Everything I need to know about speechwriting, I learned from the jury of Survivor: Micronesia
The 2000s are back, baby. Britney is free again, cool girls are re-buying butterfly clips, and the other day, I saw a magazine at the grocery store with a tweenage Daniel Radcliffe on its cover.
But there is one relic of the early-aughts that never went away: Survivor, the Y2K mega-hit that taught me everything I know about speechwriting.
With no disrespect to Taboo, Survivor is the greatest game ever devised. Tonight, the show that (like it or not) ushered in the reality TV hellscape we all live in airs the finale of its 41st season. In case you’re not familiar with the format, here’s a refresher: between 16 and 20 people who — as longtime host Jeff Probst will remind you — come from all walks of life, are split into tribes and dropped on a beach. Every episode, the losing tribe votes off one of their own, until only two or three (depending the season) remain. Beginning about halfway through the season, the tribes merge, and people voted off aren’t sent home, but to the jury: the group of people that will vote on which of the finalists gets the million-dollar prize at Final Tribal Council.
Final Tribal Council is a true gauntlet for the finalists: a handful of people they kept from winning the game decides which of them will win the game. Following the finalists’ opening statements, each juror gets to speak their mind.
Though jurors vary in their approaches — some are respectful, others bitter, and many delusional — their addresses hold boundless insights into what makes a good speech snap, crackle, and pop. And for my money, there has never been a richer text in this genre than the Final Tribal Council of Survivor’s 16th, best, and recently-added-to-Netflix season: Micronesia.
Back in 2008, the Survivor: Micronesia jury had to choose between allies Parvati Shallow and Amanda Kimmel, eventually serving Parv a victory in a close 5–3 vote. But how did contestants’ speeches create that outcome — and what can we, speechwriters and speechwriting fans, learn from jurors’ process of persuasion? Let’s break it down, juror by juror.
ELIZA: Make Your Word Count, Count!
Eliza Orlins does not mince words. She begins her speech by crediting Parvati and Amanda’s games, before swiftly getting to the point: that she can’t freaking stand either of them. First, she tells Parvati that beyond the level of cut-throatiness needed to succeed in Survivor, she thinks she’s probably just a “mean person.” Then, she tells Amanda that “listening to [her] talk literally made me want to kill myself sometimes.”
Jurors are allowed to ask questions of the finalists, but Eliza doesn’t waste her breath. After letting them know how she feels, she says that her vote is undecided and that she will be listening to them very closely.
Her speech proves that you don’t need to say much, to say all that you need to. In just a few sentences, Eliza’s audience knows how she feels about them, and that either of them can win her vote if they present themselves well enough throughout the rest of the proceedings. It’s a perfect reminder that, if you want to make a memorable call to action, you can’t let it get lost in the noise.
JASON: Show, Don’t Tell
Jason, who famously mistook a stick for a hidden immunity idol, is not someone I’d usually call a “smart player.” But his subtly pro-Parvati juror speech, unlike most of his gameplay, is brilliant.
He starts by asking Amanda if she would have, in so many words, betrayed her winning alliance and saved her love interest — even if it kept her from making it to the final — had she been given the chance. She says yes. End of questioning. He then lobs Parvati what seems like a harsher question: “I’ve had these misconceptions of you as a devious, manipulative player,” he begins, “And I just wanna know, what some of your redeeming qualities have been in the game?” In other words, “I hate you. Is there any good reason not to?”
In asking these questions, Jason demonstrates an intrinsic knowledge of the tried-and-true “Show, Don’t Tell” lesson. Rather than try and tell his peers that Amanda lacks Parv’s edge and foresight, he lets Amanda make that case for herself. And rather than attempt to convince the jury that Parvati is a more worthy winner, he allows her to list her good qualities without having to deny that she’s devious and manipulative — traits that are, in Survivor world, real assets.
On the show, and in life, it’s far more powerful to show your audience an evocative story than tell them your takeaway. Amanda’s demonstrated willingness to trade her ticket to the finale for her hot beach boyfriend, and Parvati’s refusal to let any relationship keep her from the million, make a far stronger case than anything Jason could have said on his own.
ALEXIS: Know Your Audience… Your WHOLE Audience
Some jurors aim their speech at the finalists; others at their fellow jurors, trying to sway their votes. But Alexis has her mind on the biggest, least visible audience at Final Tribal Council: the viewers at home.
She kicks off with a bit about how much she loves working with young girls, and wants Parv to explain she’s better role model for them than Amanda. It’s a delicious, deeply mid-aughts moment of girlboss feminism: the dramatic move of pitting two women against each other to vie for the title of Best Female Role Model.
Sure, maybe Alexis planned to vote based on Parv’s answer. But far more likely, she saw these two minutes as an opportunity to accelerate her outside-the-game career as a motivational speaker. She remembers what most forget: the jury controls the finalists’ fates, but the audience controls the jurors’.
When thinking of their audience, speakers should ask themselves the same questions Alexis did: Who am I talking to? What power do I have? What power do they have? And, most importantly, is literally anyone here a half-decent role model for young girls?
NATALIE: Say What Others Won’t
Most speeches have something of a “shadow structure” attached to them. Regardless of speaker or setting, one pretty much knows what to expect from a commencement address, an Oscar acceptance speech, or the drunken ramblings of your cousin’s best man. If you want your speech to perk up the world-weary ears of a genre-savvy audience, say something nobody else has the guts to say.
Parvati came into the game as Survivor’s most notorious flirt — and yet most of the other jurors dance around that reality, referring vaguely to her gift for manipulation and penchant for making people feel good. Natalie Bolton does no such thing. Instead, she asks how Parv’s flirtatious Survivor strategy “resonates with [her] in the bedroom” and “parallel[s] her intimate life.” Not since old doc Frankenstein brought his monster to life have I seen a room so electrified on my television. Jaws on the floor. Jeff Probst glitching. Micronesian crickets suddenly compelled to stop chirping.
Nat goes on to ask Amanda whether she was strategically acting like a dumb pageant queen or if she’s really that vapid and hollow, which would be iconic and worth discussing had her Parv question not been so much more so. All to say, when it comes to grabbing attention, go big or go home.*
*Don’t quote me on that.
ERIK: Keep It Relevant, Please!
Poor, sweet Erik. So good at obstacle courses… so bad at coping with smart, hot women. His juror speech is a mess, but there’s plenty to learn from.
Here is some helpful context to keep in mind as we consider his remarks:
- He has lost the game of Survivor.
- He is no longer able to win the game of Survivor.
- He’s voting for Amanda.
Of course, one probably wouldn’t know that if they watched his speech — which was devoted entirely to tearing Amanda a new one for messing with the favor he holds with the people who would hypothetically vote for or against him if he made it to Final Tribal, which he didn’t. Confused? Clearly, so is Erik.
Just as some meetings would be better off as emails, some speeches are better off as conversations. If you’re not going to say anything relevant, useful, or interesting… you’re better off saying nothing at all (which, not for nothing, is what Erik did re: Parvati).
JAMES: Be Afraid to Be Wrong
“Don’t be afraid to be wrong” is great encouragement for someone trying to pick up watercolors. Not so much when you’re giving a high-stakes speech.
Like Erik, James’ address is a cautionary tale — rife with wrong assumptions that make for a bizarre few minutes of television.
To start, he asserts that “Amanda knows she’s got this in the bag” — a clearly false statement that undercuts his credibility. This blunder makes it difficult to sympathize with the rest of his speech, a back-and-forth conversation that, similarly, focuses on extracting an imagined truth from Parvati that simply doesn’t exist. In the end, James looks ridiculous and delusional — neither great qualities for someone trying to make a compelling case (remember: standards were higher in 2008).
For any speaker, there’s a lesson here about doing your research: if you cite anything that your audience can clock as false, or even just “off,” they’re not going to believe anything else you say. Fact-checking is worth the time and energy — even (and especially) if you’re confident in your version of reality.
CIRIE: Credential yourself
Amanda, having won the final immunity challenge, got to choose whether she took Parvati or Cirie to the final. Understandably, Cirie has some lingering bitterness about this when she gets up to make her jury speech. She focuses on this choice, making Amanda rationalize giving Parvati the shot at a million over her, and asking Parvati to explain why Amanda should have picked Cirie instead.
There’s an element of “Show, Don’t Tell” here: Cirie is voting for Parvati, and her questions allow Parvati to prove that she can be kind and self-effacing (and Amanda harsh and Cirie-effacing) to fellow jurors. But more than that, Cirie uses her time to lend legitimacy to her opinion — asking Parvati and Amanda to make the case that she deserves the win as much as, if not more than, both finalists, and therefore her voice matters.
The first, and easiest, step in speechwriting is knowing what you want to say. But proving that you’re the right person to say it is a tougher battle — especially if your audience considers you to be an equal, rather than a superior. Unlike Survivor, it’s a battle that Cirie wins.
OZZY: Word Choice Is Everything
Much like James, Ozzy seems to have had a petty, bitter, and jealous sandwich for lunch… and it’s loosened his grip on reality. But if you’re going to be delusional — and let’s face it, many speakers are — good word choice can make it appear that you have your feet on solid ground.
He speaks to Parvati first, accusing her of cruelly “put[ting] a price on our friendship,” treating him “like garbage” and saying he’s “not quite worth this much money” to her — visual, emotional language that paints her as cold and callous. It was wise of him not to mention that their “friendship” is hardly a lifelong one, that “this much money” is literally one million dollars, and that she didn’t so much “throw him away” as “vote him out of a game where that happens to someone every week and betrayal is totally par for the course.”
A narrative many jurors are pushing at this Final Tribal is that Parvati is smart and calculating, while Amanda is just a pretty, vapid, superficial face. And what better way to counter that narrative as an Amanda supporter than to yell at Parvati for hurting your feelings, refuse her the chance to speak, and then turn to Amanda and confess that, oh, by the way, you’re in love with her.
I can’t advise you take inspiration from Ozzy’s delusion, his middling theatrics, or the fact that he allegedly made Parvati do an interpretive dance reenacting the moment she betrayed him, a scene that was mercifully cut from the final edit. But I can (and do) suggest that you use similarly evocative language — words that force the apathetic to care, the confused to find clarity, the disillusioned to believe in their own power.
Most of us are unlikely to make a Final Tribal Council jury speech in our lifetime; candidly, I’d bet that most OWO readers are destined to go home pre-merge. But we’ll all have to grab some attention, or tell people how we really feel about them, or try to get someone we care about to vote our way. And in oration, as in Survivor, strategy is everything.
In “Orations Worth Ovations,” professional speechwriters analyze great speeches (real or fictional, historic or personal) and explain what makes them so good.
Watch Survivor: Micronesia in its entirety on Netflix.