Oprah Winfrey

Public Speaking Skills: What We Can Learn from Oprah

I don’t watch TV, but I do have the strong habit of watching web videos of great presentations. I can easily become glued to sites like TED the same way TV junkies get hooked to Lost or Dancing With the Stars.

Probably one of the greatest presentations I’ve seen lately is Oprah’s commencement address at Duke University, which took place back in 2009.


After watching it for the first time, I felt compelled to watch it again, this time taking notes. Here are the reasons why I think Oprah’s delivery is so effective:

1. Show confidence

Seeing Oprah address a large group with confidence may seem natural, since we’ve always known her as a media superstar. However, to get to that level she’s had to work very hard. Confidence is perhaps the most important ingredient of any successful presentation. Knowing your stuff is a good way to start building the confidence you need.

2. Recognize others

Your presentations shouldn’t be about “you”, they should be about “them”. Just as Oprah takes time to recognize the mothers of the graduating class, take time to acknowledge those who helped you with a project, and thank your audience for giving you their most precious asset: their attention.

3. Use personal anecdotes

While you shouldn’t speak about yourself all the time (it gets boring fast) by all means do sprinkle personal anecdotes here and there to give credibility to what you’re saying. For example, show how you’ve solved a relevant problem in the past. Oprah draws upon a wealth of personal anecdotes to bring her speech to life.

4. Use compelling examples

Don’t be afraid to shock people to get your message across. Notice how, when speaking about overcoming obstacles, Oprah tells the story of a young woman who, after falling ill with a rare flesh eating infection, had to have her limbs amputated to save her life. You can bet that at that point Oprah had her audience’s undivided attention.

One good way to make your points effectively is to use images. If you’re talking about the devastation caused by a hurricane, show an aerial view of the disaster area instead of tables and pie charts. Similarly, instead of just displaying a bullet-pointed list telling how great your product is, show a picture of a satisfied customer using your product.

5. Tailor your examples to your audience

Always explain how your examples are relevant to your audience. Throughout her speech, Oprah clearly makes the connection between the experiences of the people she met on her show, and how the graduates can extrapolate those experiences and apply them to their own professional life.

6. Use repetition to drive home your main points

Just as you need to contact a prospect an average of seven times before you make a sale, repeating your main ideas often increases the probability that your audience will remember them. Notice how Oprah always repeats the following words after she makes a point: “If you [do this] you will be a huge success”.

7. Be real

One of the best parts of the speech comes when Oprah mentions how great it is to live in a big house and fly in a private jet (this at a time when CEOs were being chastised by the media for their propensity to travel in style). Even though afterward she recognizes that there are more important things, she doesn’t portray herself as hollier-than-thou by pretending she doesn’t like the finer things in life.

Similarly, in your presentations, don’t be afraid to expose weaknesses, to say things that may not be very popular, or to acknowledge that you don’t have all the answers. We tend to like and trust more those who sound human than those who sound like a carefully rehearsed sales pitch.

8. Follow your instincts

Oprah mentions the importance of following your gut, and gives examples of how sometimes she’s had to go against the recommendations of others. If you’re going to speak in front of a group, make sure that you believe in what you’re about to say.

When all the lights are on you, and you’re all alone holding the mike and the laser pointer, you become the spokesman and the endorser of whatever you’re about to say. Don’t compromise your credibility and integrity by talking about something you don’t believe in.

9. Always summarize your main takeaways

Notice how Oprah sums up her whole speech in one simple takeaway: “follow your gut”.  In this age of “death-by-PowerPoint”, information overload and short attention spans, take this extra step to make sure your main ideas sink in. Your audience will thank you for that.

Aside from these nine observations, we could add one more: practice, practice, practice. The fact that Oprah’s speech flows so naturally is because she is a pro. You can do the same if you remember these tips and consciously start to apply them in your presentations.

In summary, for a great presentation:

  1. Be confident
  2. Be thankful
  3. Be personal
  4. Be compelling
  5. Be relevant
  6. Be repetitive (of your main points)
  7. Be real
  8. Be convinced (of what you’re about to say)
  9. Be concise
  10. Practice, practice, practice

If you’ve read up to this point, please take the time to watch the speech or read it here.

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