Oprah’s Speech Carries Many Key Lessons for Business Leaders

Posted by David Grossman on Wed,Jan 24, 2018

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Oprah’s powerful speech at the Golden Globes obviously grabbed media attention and praise over the past several weeks, including calls for the media mogul to run for president. Yet have you considered just how many lasting lessons her talk offers business leaders?

The Impact of a Great Speech

As we all know, there’s no shortage of talking and sharing of information in business today. What’s lacking in the barrage of emails, talking points, Town Halls and PowerPoint presentations is communication that truly captures and engages an audience.

Most importantly, there’s a real lack of communication that moves anyone to feel anything about their work, much less move them to action or rally around a specific business initiative. Too often, leaders communicate as an afterthought, not because they see it as a powerful tool to drive results for their organization.

But I’m in this work because I know how big of an impact great communication can have. I’ve seen the impact play out for countless successful businesses.

The swift and strong reaction to Oprah’s acceptance speech for the Cecil B. DeMille Award proves the point. The first African American woman to win the award, Oprah used her talk to raise awareness of sexual harassment, racial injustice, and the power of journalism to reveal truth.

Authenticity as the Most Important Ingredient

First and most important was her emphasis on authenticity, which is something I’ve been talking about with increasing intensity over the past year. Respectful authenticity, as I define it, is the constant process of being truthful – first with yourself and then with others. To say the things that need to be said. And to do it in a kind and respectful way.

Oprah applies this standard when she says in many of her communications, “What I know for sure.” In her talk at the Globes, she said, “What I know for sure is that speaking your truth is the most powerful tool we all have. And I’m especially proud and inspired by all the women who have felt strong enough and empowered enough to speak up and share their personal stories.”

I believe all leaders should have (or start) a similar “What I know for sure” list, especially if they are working on being even more authentic in their communications.

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Connecting with the Audience

Secondly, Oprah thought deeply about her audience, not just those in attendance but all the little girls and women watching the awards show from home, many of whom understood that the event that night was also about women’s empowerment and speaking up against men who abuse their power. Early on, she also acknowledged how many people were feeling in the room, signaling that she could relate to the lion’s share of people there. “It is not lost on me that at this moment, there are some little girls watching as I become the first black woman to be given this same award. It is an honor and it is a privilege to share the evening with all of them and also with the incredible men and women who have inspired me.”

Using Stories to Drive the Message Home

Thirdly, Oprah weaved in powerful stories throughout the speech, giving us an opportunity to get to know and understand her further, and also to see what truly matters to her. Her opening had the audience from the start, as it painted a powerful picture of Orpah as a young girl watching Sidney Poitier make history as the first African American to win best actor. “I have tried many, many, many times to explain what a moment like that means to a little girl, a kid watching from the cheap seats, as my mom came through the door bone-tired from cleaning other people's houses. But all I could do is quote and say that the explanation in Sidney's performance in 'Lilies of the Field': Amen, amen. Amen, amen.”

Planning Pays Off

Fourth, Oprah clearly planned out her speech. Too often, leaders – and actors at awards shows – spoil a great opportunity to make an impact simply because they don’t think through what they want to say. Just winging it doesn’t work if you really want to move people, as we’ve all seen countless times as actors ramble or appear dumbfounded when presented with an award.

The best leaders understand the importance of planning and laying out what business goal they seek with any critical piece of communication.

Providing Hope and Demonstrating What’s Possible

Finally, Oprah’s tone and pacing were perfect throughout her speech. She slowed down at moments, sped up at others, raised the volume at critical times and showed genuine emotion and passion. All of this combined to create a sense of hope and possibility, another thing that’s critical for leaders looking to inspire. That sense of hope reached a crescendo with her final words, as she circled back to the central theme of empowerment for girls and women.

“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 a lot of magnificent women, many of whom are right here in this room tonight, and some pretty phenomenal men, are fighting hard to make sure that they become the leaders who take us to the time when nobody ever has to say, “Me too” again.

What can you do to be more inspirational in your communications with your team? How can you let them know in an even more personal and powerful way what matters to you and what you want to accomplish for your organization?

—David Grossman


Click below to download the eBook—Respectful Authenticity: Bringing Your Best to Work and Bringing Out the Best in Othersthat explains the value of leaders living authentically so they can be their best selves, motivate their teams, and get results:
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Tags: Presentation Skills, Authenticity

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    Leadership and communications expert, David Grossman shares high-level tips on leadership effectiveness, internal communications, employee engagement, and a variety of other topics on the minds of leaders and communicators.

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