Friday, November 13, 2015

Famous Speech Friday: Shonda Rhimes's "You are not alone"

Shonda Rhimes creates worlds for you, if you're a fan of any of her popular television series, from Grey's Anatomy and Scandal to How to Get Away With Murder. The diversity in her casting choices and writing prompted the Human Rights Campaign to honor her earlier this year, and her acceptance speech drew immediate coverage and social shares.

That's in part because the speech revealed so much about someone we don't normally see: As a screenwriter, director, and producer, Rhimes is typically not in front of the camera, but alone behind it. Being alone was a major theme of the speech, reflecting its powerful pull in her work, as she described in this passage:
I don’t know if anyone has noticed but I only ever write about one thing: being alone. The fear of being alone, the desire to not be alone, the attempts we make to find our person, to keep our person, to convince our person to not leave us alone, the joy of being with our person and thus no longer alone, the devastation of being left alone. The need to hear the words: You are not alone.
And for contrast, she had sharp words for a term that describes groups, rather than individuals, making this acceptance speech about actual acceptance, in a different sense:
I really hate the word “diversity”. It suggests something…other. As if it is something…special. Or rare. Diversity! As if there is something unusual about telling stories involving women and people of color and LGBTQ characters on TV. I have a different word: NORMALIZING. I’m normalizing TV. I am making TV look like the world looks. Women, people of color, LGBTQ people equal WAY more than 50% of the population. Which means it ain’t out of the ordinary. I am making the world of television look NORMAL.
This speech was widely shared, not just on social media, but in media reporting of the event. What can you learn from it?
  • Work the room: In a few choice places in this speech, Rhimes references the gathering in the room as a microcosm of the larger issues about which she is speaking: After talking about growing up and often being the only black girl in the room, something that still happens to her in the work world today, she says, "Look around" to get the crowd to understand that directly and in the moment. And at the end, when she predicts that those who feel alone will find their tribe waiting for them, she concludes by saying, "I know this, because mine are at that table right over there," a clever way of acknowledging her friends.
  • Speak to one person at a time: My friend and fellow speaker coach Peter Botting likes to remind speakers that the audience is not hearing them as some kind of mass group, but as individuals, listening one person at a time. That's why I think her voicing of the "alone" theme was so effective: Everyone in the audience, at that moment, understood what she was talking about, within themselves. It's one of the greatest tactics in public speaking, that ability to get up in a room crowded with people and make them feel as if you are speaking just to each of them as individuals. 
  • Tell us something we don't know about you: Rhimes, whose shows include ensemble casts, may be acutely aware that she only ever writes about being alone--but that's not something her audience is likely to have guessed about her. Sharing that kind of insight is what turns this acceptance speech into a unique and resonant moment.
See most of the speech in the video here and below. At one point, Rhimes published the text on Medium, but it has since been removed--and I'm sorry to learn that, as it's as good a read as it is a listen.

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