How Oprah’s story connects with us on a basic human level

How Oprah’s story connects with us on a basic human level

Last time, I referenced some of the reactions in the worldwide press to Oprah Winfrey’s acceptance speech at the recent Golden Globe Awards ceremony. At the time of my writing—in my transatlantic airplane seat—I had not heard the speech, nor was I completely sure exactly what these awards represent.

This week, I had the opportunity to educate myself a bit more. For example, I now know that the Golden Globe Awards are accolades bestowed by the 93 members of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, recognizing excellence in film and television, from both the US and abroad. In addition, I have listened to Ms Winfrey’s speech several times.

In the end though, I consider it something of an advantage that I had not heard the speech when I saw the reports about it from various corners of the world. As I wrote in the last post, my intent was to comment on the editorial views concerning Ms Winfrey’s discourse, rather than to analyze the speech itself.

In particular, what I found so extraordinary was the mini-boom this speech produced. People seemed to be saying that, since Oprah was so good at moving an audience with her personal storytelling, she would make an outstanding presidential candidate. Television network NBC even tweeted, though they later deleted, the following: “Nothing but respect for OUR future president.”

Once again, my reaction to all of this is two-fold. On the one hand, the discussion of Oprah’s ability to inspire an audience with story was nice to see. As someone who has been teaching and coaching people to use their personal narratives to influence their worlds, it was gratifying to see so much of the world acknowledge the fundamental truth of this concept.

On the other hand, when the New York Times writes that elections are simply “contests of stories”, it gives me pause for thought. If such is the case, one can wonder about the merits or appropriateness of television stars entering the realm of politics. Should celebrity and storytelling prowess be qualifications for higher office? All I can say is that I am not so sure that the world would benefit from a move in that direction.

Now that I have listened to the speech, I find it perhaps less extraordinary than the glowing, somewhat exaggerated, analysis in the newspapers. At the same time, I find that there is much to like and learn from in Oprah’s personal storytelling. In nine minutes, she integrates many of the elements I work on with my clients when we practice telling our stories of identity.

Here is a short list of some of the most salient of these elements. Her storytelling is:

reflective: One can see that she is an individual who processes her life experience, that she has thought deeply about issues that are truly important to her

personal: She speaks of a childhood memory that had a significant impact on her, as she sat on the linoleum floor and watched the first black winner of an Academy Award.

engaging: She certainly invites the audience in to her stories, and she reaches listeners on an emotional level

simple: like many expert storytellers, Oprah sticks to a straightforward line and does not distract us with useless detail

authentic: Here is a woman who exudes authenticity.  We can feel that she is speaking from the heart about things that matter deeply to her

inclusive: She connects us to something universal. Her struggle becomes the audience’s as well. It is a story of identity that encourages us to join in.

The overall effect is impressive. Oprah tells her personal stories of identity in ways that inspire others. She connects her stories to something universal, something uplifting for the listeners. She crafts collective stories of identity, presenting herself as the protagonist in a narrative that her followers will want to share in.

Above all, her story connects with us on a basic human level. And, this is perhaps the overriding lesson for politicians seeking to connect with voters. One can certainly argue that this human element is what was most missing in Hillary Clinton’s run for the president.

We’ll explore this a bit further next time.


Image: Flickr user Weird Beards