By Schuyler Rooth, Persado Content Manager
There’s an old saying that well-behaved women seldom make history. That may be true, but well-spoken women often have. Just look at the last few years. Former First Lady Michelle Obama was a power player for Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton in 2016, and movements like #MeToo and #TimesUp have forced global conversations about gender. It’s safe to say that women have grabbed the mic, pen and people’s attentions. In honor of Women’s History Month, Persado analyzed some of the most talked about speeches and letters the way only Persado can — by taking a complex look at the emotional language that inspired action.
Context: Michelle Obama brought down the house during the 2016 Democratic National Convention, delivering a speech that people still draw inspiration from and quote today (“When they go low, we go high,” anyone?). The speech, which came two days before Hillary Clinton became the first woman in U.S. history to accept the presidential nomination from a major political party, sought to position her as a qualified, responsible and compassionate leader.
Action, Inspired: Many political speeches are awash with campaign slogans, statistics and jabs at the opposition. What made Michelle Obama’s speech unique and impactful was a combination of candidness and straightforward emotional language.
Encouragement, Challenge and Anxiety all played a part. The classic line from the speech was “when they go low, we go high.” It mixed both Encouragement (language that inspires us to take a specific action, usually by offering positive reinforcement) and Challenge (a common emotion used in political campaigns that dares us to compete). Other Challenge-driven phrases included “Let’s get to work” and “We cannot sit back and hope that everything works out for the best.” The latter also evokes Anxiety, language that motivates an audience to take action by setting off an alarm. In this case, Obama charged voters and supporters to rally, donate and campaign for Clinton.
Context: Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook and founder of the Lean In Foundation, doesn’t just join conversations — she creates them. Her 2013 book Lean In drove discussion on work, motherhood and whether it was actually realistic to “have it all,” while the death of her husband in 2015 brought out her reflective side. Sandberg struck an uplifting chord when she took the podium to deliver the commencement address to the graduates of Virginia Tech in May 2017. Her approach received high praise and press coverage because it was relatable for both the students she addressed and for a wider audience.
Action, Inspired: Like many commencement speeches, Sandberg’s was filled with positive language. Excitement, Encouragement and Challenge shared the stage in her speech. This makes sense because these emotions can drive college grads to dive into their adult lives with gusto. Lines like “you’re getting ready to head off into your amazing lives” and “there are many kinds of hope” matched the excitement of a new graduate and painted an optimistic picture of the future.
But Sandberg knows life isn’t always sunshine and rainbows. Graduates will need to overcome personal and professional setbacks, something she acknowledged without veering from the speech’s positive tone. Take this line: “We are not born with a certain amount of resilience. It is a muscle, and that means we can build it.” She Challenged them. She told graduates that hardships will make them stronger, but it’s up to them to use each setback to strengthen their resolve. By using the word “can,” Sandberg implied that it is possible to reach the light at the end of the tunnel, which is a strong use of Encouragement.
Context: Oprah Winfrey has turned no-name authors into best-selling novelists and doctors into famous talk show hosts (see: Dr. Oz). Her golden stamp of approval even has its own name: The Oprah Effect.
By the time she took the stage to accept the Cecil B. DeMille Award at the 2018 Golden Globes, the tone of the night had been set: #TimesUp for gender discrimination and sexual harassment in the workplace and beyond. So Oprah put a stamp on the evening in true Oprah fashion: With an exclamation point.
Action, Inspired: In her speech, Oprah did what many messengers try and fail to do: Be conversational but emotionally charged. There’s an understandable sense of urgency in the #TimesUp movement, and Oprah didn’t completely shy from that in her speech. “Their time is up. Their time is up! Their time is up,” she said just before reaching the climax. But she relied mostly on positive emotions: Gratitude, Encouragement and Excitement.
The first, Gratitude, is almost a given in any acceptance speech — it’s no surprise that lines like “It’s an honor” popped up early. But Oprah also used Gratitude, along with Encouragement, to transition from acceptance speech to a five-minute, sermon-style address. “What I know for sure is that speaking your truth is the most powerful tool we all have,” Oprah said in a nod to the press that doubled as a motivator for the audience to speak their truth (Encouragement). She shifted back to Gratitude shortly after, continuing, “And I'm especially proud and inspired by all the women who have felt strong enough and empowered enough to speak up and share their personal stories.”
The speech took off from there, crescendoing with Encouragement, “So I want all the girls watching her now to know that a new day is on the horizon. And when that new day finally dawns, it will be because of a lot of magnificent women, many of whom are right here in this room tonight, and some pretty phenomenal men fighting hard to make sure that they become the leaders who take us to the time when nobody has to say, ‘me too’ again.”
Bottom Line: Throughout their careers, Michelle Obama, Sheryl Sandberg and Oprah have been teachers. Through them, audiences have learned everything from healthy eating tips to how to show grace in trying times. In these three speeches, the women exemplified effective messaging. They didn’t run from their emotions; they let them take centerstage. And because they did, they delivered effective, powerful speeches that captivated audiences and inspired action.