Friday, February 13, 2015

Famous Speech Friday: Lupita Nyong'o on following your fear

Oscar winner Lupita Nyong'o has already made her mark as an actor, as a style icon, and as a public speaker. She has tackled even the briefest acceptance speeches thoughtfully and eloquently, which you can see in her first Famous Speech Friday entry, a short speech on black beauty. And in late 2014, she tackled a more challenging speaker role, as keynote speaker at the Massachusetts Conference for Women.

The conference is a great example of the trend in women-focused conferences, which--unlike many other conferences--seem to have no trouble fielding women speakers, nor making money with a platform full of women. In 2014, the audience at this conference exceeded 10,000 people, which gave Nyong'o an opening: "So this is what one, no, ten thousand women look like! Wow! It’s a real honor to be here today, to be asked to address all of you: women who understand how important it is to step outside your comfort zone, to better yourselves and the communities you live in." She got laughs as she acknowledged fellow speaker Hillary Clinton, whom she called "a leader among men," and gave shout-outs to her mother and her managers.

And as many speakers do, she lifted the veil on the speaker early in her speech by talking about getting ready for this day. But this detour was purposeful, setting up the topic of fear and the need to face your fears, neatly:
I was asked to speak today in the spring. It was a very busy time and I was still coming down on off of the whole award season whirlwind and I have to admit that I agreed to it only because it seemed like it was far, far away. But you know, with things that are far, far away, with time they get nearer and nearer, and as they got nearer and nearer, I got more and more afraid that I wouldn’t know what to say, and then I thought, that’s it: I’ll talk about overcoming fear in order to achieve your goals and your dreams, and I thought it was perfect, but then of course I was crippled about the fear of talking about my fear. I tried to find other people’s examples that illustrate the things I have learned about dealing with fear, but I couldn’t remember them well enough to borrow them. I thought I would hire someone to write my speech, but then they’d know everything about me including my neuroses. And then I thought I should find another subject to talk about, but then I realized I was doing that actor thing of trying to hide behind something. That’s what we do as actors: We tell the truth by pretending to be someone else. So I finally managed to qualm my fear, and put aside my actor, in order to tell you how I got to be an actor in the first place.
Nyong'o's keynote grabbed many headlines and social posts, many of which highlighted the moment when she teared up describing the moment she allowed herself to acknowledge that what she really wanted to do was act. What can you learn from this famous speech?

  • Work your tears into your remarks, rather than avoid them: Most speakers look for ways to avoid or move past showing emotion, but even tears are appropriate when what you are talking about is emotional. In this speech, Nyong'o worked with, not against her tears, using seven words to incorporate them. "There was no saving me from the agony of indecision, and until I stopped running away from myself, and listened to myself. I took a timeout, silenced the voices, stopped the chatter and really thought about what would make me happy. I admitted it, first to myself and then out loud, that what I wanted more than anything was to make believe for a living. I wept as I am doing now because it was so hard [Applause. Reaches for tissue, dabs eyes] seems like this is what I do best, really [laughter]."
  • Dress for the occasion: We're used to seeing Nyong'o in cutting-edge fashion that's more often suited to the runway or the red carpet. Here, she dresses as a keynote speaker, including her glasses for reading from her text. In that subtle way, the speaker narrows the gap between herself and her audience, and signals that she understands that outfits also play a role in public speaking.
  • Put the audience first: Nyong'o's first words are all for her audience, reflecting them back to themselves in a highly effective but often missed moment all speakers should include in their openers. That goes beyond her reaction to the size of the crowd. Right after that, she furthers the typical "It's a real honor to be here today" line and calls the audience "women who understand how important it is to step outside your comfort zone, to better yourselves and the communities you live in." She's about to tell them how she stepped outside her own comfort zone, but in this moment, she's explaing why it's an honor for her to be there, instead of merely stating that it is an honor. By making the audience the reason for the honor, the speaker thereby elevates the listeners and helps frame the significance of the gathering. That's meaningful to the listeners, and to the organizers who invited her, a powerful way to show your gratitude for the invitation. That she also presages the theme of her talk is simply smart writing.
This speech is enthusiastic, charming, moving and funny, by turns. Watch the video at the link or below, keeping in mind that most actors dislike public speaking. Not this one. I expect we'll see many more excellent examples of Nyong'o as a speaker in the months to come.

Please join me for my next workshop: What goes into a TED-quality talk, April 15 in Cambridge, UK, is a preconference session at the Spring Speechwriters & Business Communicators Conference which follows April 16-17. There's a discount at this link if you register for my workshop, which will  help speakers, speechwriters and TEDx organizers get a head start on TED-quality talks, whether you're aiming for the TED stage or for giving a talk in that style for everyday purposes.