It has always been a classic American ideal: if you work hard enough, you can achieve whatever it is you want. The American Dream. This rags to riches motif has been a mainstay in popular culture since our country’s humble beginnings, and no one embodies this waning ideal more than Oprah Winfrey. With a net worth of around 2.7 billion dollars, she is the richest self-made woman, and serves as daily inspiration for millions around the world.
Winfrey was born in rural Mississippi to an unmarried teenage mother, and grew up in as poverty-ridden conditions as imaginable. She faced extreme adversity from the very beginning of her life. She was molested by her cousin, uncle and family friend from the age of 9 onward, and such abuse was present throughout her childhood. She became pregnant at the age of 14, though she lost the baby soon after it was born, inadvertently giving her a second chance at escaping her wretched living conditions.
Caitlin Flanagan writes in “The Glory of Oprah” in the Atlantic: “How did she do it? How did she lift herself up from intense sorrow, abuse, and poverty? Well, as she has been trying to tell everyone who would listen to her for the past 25 years, she had an idea. A belief. She had it from the time she was 4 years old, watching her grandmother hang clothes on the line. “You’re gonna have to learn how to do this,” said her grandmother, a domestic. No, I’m not, thought Oprah; my life won’t be like this.”
A little seedling of belief had been ingrained in Winfrey’s mind since she was a child, and despite all odds and all attempts to kill that seedling, it grew and grew. Winfrey attributes all of her success to that belief, that idea that she wasn’t going to have a life like her mother and grandmother’s. She was going to make something of herself, of her life, no matter what it took. And with the support of a few adults who believed in her, she did just that: created a life for herself greater than her young, tormented self could have ever imagined.
Winfrey’s story shows us that almost nothing is more important than belief. It’s imperative to dream as big as possible, to have lofty goals and expectations, despite, or rather in spite, of everything working against you. “I believe the choice to be excellent begins with aligning your thoughts and words with the intention to require more from yourself,” Winfrey has said. Dream big and think in ideals. Live your life with an intention, with a goal, no matter how lofty it might be. Nurture that idea in your mind, help it to grow and thrive. Believe it is possible.
One of Winfrey’s greatest talents lies in her ability to be extremely candid and sincere when showing emotion. Some of her critics have derided this confessional form of media, but such genuine display of emotion is precisely what connects her to the audience. Such raw, vulnerable show of emotion is why millions and millions of people watched her talk show for so long (it was syndicated from 1986 to 2011). They see themselves in her struggles, in her concerns, in her problems. Winfrey’s ability to connect to the audience on such an intimate level is the reason she, herself, is her brand; she is relatable, she is a real person with real problems, and she inspires millions with her candor and down to earth demeanor.
Channel some of Winfrey’s candor in your next presentation. Your audience is a malleable, emotional, nuanced bunch, and they will feel much more connected to your presentation if they feel connected to you. Be honest and be compelling. More pointedly, be inspirational. Tell stories that inspire an idea in the mind of your audience. Tell stories that pull at heartstrings. Tell stories that matter and motivate.