What can speakers learn from Oprah’s interview style?

 In Presentation Skills

Oprah is the queen of television interviews. We saw this on full display during the landmark televised chat with Harry and Meghan, Duke and Duchess of Sussex. Volumes of commentary have resulted from some of the explosive answers given by the celebrity couple. Much of the historic impact of the two-hour sit-down aired on March 7 and viewed by more than 17 million people can be attributed to the veteran media personality’s interview style. 

Orpah’s signature approach is to create a safe space for her guests to say what he/she needs to say so that it plays out to its fullest effect effortlessly. Her technique is so effective it has been dubbed “Oprahfication” as a form of public confession by famous people. She excels at creating a warm and friendly atmosphere where A-listers like Lance Armstrong, Whitney Houston and Tom Cruise can feel comfortable sharing their innermost thoughts while sitting on her couch.  

Much of that stems from 25 years as the helm of the most successful talk show of her era. Hosting a daily talk show builds up a skill set that requires listening as much as it does asking questions.  It involves finding a way to listen that conveys empathy to both the interview subject and the audience at large.

Oprah’s interview style has much in common with Larry King’s. He was modest and unafraid to ask short and simple questions that anybody could understand.  King put people at ease and believed in placing the focus on the guest, listening closely, and keeping the word “I” out of the conversation. After 60 years in broadcasting and more than 60,000 interviews, King became a legend among talk show hosts.

I remind myself every morning: Nothing I say this day will teach me anything. So if I’m going to learn, I must do it by listening.”

Larry King

Both King and Oprah display masterful patience and the kind of thinking, attentive face that tells viewers at home that they should pay attention.  And that facial language is powerful.

In the case of Meghan Markle’s bombshell answers, Oprah’s ability to remain composed, calm, and keenly interested, allowed the Duchess to let her story be the story.  Her face signaled the peaks and ebbs of a never-before-told series of headline-making events. Oprah’s long history of greatness on television made her perhaps the only interviewer in the world who could have taken on Harry and Meghan’s challenge.

An interview with Oprah would be a career milestone for just about anyone, myself included.  But until that day comes, there are lessons to be learned by watching her in action, which translate to the work of public speakers and presenters.

That is because effective communication is more about listening than speaking A highly skilled listener uses non-verbal communication to display understanding and respect.  Good listeners are measured in what they say and give the interviewees plenty of air without interjecting themselves into the narrative.  Hence Larry King’s technique of keeping the “I” out of an interview.

5 public speaking lessons from Oprah’s playbook

Here are five lessons from Oprah’s playbook, with a nod to the great Larry King:

1.  Project calm, assertive energy.

Oprah exudes a balance of confidence, humanity, composure, and patience, combined with intelligence, power and influence.  This balance creates an attractive and welcoming space for conversations.  Generally, a person who is poised, centered and serene inspires more confidence than someone who rattles on and speaks more than the interviewee.

2.  Listen well. 

Listening is an art that requires work and discipline.  It is difficult to listen without judgment.  The ego typically likes to be in the action and set the other speakers straight.  But active listening springs as much from knowing when to listen as it does from the value of silence.  Empathetic listening lets you develop a deeper understanding and better dialog and connection with your audience.

3.  Emote attention and interest.

There are hundreds of thousands of facial expressions, and each has meaning. Steady eye contact, a smile, and a head nod are just a few of the many ways to validate and acknowledge the other person with a gesture.  The same goes for a speaker in front of an audience or a presenter in an online conference.  How you connect with others in physical or virtual spaces has as much to do with non-verbal language as what words you say.

4.  It is not about you.

Enlightened speakers learn to keep the focus on the other person when they address an audience of one or thousands. One technique to make it about them, is to watch the use of pronouns.  Check the ratio of you and I or us in what you say.  Make your comments relatable to the concerns, interests, and life experiences of the others.  Whether you are doing a talk before a small group on Zoom or leading a meeting in person, observe how much better your message lands when you make it about them.

5.  Make it look easy.

Mastery is about how you practice, how often, and how you enjoy the ride. It requires preparation and commitment. People like Oprah, who make talking with celebrities appear easy, have practiced and honed their craft over decades. And they derive satisfaction and joy from what they do.  If you as a speaker are not having “fun,” it will show.  If you are tense, tentative, and unprepared, you will sabotage your success.  The more you practice and prepare, the easier it will become, and the more effective you will become as a speaker or presenter.

You can read more of my tips and techniques for better video meetings on my blog. And if you want to check your Zoom meeting IQ, take my ZoomScore™ quiz and see how you rate on the essential elements of a professional video presence.

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