Why Public Speaking Really Mattered in 2018
This year, like many others, speeches haven’t just taken place inside auditoriums or conference halls. But what has been different in 2018 is the powerful combination between the old (spoken word) and the new (social media). We’re going viral. We have seen numerous occasions where a single person, standing on a stage with a microphone has chosen to speak, not because it was planned, not because they wanted fame or power, but because they had a message to deliver for tomorrow.
Without sounding like a broken record, 2018 has been challenging. From an uncertain Britain in the wake of Brexit deals, to Europe’s problems with the far right, and an increasingly divided US, the West is struggling to find stability. Once-certain policies and legislation have moved to an undetermined state and talking about politics around the dinner table or in the office has required careful treading.
Amongst the uncertainty, the contradictory headlines and back-and-forth news stories, a few key moments have broken through the glass ceiling of the media. These moments occurred when a single person has stood in front of a crowd, to speak up and offer guidance, motivation, or clarity during tumultuous times.
In January, Oprah Winfrey made a memorable start to the year when she became the first black woman to receive the Cecile B. DeMille Award for lifetime achievement at the Golden Globes. Her acceptance speech went beyond the expectation of thanking the key figures in her career. She used the opportunity to offer an amplified voice to the #MeToo movement and addressed broader themes of sexual violence against women. Oprah’s speech presented a clear narrative; vignettes from her childhood sat alongside monumental imagery invoking Rosa Parks and truly quotable soundbites permeated the room. Oprah declared, with authority and responsibility, that ‘a new day is on the horizon.’ The standing ovation in the room proved agreement. Since the live event, the New York Times have transcribed the speech to publish it as an article and the YouTube video has exceeded ten million views.
Oprah set a precedent for powerful and opportunistic public speaking. In March, we saw high school student Emma Gonzalez stand up at the March For Our Lives rally in Washington D.C. The event followed the February 2018 Douglas Stoneman High School shooting in Florida. Emma’s speech addressed the horror-story-as-reality, quickly proving that the current precedent for gun control was more terrifying than any fictional scenario. Her speech inspired a wealth of support – via social media, further rallies and encouraging people to write to their house representatives – reshaping our view of who is qualified to speak up and be heard.
2018 also brought us Bishop Curry’s address at Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s wedding, Chrissy Teigen's Keep Families Together speech and Natalie Portman at Variety’s Women of Power event. But what might be most incredible, is how spoken word this year set a new precedent for the power of speaking up more generally.
Crucially, 2018 progressed the case for women speaking up against sexual misconduct. Not only did the #MeToo movement open the space for extremely famous women – including Jennifer Lawrence, Uma Thurman and Gwyneth Paltrow – to share their experiences, it offered a new model for ordinary women to amplify their stories. It opened up the space to highlight the differences of the experiences of white women and women of colour. With a visible power in numbers, the #MeToo movement permeated from the US to the UK, into European countries, to the Middle East and Southeast Asia. Countries adopted their own hashtags, including #WoYeShi in China.
If we were to look back at 2018 in five, ten, even fifty years’ time, yes, we would observe a year of political unrest and frightening divisions between people. We would see speculation towards the press, and we might be concerned by the lack of serious coverage on climate change. But what we would also see is the explosive combination of spoken word, and the power of social media.
The YouTube views in their millions speak for themselves, as do the swathes of press coverage, memes and gifs. Although we weren’t granted political certainty this year, we were shown, by women all over the world - and from varying backgrounds, sexualities, races, and classes - that our voices can provoke change. Public speaking in 2018 may not have solved all our problems, but it did suggest we start with our own oratory when looking for solutions. As Oprah said in her incredible January speech, ‘speaking your truth is the most powerful tool we have.’
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