A good speaker can turn any event into a speaking masterclass. Take some tips from Oprah on how to craft a compelling speech that your audience will remember for a long time.

Many influencers use speaking as a marketing tool. They aim at expanding their reach and promoting, or even directly selling, their services. To help them with that, they may look for clues and advice in past sales speeches. 

But have you ever thought of using formal speeches as a source of inspiration? 

For proof of effectiveness, look no further than Oprah Winfrey’s Stanford commencement address. 

The speeches given by honorary speakers at college commencements are usually formal. But a speaker of Oprah’s ability can tell a captivating story on any occasion. And this is a skill that all influencers should develop.

In this article, you’ll see a breakdown of Oprah’s speech, followed by the corresponding speaking advice. But before we get to that, it might interest you to learn how Oprah became one of the most influential people on the planet.

Who Is Oprah Winfrey?

Born in rural Mississippi in 1954, Oprah Gail Winfrey had a troubled early life. Anyone looking at Oprah of today would have a tough time imagining the odds that were stacked against her.

When she was a young girl, Oprah experienced how unfair the world could be. On top of being a black person deep in the American South, she suffered multiple cases of sexual abuse. These happened at the hands of her male relatives and her mother’s friends, and her mother was powerless to do anything about it.

Because of this, Oprah moved to Nashville to live with her father.

It was there that she attended Tennessee State University. She started her broadcasting career there, too.

Her beginnings were humble. But little by little, Oprah succeeded in everything she attempted.

In 1986, the first episode of The Oprah Winfrey Show aired. It would become an immediate hit. By the end of the first season, it had grossed US$125 million.

For the next 25 years, The Oprah Winfrey Show aired in more than 100 countries. In 2011, Oprah ended her contract with ABC in favour of her own network, OWN (Oprah Winfrey Network).

To this day, Oprah’s influence is still going as strong as ever. She has become a powerful and charismatic business mogul, as well as one of the most impactful speakers in the world. 

Oprah’s Stanford commencement address in the summer of 2008 is a perfect example. The Life as a Classroom speech is full of speaking lessons. We’ll explain in further detail below.

1. Start with a Story

Your speech has to grab attention from the first minute. You need to establish an emotional connection with your audience for your speech to make an impact.

Oprah often does this by way of a story.

In Life as a Classroom, she starts off by talking about her goddaughter Kirby Bumpus, a Stanford student. Oprah describes how Kirby doesn’t want people to know her by her connections. That’s why she doesn’t openly talk about her relationship with Oprah.

Oprah then shares a few funny anecdotes and expresses her pride in Kirby. Only after that does she move on to the main points of her speech.

Storytelling can make your speech much more memorable. Stories have a bigger impact than statistics or bullet points. They make connections through the shared values and concepts that unite us.

No matter the occasion or topic of your speech, leading with a story is a dependable way of inviting people to listen more closely.

Of course, the key here is to have a compelling story that’s packed with emotion. Consider the audience and think about the kind of story that would appeal to them. Make it vibrant and punchy, preferably with a few “Ah-ha” moments, and you’re bound to have the audience’s undivided attention.

2. Establish a Key Thread

What’s the primary takeaway of your speech?

You must answer this question with clarity before you start planning the speech. It will be the core around which you’ll build the whole thing.

Oprah’s key thread running through the commencement address was a B.B. King quote:

“The beautiful thing about learning is that nobody can take that away from you.”

While the topics varied throughout the speech, the overarching theme stayed the same. And this is the structure you must follow if you want your speech to influence people.

With this structure, every story told reinforces the point you want to get across. It also eliminates confusion and prevents the audience from getting lost during your speech. 

To recap, you should start by establishing a key thread and then build the rest of the speech around it.

3. Draw from Your Own Experiences 

We love to hear other people’s stories. Personal stories can change listeners’ perspectives and introduce new solutions. Because of this, personal experiences are among the best ways to reinforce the points of your speech.

Oprah used a story from her university days to emphasise the importance of education. When she started her broadcasting career, Oprah had to put college on hold – even though she was only one credit away from graduating.

Her father encouraged her to complete her degree, but Oprah wanted to focus on her career.

It wasn’t until her university invited her to speak at a commencement a decade later that she finally graduated. She did so because she wanted to give the speech as a fellow graduate. In completing that one final credit, she also made her father proud.

With a keen knowledge of her audience, Oprah used her experience to motivate and encourage the new graduates. After telling the story of her formal education, she moved on to the main point of the speech.

“And sometimes here in this Planet Earth school the lessons often come dressed up as detours or roadblocks. And sometimes as full-blown crises. And the secret I’ve learned to getting ahead is being open to the lessons, lessons from the grandest university of all, that is, the universe itself.” 

As an influencer, it’s important for you to discuss your experiences and what you’ve learned from them. This adds value and makes the audience want to listen more closely to the other lessons that you share.

4. Create Memorable Soundbites

You want your audience to leave the room with the key messages of your speech imprinted on their minds. A great way to do that is with a few memorable soundbites.

For example, one of the best soundbites in Oprah’s speech is:

“The three lessons that have had the greatest impact on my life have to do with feelings, with failure and with finding happiness.”

It’s punchy, concise, and easy to remember. At the same time, it offers enough value for the audience to come away feeling like they’ve learned something new.

Of course, you can elaborate on your messages with stories, examples, and statistics. But the point is to get people to remember the one-liners that also serve as lessons. 

5. Use Humour

People love speeches that entertain. Humour is a great way to keep people engaged and excited about your speech. It makes you more likeable. And ensures that the audience members will want to come back for more.

Oprah knows how to entertain her audience. She has a great sense of humour, which she’s known to weave into her shows and speeches.

Oprah ended Life as a Classroom with a joke that plays to her well-known generosity. The lavish gifts she hands out not only make people happy, they’re a feature of her show.

In closing, Oprah said to students:

“I really wanted to give you cars but I just couldn’t pull that off!” 

The graduating class and everyone else in the audience cracked up and applauded heartily. Oprah proceeded to congratulate the students and thank them for their attention.

Of course, the humour you use in your speeches should never be tasteless or over the top. In most cases, however, it’s totally possible to include a few jokes. You’ll make your audience laugh and your speech more fun.

Master the Art of Speaking

As mentioned, aspiring influencers should know how to make a speech compelling and engaging. Regardless of the occasion, your goal is to make a strong impression and leave people wanting more.

Few people in the world do it better than Oprah. You might want to take her pointers and apply them to your speeches.

Don’t forget to tell stories and provide soundbites that the audience can take away with them. Then sprinkle some humour throughout the speech to keep the audience entertained and engaged.

Speakers Institute has a lot more to share regarding the art of speaking and building a speaking business. If you want to learn more, why not do the following:

  • Take me to GREENROOM. The #1 Online Hub connecting you to the world’s leading Influencers, Training and Curriculum.
  • For information on dates and times of our events, just go here: ONLINE EVENTS