Oprah Winfrey’s success is well-documented, the distance she’s come phenomenal, and now she’s received the ultimate stamp of approval: Harvard invited her to give the commencement address this year. It was an impressive performance. I’d give her an “A” in spite of the first part of the speech being all about her, and throughout just a touch too much about how she and Harvard folks are all Type A-ers together. The speech is worth watching because of the power of her presence and her podium skills. I reviewed Stephen Colbert’s commencement address last week, giving him a “B” and accusing him of not being entirely present. Oprah, on the other hand, is fully present and compelling throughout her much longer speech.
A few insights from Oprah:
1. Make it about your audience, not about you. Oprah spends too much time on herself, telling her own story, before remembering to find a point in it relevant to the audience. It’s all “I, I, I,” at the beginning, before she settles down and starts to generalize. Of course, her own story is interesting, and it is ultimately relevant, but we could have done with a little less of it.
2. Nonetheless your perspective matters. That doesn’t mean that there’s no place for your personal story; quite the contrary. Oprah’s perspective is fresh, interesting, and insightful. It’s just a question of balance and tact.
3. Your voice matters even more. Oprah’s personal vantage point from which she looks out at the world gives her a wonderful, strong, powerful, compelling voice. She doesn’t hold back. As a coach, I hear hundreds of voices and so often what people bring is ¼ of themselves. Bring your full self to the moment – no one else can speak like you can.
4. Variety helps. Oprah is a great performer with the ability to mix it up, giving us amused one minute, outraged the next, and it keeps us riveted. She calls on a wide range of moods, tones, pacing, voices, and pitches – and that’s compelling.
5. Emotion helps. Oprah gives us lots of attitude, and that lets us know what matters to her and what she’s thinking about at any given moments. That’s so much more interesting than many speakers who seem to be afraid of voicing an opinion.
6. Finally, do give us your pearls of wisdom if you’ve got ‘em. If there’s ever a time when a gem of wisdom is warranted, it’s during a commencement speech. Oprah had a number of memorable lines and thoughts. For example, she tells us that she’s done over 35,000 interviews in her career, and every single one ends, when the camera goes off, with the person asking, “Was that OK?” Even Presidents Bush and Obama asked, “Was that OK?” Even Beyonce asked, “Was that OK?”
Oprah says people want to be heard, to be seen – to be understood. Hence the question. I guess at 35,000 interviews, she’d know.
“I can be a much better Oprah than I can be a pretend Barbara Walters.” (Walters was her role model when she started in TV.)
“Max out on your humanity.”
“Ask yourself, what makes you come alive – and go do that.” Don’t ask what the world needs. Figure out what you can do.
Oprah’s speech was long and self-absorbed – and wonderful. A great example of the commencement genre.