The Secret of Oprah's Success

To strike a chord with their audiences, executives must learn how to make an emotional connection. No one does that better than the talk-show queen

Like most of you, I couldn't help avoiding news coverage of Oprah Winfrey's mea culpa over the fabrications -- okay, lies -- in James Frey's book A Million Little Pieces. After his distortions were exposed, Oprah apologized for supporting Frey. It served to remind me why millions of people love Oprah and what the rest of us can learn from her in our own personal or professional communications.

Oprah is someone I consider to be an authentic communicator, in the sense that the dictionary defines authenticity: worthy of trust. It's a refreshing change from the culture of finger-pointing we seem to find ourselves in these days. In a Roper poll conducted last August, more than 70% of respondents felt that wrongdoing was widespread in Corporate America. Trust is at a premium. Your customers, colleagues, investors, and employees crave it.

In my career as a communications coach, I work with many executives who are sincere, genuine, caring, and concerned. They are authentic human beings, but as communicators, they sometimes don't quite understand how to make a strong emotional connection with their audiences. I ask them to pay attention to the following traits of authentic communicators.


  So few people are willing to fess up to mistakes that Oprah makes headlines by simply admitting she was wrong. But it's exactly why so many of Oprah's viewers feel a strong emotional connection to her.

Last year, I worked with an executive at a high-tech startup in Silicon Valley funded by one of the world's wealthiest individuals. The executive had to deliver some bad news. By going in the direction he originally endorsed, a crucial product had not worked properly, meaning its launch would have to be delayed.

After discussing how best to handle the presentation, we decided to have the executive start the presentation by admitting to his mistake, or misjudgment, instead of pointing the finger at his team of engineers or vendors. Only after he fessed up would he spend the next 20 minutes explaining what he had learned and how it would help the product become even better.

Understandably, I couldn't attend the actual presentation. But I did hear that the wealthy investor "felt good" about the executive, the team, and their ability to correct the problem. The executive kept his job and the company has since enjoyed considerable success, including a glowing profile in The Wall Street Journal. If you make a mistake, own up to it.


  Oprah is confident about herself and is not reluctant to lower her shield from time to time, telling stories that give people a glimpse into her pain, joy, and what's truly in her heart. I'm not recommending that you share your innermost secrets, but I am suggesting that personal stories go a long way toward reinforcing trust with your listeners.

For example, another woman who enjoys an authentic relationship with her audience -- readers and viewers -- is personal finance guru Suze Orman. She gave me a lot of time for my book, 10 Simple Secrets, and was one of my favorite interview subjects during my career as a business journalist. There is a good reason why Orman stands out among America's 650,000 financial planners: She connects on a personal level. People trust her. In conversations she shares stories about herself and the financial struggles her family experienced.

Orman often tells the story about the time she was 13 and watched her father dive back into a burning chicken shack to retrieve a cash register. In that moment Orman learned how much money, or the lack of it, could become more important than life itself for those who don't know how to manage it. Her mission is to help people manage their money while placing it into the proper perspective. By lowering the shield every once in a while and sharing something personal, you will develop a connection with your listeners and establish a stronger bond of trust.


  Oprah has an unbridled passion for books. When she launched her enormously popular book club she was quoted as saying, "Books were my pass to personal freedom. I learned to read at age three, and soon discovered there was a whole world to conquer that went beyond our farm in Mississippi." Authentic communicators are passionate about their service, product, company, or cause and they're not afraid to show it.

All too often business professionals forget that their customers or employees want to feel good about the company and individuals with whom they do business. I spent some time with Starbucks (SBUX) founder Howard Schultz during the research for my first book. His passion is contagious, but interestingly, while he enjoys coffee, he is truly passionate about creating a workplace that treats employees with dignity and respect. He often says that Starbucks' success has much to do with the company's relationship with its employees.

Identify what you are truly passionate about and share that passion with your listeners. More often than not, you will find that your passion is not necessarily in the product itself but in the benefit the product or service offers your customers and employees.


  Thank you for all the great feedback on this column. Now I would like to hear directly from you for future topics and profiles. Please feel free to send me examples of men and women you admire as great business communicators, especially if they inspire their audiences.

In addition, if you have faced professional communications challenges, I would like to hear from you. We can tackle the subjects from time to time. E-mail me at Thanks for your support.

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