Anatomy of a speech: What AOC teaches us about how to tell speeches that mobilize

Agatha Kim participant of Class 13
August 17th, 2020
Article by: Agatha Kim
Anatomy of a speech: What AOC teaches us about how to tell speeches that mobilize

By now, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez's speech to the US Congress may already have impacted you. If not, please do yourself a favor and type “AOC” on YouTube - the three letters by which the Congresswoman is known. Her speech on July 23rd, 2020, was a response to her colleague's statements and became an instant classic and went viral for her direct indictment of a culture of misogyny and harassment of women in the workplace.

 

A brief context about the series of events that put Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez at the center of the discussion: AOC is a well-known public figure. She became the youngest woman to be elected to the US Congress in 2018 at the age of 28. She already stood out as a candidate for the political heir to Obama's legacy, as she was a Latin woman (of Puerto Rican origin), young and from the working class, but has a much more progressive agenda than the former President.

 

Because of her political agenda, she was targeted by Ted Yoho, the hitherto semi-unknown Republican. He approached her on the Capitol stairs, where Congress meetings take place, to call her "disgusting, crazy and dangerous". Moments later, when she reappeared, he continued insulting her. "Fucking bitch” was what the nearby journalists heard the congress veteran say. Faced with the negative repercussions, Yoho made a classic non-apology in the Chamber: "Sorry for the misunderstanding", "I have a wife and daughters", "I love my country and I love my God" was part of the faltering speech of the Republican.

AOC’s powerful response to Rep. Ted Yoho on July 23, 2020, became an instant classic and went viral for its direct indictment of a culture of misogyny and harassment of women in the workplace.

AOC’s response was the most striking ten minutes Congress has seen in recent years. David Remnick, the editor of the New Yorker, wrote that her speech was a rare exception to the lack of rhetorical dynamism of the congressmen and “should be studied for its measured cadence, its artful construction, and its refusal of ugliness.” On The Guardian, the writer and critic Francine Prose highlighted AOC speech’s perfection in repetition, rhythm, emphasis, cadence, pronunciation, and word choice. Prose also added that the statement was a masterpiece of heartfelt, with “unadorned plain speech that (consciously or instinctively) employed the tools of the orator, the rhetorician and preacher.”

Indeed, many elements explain the excitement with the positioning of AOC and make it a great lesson in the spoken word. The articulate information, the firm tone of voice, the restrained emotion, and the pandemic context that victimizes women, non-white, and marginalized groups are certainly part of it. But I am interested in analyzing how it fits into the structure of “public narratives” and understand how it has mobilized so many people. In the framework I first learned at THNK, Harvard University activist and professor Marshall Ganz tells how compelling narratives have three elements that move to action around a single purpose: the story of self, the story of us, the story of now.

The story of self

According to Ganz’s theory, this is the part of the story in which we understand what moved the narrator to act. The “call” that moved and led to a movement. But instead of sharing a positive value, the story of AOC is the opposite.

In her speech, she tells us about the incident with her co-worker Yoho and how she was not shocked by the insult. She’s heard that before. Those attacks are not new. She worked as a waitress, she has ridden the subway and walked the streets of New York. And in all these places, this improper language is not new. She is tired of hearing those offenses. And that is the problem. Yoho is not alone, and the aggression she suffered is nothing new.

anatomy of a speech
Compelling narratives have three elements that move to action around a single purpose: the story of self, the story of us, the story of now. #storytelling #AOC #purpose #impact #motivation Click To Tweet

The story of us

Ocasio-Cortez recalls that all women have gone through these attacks at home, in the work environment, in public places. It happens every day. And that is why although she did not want to give more spotlight to the madman, she found it necessary to stand on behalf of all victims of verbal harassment: Women who suffer from this kind of abuse, even in places it should not be tolerated, such as at work, where verbal aggression is normalized.

The story of us is about shared values, aspirations, and experiences that unite an entire community, organization, or movement. This part of the narrative shows what there is in common between a group and moves to action on behalf of a shared purpose. And this was present not only in AOC’s speech but also in the statements that were made. Afterward, many congresswomen gave personal testimonies of cases where they had the same experience, including Nancy Pelosi, the Speaker of the House, who reported experiencing similar incidents in her more than 18 years in Congress. “All women have experienced abuse in some way, in different ways, at some point in their lives.”

Alexandria also mentioned that in Yoho’s apology, he uses the fact that he has a wife and daughters as a symbol that prevents him from displaying any sexist behavior or speech. AOC is adamant that it is time for men to stop using their partners and daughters as shields for bad behavior.

Here’s how AOC prepared for her powerful speech >>>

The story of now

It is the most urgent challenge that inspires people to action. It has its foundations in the values celebrated in the story of self and us. In what way can people who hear the speech move towards real change? AOC’s request is less obvious, but her speech requires reflection and the inevitable click on the sharing button on social networks. When she occupies her space in the US Congress to talk about a power structure that allows aggression toward minority groups, such as women and people of color like her, to go unpunished, she exposes the not-so-apparent to many. She stands against a whole culture of dehumanizing the “other.”

When Yoho uses his place of power to insult a woman, he gives permission for others to do the same. He allows other men to use the same language with their wives, daughters, and co-workers. The rejection of this kind of behavior is the invitation AOC makes in her ten-minute cadence. It is to say that it is not acceptable, even if the President of the USA represents the opposite, even if members of Congress behave differently. No matter where it comes from, this behavior is not acceptable.

The strength of this narrative recalls the importance of telling good stories. By revealing the challenges, the difficult choices, and the learning from a journey, the narrator inspires others to follow this path as well.

As the above framework above shows and AOC’s speech confirms, this process does not have to be linear. They are often mixed in the development of a story, in the search to involve a group, in the demonstration of the common purpose, and the denote of an urgency.

The three pillars help to deconstruct and reveal how discourses like hers become influential, but they certainly don’t tell the whole story. While the insult that prompted the discussion will be that of another little man erased by history, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s speech and trajectory will continue to be studied and reflected for years to come.

* * *
An original version of this article appeared in Portuguese on Medium. Thanks to Paulina Cho for translating.

Learn how to tell more powerful stories in the THNK Executive Leadership Program.