Powerful public speaking: a masterclass from Oprah

It was almost a month ago, but Oprah Winfrey’s speech at the Golden Globes is still playing on my mind. As someone who does a fair bit of public speaking, it impacted on me not just in terms of what Oprah said – which was, of course, incredibly powerful – but also on a more technical level.

Oprah Winfrey at the Golden Globes
There are many public-speaking tips to be taken from Oprah Winfrey’s powerful Golden Globes speech. [Image credit: Kathy Hutchins / Shutterstock.com]
Oprah’s acceptance speech for her lifetime achievement award was swiftly followed by rumours of a potential presidential run and, whether you agree or not, it’s easy to see why. Not just in what she said but also how she said it, Oprah portrayed strong leadership characteristics.

I do not want to simplify in any way the issues Oprah was navigating, but for the purposes of this blog, I am looking at the way she approached and delivered her speech, and how those techniques can apply to business leaders – and anyone else who ever presents or speaks publicly.

Know your topic, your audience and your objective

Oprah’s speech touched on race and class inequality and the recent revelations of widespread sexual harassment in Hollywood – all serious, sensitive and emotionally charged topics.

Oprah is a seasoned orator and it’s clear that she had thought about what she wanted to say, the immediate environment and general climate in which she was saying it and what she wanted to achieve with her words – at a guess: unity, empowerment and positive change. As a result, she spoke incredibly eloquently on these weighty issues, and with dignity, passion and optimism, highlighting how everyone could and should work towards a “new day”, as she put it. And the audience in front of her, and around the world, responded.

Again, in this blog, I’m focusing on Oprah’s technique. In that regard, one thing we can learn from her when delivering our own speeches – especially on sensitive topics – is the importance of understanding exactly what you want to say and exactly what you want to achieve so your message is clear and impactful.

It’s equally important to know who you’re speaking to and the setting/circumstances in which you’re speaking. And it’s worth remembering that, particularly in challenging times, empowering people and setting out a way forward are highly effective and motivating public-speaking tools.

Looking to the future

 Having a vision for the future is also an important tool for motivating and inspiring people. As a leader, it’s important to do just that: lead people towards action and change or – as may be the case in a business situation – to a specific project outcome.

Oprah underlined how the effort that people put in now would impact future generations: “I want all the girls watching here, now, to know that a new day is on the horizon! And when that new day finally dawns, it will be because of a lot of magnificent women, many of whom are right here in this room tonight, and some pretty phenomenal men.”

For business leaders, ensuring that your team is aware of the end goal is the best way to make sure everyone knows what they’re working towards and works together to get there.

Find and give inspiration

 Oprah referenced a number of heroic figures of the past who meant something to her, including Rosa Parks, who refused to give up her bus seat to a white passenger in 1955, and Sidney Poitier, the first black actor to win an Oscar (in 1964).

Storytelling is a powerful public-speaking device. Giving people personal insights and examples of past success demonstrates what is possible. For someone new coming into a business, it’s a strong motivator to understand where you, as a leader, have come from, that challenges will be faced and overcome, and what can be achieved with hard work.

So, whether or not you think Oprah’s destined for the Oval Office, there’s no denying she’s a skilled and inspiring orator, who stirred a powerful and positive reaction in her audience. This is something for which she definitely gets my vote.

How to become a better decision-maker

Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg once wrote that a key element of efficiency in business was knowing what needed to be achieved: “We try to be clear about our goal when we sit down for a meeting — are we in the room to make a decision or to have a discussion?”

I think that is a crucial lesson for all businesses; know your end-goal and don’t overthink or overanalyse.

The ability to make fast decisions is important for any business owner, but it’s not necessarily an easy skill to master – especially when you’re personally invested in every aspect of your company.

Even when a decision is relatively minor, people can get caught up looking for the perfect choice, rather than simply finding the best one and committing to it.

As decisions get bigger and the effects of them become more long term, it can become increasingly difficult to make that call and many people get stuck running “what if” scenarios through their heads.

Being able to stop procrastinating and make good choices will play a big part in how productive you and your business are. So here are my three tips for how to be a better decision-maker:

1. Do your homework, but don’t seek perfection.

When you draw up a list of pros and cons, inevitably there are items in each column.

There is very rarely a perfect decision, so if you’re looking for one, you could be searching for a long time!

By all means, have that list. Do your research, speak to the right people until you properly understand the benefits and drawbacks, but always be prepared to make the best choice – not the perfect one.

2. Take emotion out of the equation.

Decisions should be made on facts as much as (if not more than) feelings. There are, of course, cases when you will let your gut lead you, but for the most part, allowing emotion to take over can push logic out the door.

Before making bigger decisions, it’s worth getting some breathing space – focus on something else for a while, or switch off entirely – to ensure your head is clear when you make up your mind.

3. Stop procrastinating!

There are times when delaying a decision is necessary, but if you continually avoid making choices – because you don’t have 100% control over the outcome, or you’re waiting for a risk-free scenario – you’re very likely to do your business more harm than good.

Going over and over the same problem won’t necessarily make the answer any clearer, and can ultimately cause more anxiety and confusion. Sometimes you just have to bite the bullet and make a call.

As Richard Branson once said: “As long as you don’t make the same mistake twice, just make a decision and go for it.”

5 childhood traits that can create success in business

Young girl in a superhero capeExperience is usually an invaluable attribute in business. In most cases, we become older and wiser as we learn from both our successes and failures. We find new and better ways of approaching challenges, we become more aware of risks, and we develop tried and true strategies.

However, with all that experience, you can also lose something – be it natural instinct, boundary-less creativity or the ability to be bold. These are traits kids have in spades, so I thought I’d look at what other characteristics children have that can benefit us in business.

1. Self-belief

When you ask kids what they want to be when they grow up, they’ll tell you anything from a footballer, to a singer, to an astronaut.

That sort of genuine self-belief that we can do and be anything we want is important to hang on to, whether you’re starting your own business, progressing your career or working towards a personal objective.

Having complete confidence in your ability to succeed is not only the best way to do so, it’s also the best way to bring other people on board with your plans.

2. Fearlessness

Weighing risk against reward is a daily occurrence in business.

But while it’s important to be aware of negative outcomes, it’s essential that those thoughts don’t dominate every decision you make.

Children have a unique sense of fearlessness, and a dash of that can help you be bold and explore an idea you otherwise wouldn’t have. Sometimes the risky move is the right one!

3. Enthusiasm

While a child’s energy can be exhausting for the adults around them, their enthusiasm for every activity is something we can learn from.

Having passion for what you do and demonstrating that passion to others is a great way to stay motivated and inspire people.

Positivity is infectious, and it’s a great thing to have filter throughout your business.

4. Resilience

“When you fall off the horse you have to get back on.” It’s an expression quoted at us throughout our lives, and there’s a lot of truth to it.

From when we are very young, we are told that if we fail we should try again – and there’s no reason that lesson should ever stop.

In business, challenges are inevitable, so being equipped to deal with them and not react to every setback as though it’s the end of the road is crucial.

5. Imagination

The ability to think outside the box is such an obvious benefit in business, and so a touch of childhood imagination might make all the difference.

As adults, our creativity can be dimmed by our acceptance of reality, but for children, the idea of ‘the impossible’ doesn’t really exist.

If you can see life through a child’s eyes, you’ll be less aware of boundaries and more able to innovate.

Chris Niarchos is a lifelong entrepreneur and founder of The Cobra Group of Companies, which specialises in incubating, developing and managing a portfolio of start-up enterprises and successful companies.

4 things they don’t teach you in business school (but you really should know before starting your own company)

Text books on different subjects
Formal education definitely has its place, but there are also important lessons to be learned from life experience, says Chris Niarchos.

There’s a lot to be said for a formal education, but there are also some lessons you won’t learn from books. Here are four things you probably won’t hear about in a classroom, but will help you navigate your way through the business world. 

Overnight success is at best rare – and in truth, largely a myth – so learning to take one day at a time and keep your eyes on the prize is a must.

Business is often about taking one step forward and two steps back, and being prepared for that scenario is the best way overcome inevitable challenges.

Keep in mind that this is a marathon, not a sprint, and be aware of when slowing down might be the best strategy.

2. Self-belief is sacred

It’s easy to be brought down when you’re having a bad run, and it’s important to have the ability to pull yourself back up.

Self-belief is a key part of staying positive and motivated, so be your own support system rather than a voice of negativity.

Cut yourself some slack when things go wrong, and you’ll recover from setbacks faster.

3. Appreciate what you already have

Don’t have your mind set so hard on a long-term goal that you lose sight of what is already in front of you.

People have a tendency to focus on what they are lacking, but it’s wiser to look for the opportunity in what you already have.

Not only will you have the chance to grow, you’ll be happier doing it.

4. Trust your gut

It’s tempting to base everything around facts, numbers and advice, but sometimes going with your gut is the best strategy.

At times we get caught up trying to prove ourselves to other people, and our decisions reflect that.

But in the end, you need to be comfortable with the decisions you make for your business, so if your intuition is telling you something different, don’t be afraid to listen.


What can robotic deliveries and checkout-less shops teach entrepreneurs?

I’m fascinated by the way technology is continually transforming the way we live and do business. A couple of developments in particular have caught my attention recently, so I decided to a look at these advances and what they can teach entrepreneurs.

Takeaway droids and retail automation

Pizza delivery man with pizza boxes
Could the pizza delivery guy soon be replaced by droids?

Ordering a takeaway is nothing new, but what if your meal was delivered not by a person but by a robot?

This is precisely what happened to a customer in Greenwich recently. Working in partnership with Starship Technologies, food delivery company Just Eat became the first in the world to successfully deliver a meal using a droid – and the business announced it intends to expand the use of these sci-fi style deliveries across London. The six-wheeled droids, which have a range of 10 miles, unlock when customers enter a code sent to their phones. How incredible is that?!

If you get fed up waiting in checkout queues, you might be as intrigued as I am by Amazon’s plans to roll out checkout-free stores in the UK. Recently, the online retailer opened its first Amazon Go food shop in Seattle for its employees to use.

It contains sensors that automatically record the products that people pick up. The total bills are then charged to customers’ Amazon Prime accounts, doing away with the need for checkouts and meaning that people can simply grab and go.

The company has now registered a UK trademark for the Amazon Go concept, so watch this space.

Entrepreneurs need to adapt

Clearly, if technological developments like these are rolled out more widely, they will have a major impact on consumers. But what can they teach business leaders?

I think one of the big lessons that companies can take from these advances is the importance of being prepared to adapt and move with the times. The sheer pace of change in areas like retail means that businesses which refuse to embrace new ideas and ways of working risk being left behind.

For many companies, standing still is simply not an option. Unless they innovate and find increasingly sophisticated solutions on an ongoing basis, there is a real danger that they will be outsmarted and outflanked by their more adventurous competitors.

Great entrepreneurs embrace new technologies

A big part of moving with the times is embracing new technologies. Of course, this doesn’t mean that all businesses will be rushing to make use of customer-facing robots or other similarly attention-grabbing solutions, but there are a host of more subtle ways in which companies can take advantage of sophisticated technologies.

From using the latest cloud-based communication tools that make it easier for colleagues to share and access information to monitoring the efficiency of vehicle fleets with GPS systems, businesses can harness the power of technology in many different ways.

Entrepreneurs clearly understand the importance of this issue too. According to a poll conducted by Real Business, 60 per cent of owners of small to medium-sized businesses in the UK believe that companies must stay up to date with the latest technological trends if they are to survive.

I couldn’t agree more and will be endeavouring to ‘move with the times’ as much as possible in my own businesses.

What do top sportspeople and entrepreneurs have in common?

Sport and business might be two separate realms, but in fact it takes many of the same characteristics to rise to the top in both of these arenas. I’ve been thinking about this lately and, from the late, great boxer Muhammad Ali to high-profile entrepreneurs like Bill Gates, there are a few things these people tend to have in common.

An insatiable hunger for success

What separates a decent sportsperson from a true icon? There are, of course, a lot of factors that feed into this, but one of the things that propels the big sporting names to the very top and keeps them there is an insatiable hunger for success.

When these people win a trophy or break a record, they don’t sit back and think their work is done. Instead, their triumphs fuel their desire to enjoy future successes. From Serena Williams’ staggering seven Wimbledon championship wins to Sir Chris Hoy’s 11 world championship victories and six Olympic golds, the brightest stars in the sporting world strive to continually improve themselves and achieve their next goal.

The same can be said for leading business stars. Take Virgin founder Richard Branson. There are now over 100 Virgin companies globally and the group employs around 60,000 people. Meanwhile, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg grew the social network from a small directory for his fellow Harvard students into a global phenomenon that has helped him amass a fortune. People like this aren’t content to sit back in the knowledge they have achieved ‘enough’. Their drive and passion always keeps them reaching higher.

A tough work ethic

A tough work ethic is a must in both the sporting and the business worlds. While lots of people would love to cross the finish line in first position or land lucrative contracts, it takes a certain kind of individual to actually put in the hard graft required to turn these dreams into reality.

For sportspeople, this could involve spending long hours in the gym or on the training field pushing their bodies to the limit. For entrepreneurs, it could mean working around the clock to set up and keep their companies on track.

As well as the mental and physical strain, this often means making sacrifices like cutting down on holidays and time with friends at the pub, but I have always tried to set aside family time, no matter how hectic work gets.

A passion for what they do

Because of the level of commitment needed to get to the top, passion is an essential part of the mix in both sport and business. The best athletes and entrepreneurs have a zeal for what they do and this helps to sustain them when things get tough. Having a genuine enthusiasm for their sport or business keeps them motivated to keep doing what they’re doing day after day.

The fact is, in both of these spheres, high-profile successes are only a small part of the story. The ongoing reality is hard work, much of which goes unnoticed. In many cases, it’s unwavering passion that enables people to keep this up.

Founder and chairman of The Cobra Group of Companies, Chris Niarchos knows what it takes to achieve success as an entrepreneur. He set up his first direct sales company at the age of 22 with the goal of building it into an international sales and marketing company. Appco Group, which is the sales and marketing subsidiary of the Cobra Group, now operates in 25 countries around the world.


Learning how to fail

In business, we spend a lot of time talking about success and not enough time talking about failure. It’s a shame. The world of business is full of spectacular failures that we could learn a lot from.

I’ve often wondered whether we don’t talk about failure because it stigmatises the people associated with it. This is ridiculous. Some of the greatest entrepreneurs in history have experienced enormous failures: Steve Jobs, for one, was fired from his own company, and even after returning a decade later and turning Apple into the huge success it is today he still made enormous mistakes.

The Hockey Puck — success from failure

After being unceremoniously dismissed from his own company, Steve Jobs was invited back to Apple in the late 1990s to try and turn it around. Although he was responsible for many huge successes, his approval of Apple’s ‘hockey puck’ mouse, which was so round it was almost impossible to hold, was derided as an over-designed failure. It cost the company deeply and embarrassed Jobs as leader.

Returning to his old company and stumbling at the first hurdle must have been hard, but Jobs immediately learned from his mistake. Never again would he put his passion for design above the need for practicality. A few years later, Apple released the iPod, which perfectly married form and function, Jobs having clearly learned from his mistake.

New Coke — succeeding by knowing your brand

One of the more interesting business failures was Coca-Cola’s decision to completely change its signature recipe. In the 1980s, Coke had been steadily losing market share to diet soft drinks and competitors like Pepsi. The company conducted blind taste tests of Coke against other drinks and found that most consumers hated the taste of Coke.

Their solution was to make the drink sweeter — more like Pepsi. When the recipe was changed, in April 1985 the so-called ‘new taste of Coca-Cola’ was a complete failure. Consumers reacted hostilely to a company tampering with a brand they had come to enjoy.

The new recipe was discontinued and Coke’s market dominance gradually returned. Coke learned never to tamper with a well-loved and respected brand.

The Lesson

Stepping out into the world of business is hard. It’s estimated that only one out of every ten start-ups survives, and even then, very few go on to be the next Facebook. I’m never deterred by this. I know that for every start up that fails, several entrepreneurs from it will get up, dust themselves off, and apply what they’ve learned to their next idea. It’s this mindset that I try to apply in The Cobra Group of Companies, which includes a number of small start-ups as well as the global marketing Agency, Appco Group.

It’s a cliché, but it’s true, there’s so much to learn from failing. Everyone does it. The walls of Facebook’s offices are plastered with the motto ‘fail harder’ — I think that’s a motto to live by.


How do businesspeople make the hard choices?

Anyone who has been in business for any length of time will have made some difficult decisions. It’s no secret that running a business requires you to make hard choices, but the best way to meet and make those decisions doesn’t receive enough attention.

Looking back over some companies’ decision-making illuminates both the difficulties of making decisions in business and the best way to avoid making the same mistake is to adhere to the right process. (And yes, hindsight is always 20-20!)

Steve Jobs and Apple

After founding Apple in 1976, Steve Jobs and cofounder Steve Wozniak led the company to several successes. In the early 1980s, Jobs’ knack for decision-making led Apple to develop some of the most advanced personal computers on the market.

While Jobs directed Apple to create expensive but polished closed-architecture computers, competitors Microsoft and IBM, set about designing far cheaper, open-architecture computers. The low price point of these computers ate into Apple’s market share.

John Scully, Apple’s CEO wanted the company to follow the open-architecture model, while Jobs feared this would reduce the quality of the computers and refused. Apple’s board sided with Scully and Jobs was fired. What seemed like a good the right decision at the time, aggressively pursuing market share, turned out to be disastrous, leading Apple to near collapse before Jobs was brought back on in 1997 to turn the company around.

What can we learn from this difficult decision? First of all, I think it’s important to acknowledge how prudent the decision to ditch Jobs must have seemed at the time. He was holding Apple back from contesting the market share of IBM and Microsoft. Of course, with the benefit of hindsight, we can see that the board made the wrong decision — Jobs was the key ingredient to Apple’s success.

What do we think about when making a hard decision? 

So, with the benefit of hindsight, what does this teach us about decision-making?

The first thing it highlights is the importance of taking a wide-ranging and holistic view. Apple’s board was too focused on short-term market share; it didn’t see the value in Jobs’ relentless pursuit of engineering perfection and standards. That short-termism ultimately left Apple worse off; it suffered a long decade of heavy losses.

Standards are important to me in running The Cobra Group of Companies and the individual businesses within it, including Appco Group. Recently, I listened to a talk given by Simon Murphy, a leading entrepreneur in the Appco network, about the importance of standards in business. He urged business owners to make upholding high standards central to everything they do.

I couldn’t agree more. Taking non-quantifiable things like standards into account in business decision-making is, in my opinion, one of the keys to making the right, long-term choices.

Had Apple, in 1985, considered standards in their decision over Jobs, they might not have suffered the decade of heavy losses that they did. As a businessperson, my life is full of hard choices like this one — thinking about them in a holistic and lateral way is the best advice I can give for achieving the right decision-making process, even if it can’t always guarantee the ‘right’ decision.

How do we overcome problems in business?

Look at problems.

What do you see when you look at a problem? What if you were a dentist, and tomorrow someone invented something that gave everyone perfect teeth? What if you were a pilot and someone invented teleportation?

I realise these are slightly facetious examples, but we’re faced with problems and obstacles every day of our lives and how we respond to them says a lot about who we are as people and as business leaders.

Recognising a problem

All over the world, businesses are struggling to adapt to the challenges wrought by digital technology. Some industries have been hit particularly hard by the digital revolution. In 1999, for example, traditional record companies made US$14.6 billion, but only ten years later, that figure stood at just $6.3 billion. Music industry insiders call it the lost decade.

That isn’t to say that the music industry as a whole has suffered. Bands focus more on touring now and tech companies like Apple are reaping the rewards investing in innovative ways of music delivery. What the story does show, however, is the importance of meeting challenges. The successful companies innovated; the unsuccessful ones dithered.

So many industries have been hit hard by the digital revolution. How each has responded to it says a lot about how they operate.

There are exceptions to this story as well. Sometimes is pays to be conservative. When putting content online for free started eating into The Times newspaper’s subscriber base, they put up a paywall and increased both subscribers and revenue. Some papers that didn’t, like The Guardian, which has embraced free online content, are struggling and losing money. 

Overcoming a problem

Technological innovation has always been both a challenge and an opportunity. I think the stories above reveal an important way for businesses to embrace problems.

Look at the music industry example. The companies that survived in that environment were the ones that innovated, that changed their practices and realised that the old regime was over. By innovating, they not only staved off failure, but they also created new, successful products.

The second important thing to learn is to play to your strengths. When you come across a problem, pause and think what unique capabilities you and your team have to solve it. This is what successful newspapers have done. They’ve created models that protect and monetise the unique parts of their business: their content, while harnessing the Internet’s ability to share it.

Every day you will come across small and large obstacles in life and in business. At The Cobra Group of Companies and at Appco Group, I have certainly come across my fair share of problems. However, thinking innovatively and marshaling all of your unique capabilities and strengths to overcome those problems will help you succeed.

‘The culture of a company is like music in a nightclub — the music you play affects the people who come in’

I started Cobra Group in 1988 and since that time I’ve worked with a huge variety of people from all over the world. Whether they were business owners, contractors or employees, the one thing that sticks out to me about everyone I’ve worked with is the importance of attracting people who believe in what you do and fit with the culture of the company.

This was the subject of a speech I gave to independent business owners in the Appco UK network recently, and I’d like to flesh out my ideas a bit more on this blog.

What is the culture of your company?

As businesspeople, we have to ask ourselves what our company culture is. I’ve written a lot about motorsport and about tech companies on this blog because I’m continually fascinated by how those companies define what their culture is. Look at a place like Google. Everyone knows that Google is a company focused on innovation; we know their company culture is innovative even if we don’t work for them.

This is true in motorsport as well. At the same skills-sharing event I spoke at, Mark Gallagher, a Formula 1 expert, told attendees about how Red Bull Racing created a company culture of teamwork and innovation from the bottom up so that everyone – from the company’s truck drivers, to independent contractors, to sponsors and media – knew what Red Bull racing stood for.

What music do you play?

My message to entrepreneurs is that running a business is like playing music in a nightclub. Some clubs will play techno music and techno fans go to those clubs and have a great time; other clubs play 70s pop and 70s pop fans go to those clubs and have a great time. That’s because when the music from a club filters out onto the street, it attracts the sort of people who enjoy that style.

In business, we have to think the same way. If your company’s culture is conservative and careful, you’re not going to attract innovators. If your culture is fast-paced and innovative, you’re not going to attract conservative and careful people.

You are the advertisement for your business

Thinking about the people you work with in this way is interesting. The conventional wisdom is that when businesses look for contractors or staff, applicants compete for the work because it’s perceived as an opportunity for them.

The way successful businesses think is by inverting this logic and looking at that person as an opportunity for them. Like the music in a nightclub, their culture is the product and they’ve got to work hard to attract the right people to it.

How do we make ourselves attractive to the kinds of people we want to work with us? Whatever your business model, whether you want innovative contractors, employees, or business partners, how do you create a culture so that those sorts of people choose your business?

My suggestion is to identify your company’s ‘music’ and make sure that you play it constantly and consistently.