Speech can be golden – Oprah’s communication masterclass


Ishbel Smith was struck by how much charities can learn from Oprah Winfrey's powerful Golden Globes speech

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9th January 2018 by TFN Guest 0 Comments

Oprah Winfrey’s speech at the Golden Globes did many things – not least create a social media storm resulting in Americans waking up to the twitter trend of #Oprah2020. Yet despite the clear digital impact that this speech has had, it teaches us much about the power of the oldest form of communication in the book (in fact, pre-dating the book) – talking to people.

Such was the interest in the speech in our news media that Radio 4’s PM programme took the unusual step of not just broadcasting the eight-minute speech in its entirety but getting an actor to voice the words of a speech for which they did not have the necessary broadcast rights. The well-voiced words still conveyed the sentiments that Oprah had expressed – yet it was self-evidently not the same as hearing Oprah herself deliver them. There is still a real force in not only hearing a person delivering their own words with their own tone, pitch and emphasis but also seeing them use their eyes, their posture and their bodies to communicate a message that they are passionate about.

Ishbel Smith

Ishbel Smith

And Oprah’s speech resonated with passion – the delivery of her message convinced her listeners (and millions of Youtube viewers) that she was talking from the heart, that she was sharing a message that she believed in and with which she wished to change others. Oprah herself acknowledged this – she wasn’t just speaking to her star-studded colleagues but to all those little girls watching on TV. She wanted to inspire them and make a difference in their lives.

For those who are passionate about their own message – be that for a charity, a faith or an ideal – it's maybe a little daunting to compare their speeches with that of an Oscar nominated actress. Can your speaking skills have the same impact for your charity that Oprah’s had for her #2020 campaign? You may not think so but there is much we can learn from Oprah’s example. 

She used her whole self in her presentation – every part of her body was engaged in ensuring the message was expressed whole heartedly and convincingly. We need to remember that audiences are looking at us as well as listening to us and the more we engage with them visually, the more they will engage with our message. 

Oprah had clearly also really, really thought about what she was going to say.  These were no off the cuff comments but it was a carefully crafted, considered and constructed speech – if you blinked you may not have noticed when the TV cameras accidentally transmitted the autocue with her words emblazoned. There is nothing wrong with this – in fact, it’s a reminder that good presentations are usually well planned, prepared and practised.

But most importantly, Oprah remained authentically herself throughout the speech. As evidenced by the contrast with the Radio 4 broadcast, it worked so well because it was delivered in an individual, unique and personal way. Audiences are innately sensitive to the invisible clues in body language and speech which suggest that the speaker is not convinced by their own message. Nothing is more inspiring, more effective and more engaging than someone speaking from their heart about something that genuinely matters to them. This is truly exciting for it means that by being you (and not by trying to be Oprah) even in today’s digital world, the power of that ancient and most powerful form of communication – the power of the spoken word – is within you and in your control. 

Ishbel Smith is the founder of Heart In Mouth, a presentation skills consultancy that specialises in working with organisations from the charity and faith sectors