Outwit. Outplay. Outlast. Outspeak.
Note: This piece contains spoilers about Survivor Season 42.
Maryanne Oketch started Season 42 of Survivor at the bottom of her tribe (this piece uses the same terminology as the show), on the cusp of getting voted off the island. Twenty-six days later, she was crowned Sole Survivor by the very people she had helped cast out. In the words of the Survivor motto, Maryanne outwitted, outplayed, and outlasted all the rest — but that’s not why she won. Maryanne prevailed because the most powerful tool on Survivor isn’t a hidden immunity idol — it’s persuasive speaking. And Maryanne outspoke her competitors in the moment it mattered most.
To win Survivor, you need to lie, betray, and maybe even steal from your fellow contestants to make it to the final three — and then, persuade those very contestants, now called the jury, to vote for you to win $1 million (and no, the winner is not allowed to promise members of the jury part of that check).
In the lead-up to that jury vote — an event problematically dubbed “Final Tribal Council,” just one of many instances of Survivor appropriating Indigenous traditions and cultures for entertainment value — surviving contestants have one day to come up with their argument (a generous deadline for a harried speechwriter; less so for a hungry castaway). Then, as detailed in previous installments of Orations Worth Ovations, jury members get to ask those contestants questions about their gameplay, which they then use to decide who is deserving of their vote for Sole Survivor, and will leave the island $1 million (minus taxes) richer.
When Maryanne and her two fellow remaining players (Romeo and Mike) walked into their Final Tribal Council, no one expected her to come out on top. Romeo, who had won the prior challenge and therefore got to pick one person to bring with him to the final three, selected Maryanne. When a jury member later asked him why he selected Maryanne, Romeo replied that he thought he could beat her — she was chosen because he perceived her as the easiest competition. Another jury member noted she saw Maryanne as bubbly, goofy, talkative, and took some aspects of the game less seriously than others.
It looked like Maryanne had no chance of, well, surviving.
Although some of the jury’s tepid attitudes towards Maryanne can be ascribed to her intentionally under-the-radar gameplay, Survivor juries also have a history of snubbing Black players in general, and especially fantastic Black women players (see: Cirie). Before Maryanne’s season, it had been 20 years since a Black woman walked away with the title of Sole Survivor. Racism and sexism are, unfortunately, one of the realer parts of reality television.
And yet, while the jurors arrived with skepticism toward Maryanne’s gameplay, their minds were open. Maryanne exploited that opening — and her persuasive speaking skills — to propel herself to the top. Here’s how:
First, like any good persuasive writer, Maryanne knew her audience and prepared her talking points accordingly. She was well aware of what the jury thought of her: that she lacked strategy and failed to take the game seriously.
She quickly rebutted that narrative in the Final Tribal Council, convincing jurors that her strategy was to appear strategy-less. Maryanne explained that she had seen other young strategy-focused players get voted out early in the game, and knew she had to hide that aspect of her gameplay to avoid a similar fate. She rattled off specific players who were knocked out early because of their age and mental agility, before generalizing those examples into a larger thesis — a strong persuasive speaking tactic no matter the audience.
The second reason Maryanne’s final remarks carried her to victory: she knew the power of showing, not telling.
Instead of just explaining to the jury “I am a strategic, serious player,” Maryanne provided them with concrete proof of her strategic adeptness. She reconstructed each of the deals she made with each member of the final four that guaranteed her entry into the final three — a move no one else knew she had orchestrated.
Later on, Maryanne divulged another secret she kept from everyone the entire game: she had a hidden immunity idol. Being able to keep a secret in real life is hard; being able to keep one on Survivor, when you’re deprived of proper nutrition and water and constantly surrounded by peers wanting you to trip up, is near impossible. Unveiling the idol told the jury everything Maryanne needed them to know: it showed she was calculated enough to choose to keep the idol under wraps, and mature enough to follow through with that plan. On top of that, the move revealed Maryanne’s dominance of the game: not only did she possess the idol, she never even needed to use it to get to the end.
The performance worked: One of the most strategic players in the game (Hai) gasped when Maryanne dangled the idol — and her prowess — in front of the jury. He had been outwitted, never suspecting Maryanne controlled the idol.
Finally, Maryanne’s responses weren’t just well crafted: they were well delivered. Because at the end of the day, what you say can only take you so far. How you say it transforms a good speech into a great speech.
When jury members peppered the final three surviving players with difficult questions, some of Maryanne’s remaining competitors flailed. Romeo became defensive in response to questions because he was insecure about the style of game he played (always just surviving at the bottom, never in a power position where he could control the outcome of the game). Mike’s on-the-fly delivery didn’t hurt his chances, but it didn’t make his pitch any more convincing, either.
Maryanne, on the other hand, thrived. She kept her cool even when jury members threw criticism, thinly veiled as questions, her way. One juror told Maryanne that she had slept beside her every night, and still didn’t know what she did in this game. Maryanne didn’t take the bait. Instead, she saw the question as an opportunity to lucidly recite her highlight reel that, up until then, she concealed from everyone except the camera people.
In the end, Maryanne nearly swept the jury vote. Seven of the eight jurors voted to award her the $1 million prize — granting her the official title of Sole Survivor and the less official title of best Final Tribal Council performance ever. Let Maryanne’s dominating presentation be a lesson: Should you one day find yourself in the position of being an underdog to win a life-changing prize, you don’t necessarily need to lie, betray, or steal to come out on top. All you need is one really, really good speech.
— Hannah Finnie (WWW intern alum)
In “Orations Worth Ovations,” professional speechwriters analyze great speeches (real or fictional, historic or personal) and explain what makes them so good.