Friday, January 25, 2013

Famous Speech Friday: Myrlie Evers-Williams's Inaugural Invocation

Just by standing at the microphone at President Barack Obama's second inauguration, Myrlie Evers-Williams was a speaker making history. She is the first woman and first lay person to be invited to give the invocation at a presidential inaguration, and it took place 50 years after Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech, and 50 years after her first husband, civil rights activist Medgar Evers, was assassinated.

This invocation--a focused, short speaking role--tied all those historic threads together, echoing the inclusive theme of a day that featured women and people of color in key speaking roles. Evers-Williams's call for inclusion mentioned women frequently, in lines like these:
...let us act upon the meaning that everyone is included. May the inherent dignity and inalienable rights of every woman, man, boy and girl be honored. May all your people, especially the least of these, flourish in our blessed nation.
Facing west, in the direction of the Lincoln Memorial, where the March on Washington took place five decades earlier, she invoked the memory of the black activists who marched for freedom and equality:
We ask, too, Almighty, that where our paths seem blanketed by throngs of oppression and riddled by pangs of despair, we ask for your guidance toward the light of deliverance and that the vision of those who came before us and dreamed of this day, that we recognize that their visions still inspire us. They are a great cloud of witnesses unseen by the naked eye, but all around us, thankful that their living was not in vain.
A seasoned speaker, Evers said in a recent interview that she has "been on the lecture circuit since the day Medgar was assassinated," and, when asked whether praying in public before such a large audience would be a problem, she replied:
To pray is nothing new. To pray in public is nothing new. But to pray in a setting where there will be thousands and thousands of people who will listen, I am asking for guidance. I am asking for direction and I am asking to, please God, help me stay within the three minutes that I have been given.
That prayer was not answered: Evers-Williams exceeded her time limit by nearly double, clocking in at about six  minutes. Here's what you can learn from this famous speech:
  • Slow down: Having read about her hope to be timely before the event, the timer in my head went off at the three-minute mark while listening to this invocation, which was not yet finished. Yet I welcomed the deliberate pace Evers-Williams took with it. My advice for speedy speakers notes that, unlike your conversational speed, audiences need you to slow down to about 140-160 words per minute. This invocation came in even slower, just over 90 words per minute, and that speed allowed a gigantic crowd to hear her words clearly and to catch the rhythm and majesty of the words she chose.
  • Give us echoes, rhymes and repetition to catch the ear: This invocation is a listener's delight in its language, too. Close your eyes and focus on the audio to hear rhymes ("throngs of oppression" and "pangs of despair"), invisible visuals (the "great cloud of witnesses...all around us"), and rhetorical repetitions common to invocations, such as repeating the construction "We ask..."
  • Use the instrument that is your voice: An invocation offers a special opportunity for the speaker to use her voice with cadences, inflections and tones that sing out, particularly in a setting like this one, with an enormous in-person audience. In such a setting, your voice will rely on amplification to physically reach the audience, but it's the musical qualities, pace and emphasis your voice brings that will make your words ring in your listeners' ears.
You can read more about Evers-Williams's astonishing life here, and in the books Watch Me Fly: What I Learned on Becoming the Woman I Was Meant to Be and The Autobiography of Medgar Evers: A Hero's Life and Legacy Revealed Through His Writings, Letters, and Speeches, both of which she co-authored. Read the transcript of this invocation and watch the video below. What do you think of this famous speech?

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1 comment:

Crystal Borde said...

I loved her use of language and phrasing. While it was beautiful to listen to, it felt too long. Also, I don't think she gave the audience any signposts in the text of what to expect. It wasn't clear when we were in the middle or even nearing the end. She could have done that using her voice and inflections, or used transition words like "finally," etc. Other than those two issues, I really loved it. It is much better on second watching for sure.