Claire Duffy's blog about public speaking and communication (in real life). Speak well, do well!
Jodie Foster excited a storm of comment with her acceptance (or coming out, or right to privacy) speech at the Golden Globes. An award ceremony is normally an occasion for thanks and praise. Speakers who use the occasion for some other purpose don’t always improve their popularity with their audience, so when it’s your turn, be careful about how far you stray from convention. But an award for lifetime achievement is a big endorsement, and it’s understandable that Foster would see it as a licence to use the occasion as she wished.
Most of the commentary has been about what she said… was it narcism? hypocrisy? honesty? But Sam Leith, author of You Talkin to Me? Rhetoric from Aristotle to Obama, wrote this immensely enjoyable, detailed analysis for the UK Guardia, which shows exactly how and why she got the effect she she did. I am quoting the article entire. But first watch the speech here.
It’s a considerable thing to deliver a speech that is at once artfully put together and emotionally affecting. At the Golden Globes – where in accepting the Cecil B DeMille award for lifetime achievement, she made the first public acknowledgement of her sexuality –Jodie Foster managed both. What’s striking is not what the speech gave away, but the control and delicacy with which it delivered its payload.
The art of rhetoric is, at root, about the relationship between a speaker and an audience. Foster had just been given a gong, and her audience consisted of peers in the industry in which, as she said, she has worked for 47 years. They didn’t take much winning. They were on her side. They were paying attention.
But Foster didn’t just take their attention for granted. She played with it. First she drew them closer – singling out a few by name, “Robert … Susan … Phil … Aida … Scott” – then embraced them all as “my family of sorts”.
She teased their expectations. First she offered a run of memories: “Executives, producers, the directors, my fellow actors out there, we’ve giggled through love scenes, we’ve punched and cried and spit and vomited and blown snot all over one another … ”
By using anaphora (“we’ve giggled … we’ve punched”) and polysyndeton (all those ands), she made the sentence sound loose, spontaneous, a little out of control. Then she spiked the sentimentality with a joke: “Those are just the co-stars I liked.” One of the strongest, most confident ethos appeals you can make – and it’s a brave one because the consequences of failure are high – is to make a joke.
Writ large, that’s the same technique she used when she approached the meat of her speech. “So while I’m here being all confessional, I guess I have a sudden urge to say something that I’ve never really been able to air in public,” she said. “Sudden urge”, my foot. Every ear was bent. Was she about to say the thing everyone has been waiting for her to say for decades?
She teased it out. She appeared to hesitate. She affected to be nervous – and in so doing, of course, ratcheted up the levels both of tension and of attention. “But I’m just going to put it out there, right? Loud and proud, right? So I’m going to need your support on this. I am, ah,” – beat pause – “single.”
Big, nervous laugh from the audience. Then she circled around the topic: being frank about her sexuality without actually saying the words. We rhetoric nerds call this occultatio: it’s where you talk about what you’re not going to talk about.
Did you notice that she came out without actually coming out? In the course of this speech, Foster transitioned from not-out to already-out faster than a county cricketer facing Dale Steyn. That’s her point: she already is out to everyone to whom it matters: “I already did my coming out about a thousand years ago …” She’s damned if she’s going to “honour the details of [her] private life with a press conference, a fragrance and a prime-time reality show”.
There was a certain flintiness when she asked the audience to put itself in her shoes. Again, a touch of anaphora: “If you had been a public figure from the time that you were a toddler, if you’d had to fight for a life that felt real and honest and normal against all odds, then maybe you too might value privacy above all else.”
Then, the open secret openly acknowledged, she was able to pay touching tribute to her ex-partner Cyd, their children and her mother. Those tributes were given more force by being addressed to their objects: we, the audience, were in the position of overhearing.
Finally her peroration. “I will continue to tell stories,” she promised, “to move people by being moved, the greatest job in the world.” That phrase – “to move people by being moved” – is a good one. In terms of formal rhetoric, it’s a near-antimetabole or chiasmus – bookended by the verb “move” in first active then passive voice.
It is also a fine description not only of the actor’s job, but of the orator’s. The Greek word for delivery, hypokrisis, is also the word for acting. The most effective display of emotion in a speech is one that appears to come from the heart. She was moved, and she in turn moved us.
Finally, she croaked out an endearingly Delphic announcement about the future. Her new talking stick may be less sparkly than the old one and may be directed only at dogs, she warned, and the writing will be on the wall. Is the writing on the wall for her? Or by her? Is she retiring? Opening a dog pound? Starting over as a graffiti writer? Whatever it is, she’s planning to stop – “here’s to the next 50 years” – in 2063. Let’s rendezvous then. In the meantime, here’s to her.
Anaphora: repetition of words or a phrase at the beginning of a clause or sentence.
Polysyndeton: overuse of conjunctions.
Ethos: attempt to establish authority or connection with the audience.
Occultatio: a figure that brings in material while pretending not to talk about it.
Tricolon: three units of speech put in a row.
Peroration: final part of an argument.
Chiasmus or antimetabole: four terms in a criss-crossed relation to each other.