Seven things Oprah’s last show can teach us about storytelling

May 30, 2011

by Gail Kent

Everyone who hasn’t been living under a rock knows that Oprah ended her 25-year TV show last week. And as she said at the beginning of the show, there were no cars or trips given away as there were on some of her more spectacular shows. No big Hollywood stars jumping on sofas. No makeovers.

There was just Oprah on a simple set, doing what Oprah does best — connecting with her audience. And it was brilliant.

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Oprah called it her “thank you” and “love letter” to her fans. But it was more than that. It was part sermon, part lecture, part summary of her unprecedented two-and-a-half-decade talk show that changed the face of daytime TV. And it was a master example of storytelling, as only Oprah can. So what can we learn from her pièce de résistance?

  1. KISS: Keep It Sweet and Simple. It was just Oprah and the audience, allowing the guests to focus on her and her words. No giveaways or gimmicks were needed.
  2. It was personal: From the start, Oprah has opened her life to the world, telling about her struggles growing up as the poor daughter of a single mother in Mississippi, then experiencing rape by an older cousin when she was only 9 years old. Then, of course, her own famous battles with weight control have only endeared her audiences to her. Her willingness to “go public” over and over again built a level of trust with her guests and fans that built a reputation for her as one of the most authentic and genuinely likeable people in public life. She reminded us of those moments in her last show.
  3. It was emotional: Oprah has never been afraid to show both her tears and her laughter, and that was the case on her last show. She poked fun at some of her previous hairstyles, wardrobe selections and earrings, and shed a few tears when talking about how she felt unloved as a child, even though she knew her parent and grandparents did the best they could. There can be no real storytelling without emotion. This is essential to connecting with people, and Oprah is not afraid to be genuine in front of her audience.
  4. She commanded the stage: Oprah isn’t afraid to take up space on stage — and I’m not talking about her physical size. When we’re confident, we open up our arms wide. We walk around. We gesture broadly. The worst possible place for storytelling is stuck behind a podium with our head buried in notes and a remote pointed at the projector. Walk out into the audience. Look into the eyes of individuals. Connect one-on-one. (This is as much a “note to self” as it is to the reader — it’s one of my biggest speaking sins!)
  5. She was humble: While she’s one of the wealthiest and most powerful people in the world, Oprah’s persona was one of awe and gratitude to God and to all the people in her life who helped her along the way, including a special fourth grade teacher whom she introduced to the audience. She said, “I always wanted to be a teacher, and little did I know, that I would wind up on the world’s largest stage.” To capture the hearts of people we must show respect, and that is done through humility.
  6. She provided anecdotes, examples and good visuals: We saw clips of her on the very first day on the job in the streets of Chicago, pictures of her with “big” hair and memorable scenes with various guests. But perhaps the most poignant was the clip from the show in which 200 men who had been sexually molested as boys each held up a large photograph of themselves at the age at which they had been molested. It was riveting, even in the retelling. Remember that the next time you think about throwing up another PowerPoint!
  7. She pulled it all together with a “higher purpose” message: This last show was no “skip through the years” look at Oprah. It had a purpose. It was a well-organized, 60-minute (less commercials) story/speech that summarized Oprah’s life’s work so far, and it was important to her to get it right. She had a message to leave: “We are all called … Everyone has a calling, and your real job is to find out what it is … Each of you has your own platform. Mine is a stage. Yours is wherever you are …. We all have to make a living, but find something you are passionate about, and do it. There is where your power is.”

When you are giving your next blockbuster story, whether you are telling it, writing it, singing it or tweeting it, remember that every aspect of it should unfold and support your “higher purpose” message.  Whether you’re relying on network TV, the Internet or simply your unadorned voice to spread a story to your family gathered around the table at dinner — if the message isn’t right, the medium won’t matter.

First, it’s the message. Everything else is secondary.

Want more tips on how to connect with your audience and clients through storytelling? Get my free twice monthly newsletter by entering your name and email address in the subscription box above! I’d love to know what you think about this post. Please leave me a comment below!

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