Friday, July 1, 2016

Famous Speech Friday: Beyoncé's speech on racism and fashion

Beyoncé is a well-known fan of good public speaking, having sampled Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche's TEDx talk in her song "Flawless," and Martin Luther King, Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech in a performance at the BET Awards. While she herself rarely gives a speech, she did so recently as the winner of the Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA) Fashion Icon award. The short, smoothly delivered speech not only shared her lifelong fashion influences, but revealed much about racism in the fashion industry--even as it gave appreciation to designers for what they contribute to their clients.

The speech is short enough that I'll reproduce it here in full:
Thank you so much, Diane, for the things you just said about me. I feel so much love and I feel so proud. As long as I can remember, fashion has been part of my life. Its effect on me actually started before I was born. Many of you guys don’t know this, but my grandmother was a seamstress. My grandparents did not have enough money, they could not afford my mother’s Catholic school tuition. So my grandmother sewed clothes for the priests and the nuns and made uniforms for the students in exchange for my mother’s education. She then passed this gift onto my mother and taught her how to sew. 
Starting out in Destiny’s Child, high-end labels didn’t really want to dress four black country curvy girls, and we couldn’t afford designer dresses and couture. My mother was rejected from every showroom in New York. But like my grandmother, she used her talent and her creativity to give her children their dreams. My mother and my uncle, God rest his soul, made all of our first costumes, individually sewing hundreds of crystals and pearls, putting so much passion and love into every small detail. When I wore these clothes I felt like Khaleesi. I had an extra suit of armor. It was so much deeper than any brand name. 
My mother is fabulous and beautiful and she’s here tonight. My mother, my grandmother, and my uncle are always with me so I cannot fail. My mother actually designed my wedding dress, my prom dress, my first CFDA Award dress, my first Grammy dress, and the list goes on and on. And this to me is the true power and potential of fashion. It’s a tool for finding your own identity. It transcends style, and it’s a time capsule of all of our greatest milestones. So to my mother, my grandmother, my uncle, thank y’all. Thank you for showing me that having presence is about far more than the clothes you wear and your physical beauty. Thank you for showing me how to take risks, work hard, and live life on my own terms. 
I want to say thank you to every designer who works tirelessly to make people think they can write their own story. Y’all are fairy godmothers, magicians, sculptors, and sometimes even our therapists. I encourage you to not forget this power you have or to take it lightly. We have the opportunity to contribute to a society where any girl can look at a billboard or magazine cover and see her own reflection. Soul has no color, no shape, no form. Just like all of your work, it goes far beyond what the eye can see. You have the power to change perception, to inspire and empower, and to show people how to embrace their complications, and see the flaws, and the true beauty and strength that’s inside all of us. Thank you so much for this incredible award, I’ll never forget this night. God bless you all. Thank you.
What can you learn from this famous speech?

  • Don't be afraid to name an injustice: In a room packed with the world's top fashion designers, for the fashion icon of the moment to say, "My mother was rejected from every showroom in New York," and then describe how her mother went on to make all of her outfits, was a needed perspective. It not only explains the artist's justifiable pride in her fashion, but the basis for that pride. And you could just imagine every designer worth his or her salt wishing they'd had the chance to get in on that budding talent's fashion needs at the ground-floor level. Too late now.
  • Give us the big picture: Far from a diatribe, this speech is delivered quietly and directly. It's full of genuine thanks as well as pointed observations, and it takes the troubles of the past and turns them into a bigger picture for the audience of designers to consider: "You have the power to change perception, to inspire and empower, and to show people how to embrace their complications, and see the flaws, and the true beauty and strength that’s inside all of us." Therein lies the redemption for the industry's earlier failures.
  • Thank with specifics: Award acceptance speeches with laundry lists of people to thank fail on many counts (not least the ability of the speaker to remember all those names). Here, Beyoncé chooses a handful of influencers--her mother, her uncle, her grandmother--and creates detailed pictures of them. You can imagine her mother and uncle sewing crystals onto costumes, and her grandmother sewing Catholic school uniforms to pay for her mother's tuition. Those are indelible images in the minds of the audience, just what every speaker hopes for.
You can read the full speech here, and watch it in the Periscope video shared below:

Swarovski @swarovski

Join me in Edinburgh, Scotland, on October 20 for a new workshop, Add Meaning with Metaphor: Improve your Speeches with the Most Powerful Figure of Speech. It's a pre-conference workshop at the Edinburgh Speechwriters and Business Communicators Conference, designed to help both speakers and speechwriters use this powerful tool. You can register here for just the workshop, the conference, or both, and you'll get the best discount if you sign up by August 1.