“What I’m saying is, don’t delude yourself that the powerful cultural values that wrecked the lives of so many of my classmates have vanished from the earth.”
Nora Ephron is the writer and filmmaker that brought us such classics as When Harry Met Sally, Julie and Julia and Silkwood. So, we would expect sharp wit combined with humour and this speech delivers both. Ephron goes further in her delivery of a compelling feminist message and a warning to the graduating class of Wellesley College in 1996.
Let the stories do the work
In the first two-thirds of this speech Nora Ephron builds connection and credibility with her audience. Not by telling them why they should listen, but by showing them. Stringing together a series of anecdotes about her time at Wellesley serves to show us that she knows of what she speaks. These are well-crafted windows into her experience using the poignant evocative language of a writer and movie-maker:
I went to see my class dean and she said to me, “Let me give you some advice. You’ve worked so hard at Wellesley, when you marry, take a year off. Devote yourself to your husband and your marriage.” Of course it was stunning piece of advice to give me because I’d always intended to work after college. My mother was a career woman, and all of us, her four daughters, grew up understanding that the question, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” was as valid for girls as for boys. Take a year off being a wife. I always wondered what I was supposed to do in that year. Iron?
Select a theme and create a structure
Often a speech is aided by the use of structure. This can help keep the speaker and the audience on track. In this case, Nora Ephron uses a comedic hook, in reference too her own time at the college back in the early ’60s. Repeatedly posing the rhetorical question ‘how long ago was it?’ she sets up a series of vignettes, sharing her memories of life in the college for the previous generation. She returns to the device to aid her structure throughout the first part of the speech. An organising structure like this can bring order to your narrative.
How long ago was it? It was so long ago that while I was here, Wellesley actually threw six young women out for lesbianism. It was so long ago that we had curfews. It was so long ago that if you had a boy in your room, you had to leave the door open six inches, and if you closed the door you had to put a sock on the doorknob.
Then the same device is used to increase the seriousness:
How long ago? If you needed an abortion, you drove to a gas station in Union, New Jersey, with $500 in cash in an envelope and you were taken, blindfolded, to a motel room and operated on without an anesthetic.
How long ago was it? It was so long ago that among the things that I honestly cannot conceive of life without, that had not yet been invented: panty hose, lattes, Advil, pasta (there was no pasta then, there was only spaghetti and macaroni)—I sit here writing this speech on a computer next to a touch tone phone with an answering machine and a Rolodex, there are several CDs on my desk, a bottle of Snapple, there are felt-tip pens and an electric pencil sharpener… well, you get the point, it was a long time ago.
Use contrast to help land a serious message
After the amusing anecdotes and interesting insights, Ms Ephron comes to her central point. This is a serious message, and though slightly preachy, it works. The contrast with the humourous endearing part of speech is strong. The change of pace makes the audience lean forward and listen up. When she changes gears her language and pace also shifts. Note the subtle shift in pace and intensity when she delivers this part:
Understand: Every attack on Hillary Clinton for not knowing her place is an attack on you. Underneath almost all those attacks are the words: Get back, get back to where you once belonged. When Elizabeth Dole pretends that she isn’t serious about her career, that is an attack on you. The acquittal of O.J. Simpson is an attack on you. Any move to limit abortion rights is an attack on you—whether or not you believe in abortion. The fact that Clarence Thomas is sitting on the Supreme Court today is an attack on you.
Above all, be the heroine of your life, not the victim.
At the conclusion of the speech, Nora Ephron manages to lift the mood. Changing tone again she shifts to a final piece of advice that is empowering and appropriate for the audience and the occasion:
Whatever you choose, however many roads you travel, I hope that you choose not to be a lady. I hope you will find some way to break the rules and make a little trouble out there. And I also hope that you will choose to make some of that trouble on behalf of women. Thank you. Good luck. The first act of your life is over. Welcome to the best years of your lives.
Here is the video of Nora Ephron’s commencement address at Wellesley College in 1996:
A Speech a Week Series
Words have the power to change the world. Speeches are used by leaders, revolutionaries and evangelists to persuade people to think differently, to feel something new and to behave in remarkable ways.
In this series we will examine one notable speech per week. We hope to cast a wide net – including politicians, business leaders, preachers, entertainers and philosophers. These articles will consider matters of content and style to uncover the secrets of oratorical success.
By examing the components of speechcraft we can improve our own powers of persuasion. We will come to appreciate the craft of eloquence – guarding against silver-tongued miscreants whilst gradually building our own expressive capability.
If you would like to contribute to the series by suggesting a speech, please send us a message via the mojologic website.