Friday, January 13, 2012

Famous Speech Friday: Actress Viola Davis: "What keeps me in the business is hope"

I keep a search open on Twitter for "eloquent woman," and recently, @bevysmith's tweet showed up, saying "I'm a student of Viola Davis speeches, she is the most eloquent woman." A recent example happened at ELLE magazine's Women in Hollywood awards last October. For Davis, the night started when someone on the red carpet asked the star of The Help what set her apart from everyone else there.

"Well, I'm black," she replied.

A little while later, when she rose to accept her award, Davis delivered an extemporaneous speech of more than 10 minutes that brought the house to its feet--and continued to mince no words. She included that anecdote and much more. Davis revealed in a Vanity Fair interview that The Help was her first leading role, and in this speech, she holds her own as well as any leading actor.

"I don't have a speech prepared, by the way," she warned the audience. "I hate writing speeches--it makes me more nervous." So she begins with what she knows so well it needs no script, and takes the audience back to her childhood games with her sister Delores. They'd dress up and play with an air tea set and pretend to be famous Hollywood actresses leading glamorous lives, even though they lived in a threadbare apartment in deep poverty in Rhode Island. "The game would always inevitably end with us beating the shit out of each other," Davis said, noting that they both came back to earth realizing they really lived on welfare

From those childhood dreams, Davis makes a smooth transition, suggesting that she became an actor to continue "staying in the game" of imagination. But her remarks take a serious turn as she addresses a topic not often confronted via a microphone: The paucity of roles for black actors. "Frankly, what keeps me in the business, seriously, is not always the love of my work....sometimes I really don't love it....What keeps me in the business is hope, and that's the hope that women of color are also a part of the narrative, that our stories are just as potent, because we also have the power of transformation. We also have the power to be quirky, and sexy, and different, funny, heartfelt and all of those things."

Davis tells stories about her mother and grandmother, and tells the audience of Hollywood insiders that "Those are the stories I want to see on the screen." She continues with a gentle rant that ties her story and that issue together, noting how important it was to her to see actress Cicely Tyson in The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman:
I believe and I really hope that we have the imagination, that we have the courage to bring those stories to life, because I want to do for other young women of color what Cicely Tyson did to me in that apartment with the slats showing underneath the plaster, and the bad plumbing, and no phone, and hardly any food, and rats....she allowed me to have the visual of what it means to dream....she threw me a rope. That's what we do as actors....we throw other people the rope.
Here's what you can learn from this famous speech:
  • Extemporaneous doesn't have to mean disorganized: There's as much an arc in this speech as there would be if the best scribes had labored over it, from childhood dreams to adult realities to turning that dream into an industry challenge. Rooted in personal stories, Davis doesn't need notes to recall her details, and so was able to focus on a map in her head for this inspiring talk. Think, at a minimum, about where you want to start, where you want to end up and what you want the audience focused on at the end.
  • Not mincing words makes for a great speech: The more noble and lofty and ten-dollar your words, the less we connect with them. If Davis had used that red carpet moment to talk about the "overall racial disparities we see in the industry" instead of just saying, "Well, I'm black," you'd be able to hear the yawns from here. Concrete words connect
  • Use that invisible visual. Davis had an invisible tea set to play with, and made masterful use here of what I call "the invisible visual," the one your audience doesn't need a picture to see. She does that by sharing specific descriptions of her childhood home, what she and her sister wore, what "poverty" boiled down to in their lives, from bad plumbing to crumbling plaster. By the time she's done, that movie's playing in your head, and will stay there for a long time.
What do you think of this famous speech? Share your reactions in the comments, please.

Looking for famous speeches by women? Check out The Eloquent Woman Index of Famous Women's Speeches, with a wide variety of women speakers, types of speeches and topics to inspire your next speech. Each one comes with lessons for speakers, plus video or audio and a transcript, where available.