Friday, July 13, 2012

Famous Speech Friday: Nora Ephron's commencement address at Wellesley

Writer Nora Ephron died late last month at age 71 and, along with many other reprints of her famous movie scripts and humorous essays, this 1996 commencement speech to the graduating class of Wellesley began making the rounds in tribute to her genius as a writer and speaker.

And while many speakers might think, "Oh, a writer--well, she has a built-in advantage as a commencement speaker," in fact, it takes a good ear as well as a sharp pencil to make a good speech. Plenty of beautifully scripted speeches fall flat on delivery, but not so Ephron's speeches. It's difficult to say whether this was influenced by her screenwriting (just think of the conversational style of When Harry Met Sally) or just inherent in her work. And this speech works, whether you read it to yourself or listen to it in the video below.

At the time this speech was given, Ephron was more than 30 years past her own graduation, so much of the speech details in real terms the graduates might appreciate what her life was like at Wellesley in the early 1960s. But Ephron does that not to reminisce, but to set the tone for a feminist message that's the core of this speech. After describing the overt sexism of her college days, she introduces modern-day antagonism toward women and explains that the graduates should "take it personally" when women are under attack:
Understand: every attack on Hillary Clinton for not knowing her place is an attack on you. Underneath almost all those attacks are the words: get back, get back to where you once belonged. When Elizabeth Dole pretends that she isn't serious about her career, that is an attack on you. The acquittal of O.J. Simpson is an attack on you. Any move to limit abortion rights is an attack on you -- whether or not you believe in abortion. The fact that Clarence Thomas is sitting on the Supreme Court today is an attack on you.
In the days after her death, however, it's the summing up in her final lines that's been the most-quoted part of this speech--lines that bring home her feminist message in a simple way: 
Whatever you choose, however many roads you travel, I hope that you choose not to be a lady. I hope you will find some way to break the rules and make a little trouble out there. And I also hope that you will choose to make some of that trouble on behalf of women.
Here's what you can learn from this famous speech:
  • Pay attention to the arc of your story or speech: Ephron uses wit, detail and a bald and unrelenting view of her days at Wellesley to start the arc of this speech, which moves from witnessing sexism and its relation to her life and career, to how discrimination against women happens in the lives of these graduates, taking her finally to her call to action, in which she urges them to follow their dreams despite antagonism toward women--and to work on behalf of women. It's a speech in three acts, and easy to recall and follow, as a result.
  • Use devastating detail: Maybe you think it's just a throwaway funny story when Ephron talks about the Harvard newspaper story about women's college students that appeared during her time at Wellesley, dismissing them as if they were tunicata, "small fish who spend the first part of their lives frantically swimming around the ocean floor exploring their environment, and the second part of their lives just lying there breeding." But it underscores her underlying message, in effect: They said we had no options, and look what I managed to do--now just imagine what you can do. Details make that memorable.
  • Humor lets you speak truth to power: Truth be known, Ephron takes the commencement speaker's (and humorist's) advantage of being able to skewer the host in a way even the host can appreciate. Far from staying in safe territory, she skates on the edge and it gives her credibility and many, many laughs of recognition. It's also a fearless way to demonstrate the confidence she's urging the graduates to adopt.
Read the transcript of Ephron's commencement address here, and watch the video below. What do you think of this famous speech?

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