Oprah's Essential Lesson for Political Candidates

<em>When you’re teaching a lesson and some folks ought to be taking notes</em>
When you’re teaching a lesson and some folks ought to be taking notes

Oprah Winfrey’s speech at the Golden Globes, accepting the Cecil B. DeMille Lifetime Achievement Award, was an instant sensation. She spoke to the centrality of race and gender in American power, recognized the suffering and sacrifice of people who endured abuse and exploitation because they were given no other choice, and delivered simple messages to defy the “brutally powerful men” guilty of that exploitation and inspire an audience of women and girls ready for change - “their time is up” and “a new day is on the horizon.” Her speech was as timely as it was superb, and immediately set off of a round of public exhortations for her to run for president. It also taught a critical lesson to political candidates on how to connect with and motivate an audience using the most powerful communications tool available: a story.

Candidates for office are often advised to tell their story, and for good reasons. There are scientific (mostly neuroscientific, to be specific) explanations for why storytelling affects humans so deeply; among other things, it activates parts of our brains that are dormant when we are simply receiving information (such as when we are reading an article like this one), as well as changing the chemistry of our brains to engage our attention and create powerful attachments. There is no better way to convince an undecided audience of what matters to you than a story (indeed, there may be no other way at all). But many candidates struggle to tell stories effectively, and could learn something from Oprah.

There was much to admire about Oprah’s speech, all of which started with her opening narrative. In this simple story about watching Sidney Poitier receive the Oscar for Best Actor in 1964, Oprah got three things very right:

She led with a personal story. Starting with a personal story is a fairly common prescription for starting off a speech, and justifiably so. There are few better ways to arrest an audience’s attention than to say “once upon a time”, or “a long time ago in a galaxy far, far way” or, in Oprah’s case, the less poetic but equally effective “In 1964 I was a little girl…” Jumping straight into the story hooks the audience directly.

The story had detail. Author, performer, and noted Internet judge John Hodgman frequently admonishes litigants in his digital courtroom that “specificity is the soul of narrative”, and he’s right: details help put the audience in the story, building sympathy with the storyteller and making the story more memorable. Here’s Oprah’s opening line again, with the key detail: “In 1964 I was a little girl sitting on the linoleum floor of my mother’s house”. This is a small detail but an important one, because linoleum is such a distinctive material that it not only has its own rubbery feel, it has its own associated sound (its squeaks and groans), and even its own slightly chemical smell. Not only can the audience see the scene, but they can feel, hear, or smell it, activating the parts of the brain associated with those senses. Oprah’s barely started her first sentence and her audience’s brains are already at work getting into the scene with her.

The story was actually a story. This, more than any other element of storytelling, is where political candidates struggle, largely due to a popular misunderstanding of what stories are. Because stories, by definition, involve something happening, we tend to think of them as sequences of events - A happens, then B happens, and then C happens. Candidate’s stories tend to sound like this - “I was born in A. Then I went to school in B. Then I worked as C. Now I’m running for…”. But stories are much more than sequences of events - they have a protagonist, antagonist, stakes, and other elements that make audiences care about the characters and outcome.

For a personal story to work in the context of a speech, it must meet a few conditions: the story must be about the speaker; it must feature an event the outcome of which is in doubt (if it goes one way, something good happens; if it goes the other, something bad); and that outcome must have had a significant effect on the speaker. These elements engage the audience’s sympathy, bonding them to the speaker.

Oprah’s opening story does all three. Although the action is on her television screen, this story is about what happened to little Oprah when she watched Anne Bancroft open the award envelope. The outcome was in doubt; the envelope might have contained another name. And when Poitier won, Oprah saw evidence that a black person in America could, in fact, be publicly celebrated and recognized for excellence. By hitting all those marks, Oprah told us why this award matters to her.

There are, of course, differences between Oprah Winfrey accepting an award and a candidate introducing herself or himself to a voter on the doorstep or in a speech; Oprah required no introduction, and most of the audience probably already liked her and would have continued to even if she had just paid elegant lip service to the award and walked off. And the story itself was not above critique; among other things, it asks its audience to infer much about its stakes rather than making them crystal clear.

No matter. Oprah chose to tell the audience why the award mattered, her story worked, and the audience did not just like Oprah - they were moved by her, some to the point of fantasizing about her running for the highest office in the country.

That is the lesson for candidates: when you get your story right, it tells voters why the election, why their vote, matters to you. When you do that, you’re on the way to connecting and motivating like Oprah.

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