Oprah – Other Worldly Source of Inspiration: What Every Woman Candidate Can Learn from Her Magnus Opus

March 9, 2018

In today’s blockbuster release of A Wrinkle in Time, Oprah Winfrey plays Mrs. Which – an out-of-this world being who inspires a young girl to “Be a warrior.” Real-world Oprah doesn’t need to appear as a shimmering light to lead us out of the darkness here on Earth.

Oprah’s 8 ½ minute Golden Globe speech provides a primer for women candidates on how to deliver a stump speech that wins hearts and minds. It was a rallying cry for speaking truth to power embodying the hallmarks candidates should emulate on the campaign trail – authentic connection, personal validation, dignified bearing.

Here are five ways women who are running to shake up the status quo can deliver a rousing call for change.

1. Tell them why.

Clearly state why you are running to demonstrate the skin you have in this election. As an abuse survivor, Winfrey is a credible standard bearer for the #MeToo movement’s call for safety and equality.

When you share why you care it helps the audience understand that your candidacy is not a career move, but a stride towards change. Boston City Councilor Ayanna Pressley, who is wife and daughter to formerly incarcerated Black men says her reasons for serving are different from the older, white incumbent Congressman she’s challenging. Pressley describes her candidacy as an intentional force to dismantle barriers and provide opportunity for everyone.

Women run for office to do something, rather than to be something. This commitment is a powerful credential for voters aching for diverse leaders who offer a new direction.

2. Show credentials.

Women candidates are redefining what it means to be qualified. They are reevaluating how they view their life experiences as moms, daughters, sisters and partners. And, they are saying I can do the job.

In a remarkable ad, Sol Flores tells how she overcame sexual abuse to show her readiness to fight for others. Flores pledges to fight as hard in Congress as she did to protect her 11-year old self from the man who preyed on her. It is a powerful story because Flores has carefully thought out how she describes the ordeal and speaks from a place of strength.

By touting life experience as an advantage, women can reassure voters their personal lives won’t interfere with working on their behalf. Former Congresswoman Pat Schroeder said, “I have a brain and a uterus and I use them both.” Case in point, newly elected Virginia state legislator Kathy Tran who knocked on doors with infant daughter Elise in tow and brought her along for the swearing in ceremony. And, U.S. Senator Tammy Duckworth an Iraqi war veteran who announced she is pregnant and will be the first sitting senator to give birth in office. These leaders are serving so they can deliver maternity care, paid family leave, and safe schools.

3. Make a value connection.

Personal stories reflect the values many voters long to have affirmed. Winfrey told us about Recy Taylor who was gang raped by six armed, white men who left her to die on the side of a road. No one was ever prosecuted for the crime in Jim Crow Alabama. Winfrey asked us to respect Taylor and care about justice for all who’ve endured abuse.

A strong statement of belief is more compelling than data. Numbers add support to an argument but alone won’t move people. It is difficult for political opponents to convincingly sway others by attacking someone’s core beliefs. Plus, a value statement is a good defense against fake news.

Pennsylvania doesn’t have a single woman in its Congressional delegation and Chrissy Houlahan is running to be a new voice. The Air Force veteran is the mother of a lesbian and the daughter of an immigrant who could not stand by and watch the current administration disparage members of her family. While it’s possible to disagree with Houlahan on an issue such as the deportation of Dreamers, it’s harder to argue against the value she places on protecting families.

4. Write it out and practice.

Winfrey spoke forcefully without the aid of a prompter. In a deceivingly effortless manner, she: (1) thanked the people who inspired her, (2) commended the Hollywood Foreign Press, (3) honored silence breakers, and (4) encouraged us to keep hope alive. The transcript of the speech is a model of organization and precision writing. Arrange content into chapters so you don’t leave out something important – acknowledge supporters, share accomplishments, lay out contrast with opponent, and ask for their vote.

Winfrey later said she worried about being cut off before finishing. Let a pen be your mighty warrior sword. Start by putting the stump on paper so it can be internalized. And, wordsmithed. Winfrey used specific details to add texture and create vivid images with lines like: “sitting on the linoleum floor” and “bone-tired from cleaning other people’s house.”

Don’t hesitate to use notes to prompt the flow and phrasing. A few notecards signal time was taken to prepare and they can serve as a security blanket if nervous.

5. Use vocal gravitas.

The power words were matched by Winfrey’s fierce bearing and the velocity of her sound. Listen to the variance in the pace as it accelerated to 165-words per minute when she thanked her supporters. Then slowed to a deliberate 100-word tempo: “But their time is up. Their time is up. Their time is up.” The commanding cadence ensured her conviction rang loud and clear, “A new day is on the horizon.”

Many Americans are seeking the conviction women candidates offer. Even with all the women currently running they make up less than a quarter of all likely Congressional candidates. Breaking through a field crowded with white, male voices requires a speech that resonates with people who are disgusted with the way things are being run.

With practice and learning it is possible to be heard and have an Oprah moment.

Speech coach Christine K. Jahnke is the author of The Well-Spoken Woman.