By now, you have heard how Oprah’s Golden Globes speech triggered a tsunami of emotion across America and the planet. In eight minutes, she achieved what every speaker and leader wants to create: an indelible, inspiring, and defining moment. What’s interesting, however, is to look more closely at precisely how she did it. Specifically, how she used a simple narrative technique to build this moment.
The usual explanation for moments such as these goes as follows: Oprah succeeded because she’s Oprah — queen of communication, force of nature, empath supreme. This is partly true. But when you look more closely at why her speech succeeds, it has little to do with her personality, and everything to do with how she uses the oldest and most underrated communication tool in the book: the power of opposites.
Opposites are the secret jet fuel of narrative. They work according to a simple rule: If you set two polar opposites next to each other, they generate energy that drives connection, meaning, and interest. For example: Which of these two sentences is more compelling:
1) A big, broad-shouldered man walks into a bar and yells in a loud voice, “Hello, everybody!”
2) A big, broad-shouldered man walks into a bar and whispers in a soft, childlike voice, “Hello, everybody.”
See what I mean? It’s not even close. The answer (2), because it contains a tension, a question we crave to explore. This is not an accident — it’s storytelling physics. Our minds are inescapably drawn to narrative tension. In fact, if you want to get geeky about it, the word “interesting” comes from the Latin roots “inter,” which means “between” and “esse,” which means “to be.” When something is “interesting,” it literally means “to be between.” And nothing creates more in-betweenness than a set of opposites.
Oprah’s speech starts with a rich set of opposites: Oprah as a kid, watching TV, seeing an awards show where Sidney Poitier is being honored. Here you’ve got: 1) Oprah young and poor (opposite from today); 2) watching TV (opposite from being on TV, as she is now); and 3) being transfixed by a moment of when white Hollywood was turned upside-down by a black man (Sidney Poitier accepting his Oscar). With these tensions established, she pulls her narrative camera into a wide pan, and talks about the anonymous women like her mother, whose names we’ll never know. Then she tells a story.
In 1944, Recy Taylor was a young wife and a mother. She was just walking home from a church service she’d attended in Abbeville, Alabama, when she was abducted by six armed white men, raped and left blindfolded 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 N.A.A.C.P., where a young worker by the name of Rosa Parks 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 persecuted. Recy Taylor died 10 days ago, just shy of her 98th birthday. She lived, as we all have lived, too many years in a culture broken by brutally powerful men. And for too long, women have not been heard or believed if they dared to speak their truth to the power of those men. But their time is up. Their time is up. Their time is up.
It’s a remarkable moment, pairing the brutal, painful story of Recy Taylor to the soaring justice sought by the civil rights movement; pairing a woman who just died and her message, which is living on. Oprah ends her speech by linking back to the original scene — girls watching TV — except that now they are hearing a call to arms: “fighting hard to make sure that they become the leaders who take us to the time when nobody ever has to say, ‘Me too’ again. One more juxtaposition — the pain of yesterday and the promise of tomorrow — that has people standing on their feet and cheering, experiencing the power of the moment.
Let’s be real: none of us can deliver these moments like Oprah can. But nevertheless, there are some useful ideas that might be worth borrowing, especially for leaders of cultures that depend on story and communication (which is to say, all of them). Call them Oprah’s rules of storytelling.
- 1) Seek opposites, and place them next to each other. If you have a story about your biggest success, pair it with a story about your biggest failure. If you have a story to tell about your youngest, newest employee, seek to connect it to a story about your oldest, most veteran employee. They will frame and contextualize each other, and make each resonate more powerfully.
- 2) Don’t shy away from the painful stuff — lean into it. There’s a natural tendency to gloss over the darker parts of any story. This is like taking the engine out of the story. The pain is where the power is located, because it frames the other side of the story. And speaking of which:
- 3) Tell a story. This is obvious, but worth mentioning. Stories aren’t the just sugar that helps the medicine go down — they’re more like the cannabis edibles of the whole experience. They generate the vibe.
- 4) Make it personal. Don’t hold back your own emotional reaction, because it is proxy and permission for others to have a reaction too.
- 5) Embrace refrains. Repeating a key phrase isn’t boring, if it’s done right. It’s the best way to make something memorable. Refrains work because, as Oprah shows, speaking isn’t all that different from singing. It helps to have a memorable lyric.
People call Oprah a magical communicator, but it might be more accurate to say that she’s a smart builder. She understands that moments like that don’t happen by accident, but by understanding and using the bedrock principles of good communication.