness, the injustices, the out-and-out hatred. Use this moment to encourage you, embolden you, and to literally push you into the rising of your life.”
Oprah told the students that their job is to challenge the left, the right and the center. Report the facts and back it up, she told the journalism students.
And then, she used another list to build into a soaring crescendo of emotion which received the most sustained applause of the speech. Here, she used anaphora–the repetition of the same words at the beginning or the end of successive sentences–to build the emotion [in bold]:
“The truth exonerates and it convicts. It disinfects and it galvanizes. The truth has always been and will always be our shield against corruption, our shield against grief and despair. The truth is our saving grace. You are here to tell it, to write it, to proclaim it, to speak it and to be it. Be the truth. Be the truth.”
In another section of her speech, Oprah listed some of the problems students must confront. She sped up the pace of her speech and read this portion significantly faster to give more weight to list’s length:
“There’s gun violence, systemic racism, economic inequality, media bias, the homeless need opportunity, the addicted need treatment, the dreamers need protecting, the prison system needs reforming, the LGBTQ community needs acceptance, the social safety net needs saving and the misogyny needs..to..stop.”
She received a sustained round of applause after she delivered the paragraph.
As a communicator, Oprah knows that merely writing lists isn’t enough. She writes them for the ear and changes her delivery to meet the needs of the sentence.
Oprah advised the students to remain hopeful and avoid cynicism: “It’ll cloud your clarity, it’ll compromise your integrity, it’ll lower your standards, it’ll choke your empathy and, sooner or later, cynicism will shatter your faith.” She used strong action verbs to strengthen her argument. Cynicism ‘shatters, chokes, and clouds.’
Over the next few hours and days, you’ll see social media posts from people who found Oprah’s speech to be inspiring. Inspiration, by definition, means to be infused with passion and enthusiasm.
Yes, words alone can inspire. And when they’re delivered by a person who understands the cadence of language and emotion, they become much more powerful.