Friday, September 25, 2015

Famous Speech Friday: Viola Davis at the 2015 Emmy Awards

It's official: Actor Viola Davis has taken the honor of being the woman speaker with the most Famous Speech Friday entries. Her fourth turn in our series happened this week, at the 2015 Emmy Awards honoring television programs and performers, when she became the first black woman to win the award for leading actress in a television drama.

In just over two minutes, Davis hit the audience hard with a powerful, moving speech. No words minced. No notes. No hesitation. Here's how she began:
"In my mind, I see a line. And over that line, I see green fields and lovely flowers and beautiful white women with their arms stretched out to me, over that line. But I can’t seem to get there no how. I can’t seem to get over that line." 
That was Harriet Tubman in the 1800s. And let me tell you something: The only thing that separates women of color from anyone else is opportunity. 
You cannot win an Emmy for roles that are simply not there. 
Davis has said before that she hates writing speeches because it makes her nervous. So this short powerhouse of a speech will also be getting on my list of famous extemporaneous speeches by women soon. Among the close to 7 million social media users discussing the Emmys on the night of the awards, Davis's speech was the most-discussed and shared moment of the evening, and the video of her speech has been viewed more than one million times in various postings.

Like many powerful public speeches by women, this one came with some backlash from a white actress, who tweeted disparaging comments about the speech and casting doubt on whether Davis has ever experienced discrimination. But most of the coverage said Davis "won the night" with this speech. What can you learn from it?
  • When it comes to acceptance speeches, be sincere, be brief, be seated: After an evening in which performers pulled out long wrinkled lists of people to thank, or talked right past the music cueing them to stop, Davis's scant two-minutes-and-change had all the more power because they were brief. It speaks to her discipline as a performer, and an understanding of how to make every word in a short speech count. Note how her list of thanked people includes the context for how they exemplify the change she is calling for, rather than just a laundry list of thanks.
  • Use a quote...well.  Many speakers substitute the words of famous people for their own in a speech. Few do it this effectively. Starting with the quote, choosing one that she could have said herself, and not identifying the speaker until after the content was spoken all added up to a powerful impact. Davis took advantage of the high attention you hold at the start of a speech, added a mystery--were these her own words?--and identified Tubman in a one-two punch of quote-wielding.
  • Share a consistent message:  Davis long ago began using her speech opportunities--no matter how brief--to speak up about Hollywood's lack of roles for women of color. This speech is no exception. It's a case of making the best possible use of your platform, something all women should do. 
  • Actually, it may not be about you: In a town full of egos, Davis spent her first three paragraphs on a class of people, not herself. Think about that the next time you have to speak to an honor you are given.
You can read the full text of the speech here, and watch it below or here. And check out Davis's previous Famous Speech Friday appearances, all equally powerful speeches:


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