The presentation lessons of Oprah Winfrey

In the movie The David Gale Story a man named Bill turns to one of his clerical workers to help in accomplishing something fairly monumental, to which the clerical worker says: “Bill, I don’t make the rules. I’m a fat black woman.”

The theater erupted in laughter. The point was that power doesn’t come easily to people of particular sizes and skin tones. The irony and exception, though, was that one of the world’s most powerful people (then and now) was a hefty black woman named Oprah Winfrey, one of richest and most influential people in America, and living proof that the power of truly effective communication can overcome many obstacles.

I know people who are open about their racial bias yet love Oprah Winfrey. What does Oprah do that makes her so well-liked and influential? That is a question I put to several people over the years and the answer always comes back pretty much the same. It boils down to two things. 1) Oprah is a woman of tremendous empathy, and she projects that to her guests and audience. 2) She tends to focus on subjects that are universal. In other words, topics of interest and relevance to all people, regardless of race, creed or gender.

Let’s take those characteristics one by one.

It is Oprah’s ability to empathize with those around her that gives her a special ability to connect with her audience. People feel that Oprah understands and likes them; that she is on their side. She relates to her guests and audience members as human beings with common needs, desires, dreams and frustrations.

Stylistically she does several things that work in her favor.

  • She immerses herself in her subject’s stories.
  • She responds warmly to what others have to say.
  • She makes eye contact with both her guests and the viewing audience via the television camera.
  • She goes face-to-face with her guests, sitting in chairs without the physical and psychological obstruction of a desk, table or other furniture pieces between them.
  • Oprah’s posture is relaxed and open.
  • She sits empty handed, leaving herself free to gesture and be as expressive and expansive as the situation warrants.
  • She makes sincere facial expressions, a window into her emotions, which almost always harmonize with her guests.

Asked recently by Parade magazine how she gets people to open up during interviews, Oprah said: “My secret to being in sync with the person is to ask, ‘What do you want to accomplish by the time we finish?’ ” This served her particularly well when interviewing people such as Lance Armstrong after he admitted using performance-enhancing drugs. That what do you want to accomplish question communicated to Armstrong that Oprah was not out to get him, and that she understood he had his own agenda.

Oprah also usually focuses on universal themes such as spirituality, human relationships, exercise, weight loss and self-improvement. Topics like those are the heart and soul of Oprah’s TV program and magazine.

All of this has happened during an era when serious talk-show hosts were driven off the air by those who bartered in sensationalism and human depravity (think Jerry Springer, Geraldo Rivera, Morton Downey Jr., Maury Povich and other Tabloid Talk-show hosts). Conventional wisdom said talk shows dealing with serious topics were of zero interest to the contemporary TV viewers. Then along came Oprah with her universal and empathetic brand of interviewing and rewrote the book on TV talk shows.

The lessons of Oprah Winfrey apply to all manner of public speaking. Those lessons are yours to embrace.

Mike Consol teaches public speaking, PowerPoint presentation skills and business writing to companies and business professionals in the Oakland-San Francisco-San Jose Bay Area. Contact him at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) or 925-449-1040.


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