- TLDR: Ursula Le Guin’s ‘Left-Handed Address,’ given to Mills College graduates, called for the all-woman graduating class to resist what was expected from them in a patriarchal society. This analysis underscores the enduring power of storytelling and consistent messaging in fostering genuine connections that can inspire individuals to take even radically unique action in the world.
- So What?: Alongside its motivational content, Le Guin’s speech offers valuable insights into effective communication through storytelling and cadence. Le Guin speaks directly and persuasively to the audience in a way that educates them about their potential in the world.
In May of 1983, Ursula K Le Guin stood on the stage at Mills College and delivered a speech she called “A Left-Handed Commencement Address.” In it, she implored the women there to forego assimilation into a patriarchal society of competition and domination. In doing so, she hopes to inspire them to take their place in the world as leaders of a different type.
Additionally, the structure of this speech teaches us about crafting a persuasive message through storytelling and imagery. Whoever your audience may be, employing Le Guin’s techniques will help move your audience by speaking to their experiences and their potential.
Challenging Conventional Wisdom
When you think of commencement speeches, what comes to mind? A long (and likely boring) speech about accomplishments and promises for the future, right? That’s not what Le Guin offered the graduates of Mills College.
The very first thing Le Guin does is challenge the status quo and say that her speech is for the women in the audience and that she will do so in the language of women. She acknowledges that there are men in attendance too, but says:
“Public speaking is done in the public tongue, the national or tribal language; and the language of our tribe is the men’s language. Of course, women learn it. We’re not dumb. If you can tell Margaret Thatcher from Ronald Reagan, or Indira Gandhi from General Somoza, by anything they say, tell me how. This is a man’s world, so it talks a man’s language. The words are all words of power. You’ve come a long way, baby, but no way is long enough. You can’t even get there by selling yourself out: because there is theirs, not yours.”
Generally speaking (pun absolutely intended), language tends to focus on power and success, traditionally seen as male qualities.
In telling people up front that this is not her plan, she grabs the audience’s attention. She surprises them—and that’s not the only time she will do so in the speech.
Use Plain Language to Get Ideas Across
Usually, people write and speak in the language of their audience. However, if you want to reach as many people as possible, you need to broaden your vocabulary scope. This is why academic writing tends toward the effete, while web posts tend toward the colloquialisms of the moment.
In the words of the great Mark Twain, “Don’t use a five-dollar word when a fifty-cent word will do.”
Le Guin knows that university commencements try to be lofty affairs, but she uses plain and direct language instead of an academic tone. After all, the graduates aren’t the only people listening (or reading) the speech, right?
Tell Stories: The Power of Metaphor, Allegory, and Connecting Through Story
If you want to hold someone’s attention and ensure they will remember your message, you must tell them a story.
It can’t be just any story, though. It needs to be a story that the audience can personally identify with, which could resonate with that audience if experienced through the right lens. Using metaphor and allegory is extremely helpful here.
That’s probably why Le Guin created an anthropomorphized version of the everyman (emphasis on man) the women graduating Mills will encounter. And it’s probably why she named this amorphous being “Machoman.” It’s entirely possible she just really liked the Village People. Either way, the name works.
As Le Guin says in her address:
“I’m talking about society, the so-called man’s world of institutionalized competition, aggression, violence, authority, and power. If we want to live as women, some separatism is forced upon us…So how about going on doing things our own way…Not for men and the male power hierarchy — that’s their game. Not against men, either — that’s still playing by their rules. But with any men who are with us: that’s our game. Why should a free woman with a college education either fight Machoman or serve him? Why should she live her life on his terms?”
Machoman is the other. Machoman is the past. Machoman is who Le Guin wants her audience not to become. She gives them someone to compare themselves to, to use as a springboard when trying to figure out who they want to be after college.
Your “Machoman” could be your competitors in your marketing and communication materials. It could be the problem you’re trying to solve. The story is easier to understand and remember by personifying the idea while encouraging your audience to act.
That’s right. The Left-Handed Address has a CTA:
“We’re never going to get there by imitating Machoman. We are only going to get there by going our way, living there, and living through the night in our own country.”
Rhythm and Meter: Repetition as a Metronome
If you want people to remember your message and carry it with them, repetition is a good way to do that. An excellent approach to repetition is to set it to a rhythm.
Don’t start beatboxing, though. Your coworkers will never forgive you.
In Le Guin’s speech, the repetition happens almost at the end:
“I hope you tell them to go to hell and while they’re going to give you equal pay for equal time. I hope you live without the need to dominate, and without the need to be dominated. I hope you are never victims, but I hope you have no power over other people. And when you fail, and are defeated, and in pain, and in the dark, then I hope you will remember that darkness is your country, where you live, where no wars are fought and no wars are won, but where the future is.”
Did you sense the rhythm? It’s not precisely iambic pentameter, but it definitely has a flow, even when you’re reading it instead of hearing it. When you think about the speech later, you might not remember the exact words, but you will remember the beat and the basic message being conveyed.
Repetition is also important in marketing and communication materials, though it’s more literal in nature—and not just in creating your tagline or jingle. You know who you are and how you want to be perceived.
You employ repetition by showing the same traits and characteristics over and over again in everything from your email blasts to the copy on your product’s label. Use the same language, the same turns of phrase, the same grammatical stylings, everything.
Tell Stories and Touch Hearts and Minds
In Ursula Le Guin’s “Left-Handed Address,” she used her position and platform to inspire a generation of women to see in themselves as change to a fundamentally flawed system. The power of effective storytelling and imagery plays a role as a potent tool that speaks directly to her audience, what they know, and what they are going to most likely face in the future. Her speech reminds us that genuine connection is forged through stories that resonate with the heart, bridging gaps and fostering lasting relationships.
Ready to discover more about how your message can shape people worldwide? Try working with Media Shower and see what your messaging is capable of. Get a free trial and find out for yourself.