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How 3 Emmy Winners Can Teach You About Making a Powerful Speech

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What do Oprah Winfrey, Sterling K. Brown, and Lena Waithe have in common? They all know how to speak with style and substance. And 2017 made sure they were able to do just that.

Commencement speeches have long provided a platform for the successful and learned to share their wisdom with new graduates entering the working world. But commencement speeches aren’t the only type of speech that informs and inspires.

Actress, entrepreneur and all-around powerhouse Oprah brings her warmth and personality to “stuffy” academia, and Brown and Waithe used their platforms to engage sincerely with their audiences. All three can teach us tools to become better speakers.

Read on to see how these three were able to charm audiences, whether they were presenting to professors or producers.


Oprah Winfrey gave the 2017 commencement speech for Agnes Scott College, a private liberal arts college for women in Decatur, Georgia that perfectly illustrated what a carefully cultivated anecdote can achieve.

Outside of being the usual, warm person Oprah is, she chose to share the personal story of one of her ‘daughter-girls’ from her program to educate young African women. In Africa, this girl was only known by the name “Pretty.” Oprah made a stop to Agnes Scott to speak with Elizabeth Kiss, the school’s president and was caught off-guard when Kiss began telling her about the wonderful student Sotoca. After attending Agnes Scott, Pretty embraced her birth name.

“That’s what happens when you come to Agnes Scott,” Oprah begins, “a girl who was just happy to be called ‘Pretty’–she gets educated here and thinks more deeply about what matters to herself…she wants to own herself in the fullness of her name.”

By choosing to share a personal and moving story that was relatable to her audience, Oprah was able to tell this graduating class


You may know Sterling K. Brown from his role on the show This Is Us. His work on the screen paid off–he was honored with an Emmy for playing Randall Pearson. His second Emmy win and its accompanying acceptance speech teach us a few things.

First, Brown acknowledged past winners of the “lead actor in a drama” category, situating himself in a long lineage of outstanding actors. Providing context is key. Make sure your message is positioned in the larger conversation surrounding it so your audience knows you’ve done your homework.

Second, Brown was genuine. He was fully engaged in the moment and spoke sincerely about his love for his fellow cast members, writers, and audience. The excitement and his gratitude were palpable.

And lastly, don’t be afraid to finish making your point. When the Emmy producers played music loudly, attempting to cut Brown’s speech short, Brown carried on thanking the writers. Paying attention to your time constraints is important, but saying everything you have to say is


Lena Waithe writes for Master of None, the Aziz Ansari created comedy show. This year, Waithe took home an Emmy for the writing she did for an episode of the show entitled “Thanksgiving.” She is the first African American woman to win an Emmy for writing in a comedy series.

But besides making history, Waithe also delivered an acceptance speech that embraced diversity and sincerity–thanking her girlfriend and Netflix for providing a space to tell queer stories.

“The things that make us different,” Waithe said, “those are our superpowers…the world would not be as beautiful as it is if we weren’t in it.”

Her genuine appreciation for her award and the ability to write an episode that celebrated differences in the world came through her words. Believing in your message is, above all, the biggest thing any speaker can do.

Remember next time you’re watching an award show, every speaker is an educator. Let acceptance speeches show you what works–or what doesn’t–and let the award and graduation seasons help you prepare for your next speech, no matter the type of stage.

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