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.

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