Oprah Winfrey Shares the Biggest Revelation of Her Career in Keynote at X4 Summit 2019
After a particularly tense segment on The Oprah Winfrey Show featuring a panel interview with four members of the Ku Klux Klan, Oprah Winfrey realized her life was going in the wrong direction.
She’d invited the KKK onto the show in the hopes of reforming white supremacist attitudes towards black people, but she realized they were using the publicity as a platform to spread their vitriol.
At one point during the show, KKK supporter Elwin Wilson – who, years later, reappeared on the show to apologize for his conduct – declared: “Blacks used to live in the jungles of Africa and they come over here and white people teach these people – they didn’t create anything over here, they just followed us.”
Less than two weeks later, Winfrey found herself hosting a special on men who were cheating on their wives. One philanderer had agreed to appear on national television with both his wife and his girlfriend, during which he broke the news to his wife that his girlfriend was pregnant.
“I felt, this should not happen to a human being, and certainly not under my watch. I will not be a part of any kind of show that continues to do this sort of thing,” Winfrey recalled during her keynote at the X4 Experience Management Summit in Salt Lake City, Utah, hosted by Qualtrics.
Winfrey convened her producers and told them she was pivoting away from the sensationalism of the tabloid TV genre, which thrives on confrontation and fear-mongering.
Affiliates were concerned her ratings would drop – and they did, initially. Today, the Oprah Winfrey Show is the highest-rated TV program of its kind in history, syndicated nationally from 1986-2011 and earning its multi-billionaire host the title of richest African-American in the 20th century.
Photos courtesy of Qualtrics
Inspired by Gary Zukav’s Seat of the Soul, which espoused the power of setting one’s intentions, Winfrey decided to do the same with her show. “Getting that principle changed the trajectory of my entire life,” she said.
The first time she used this principle in her talk show, Winfrey was interviewing a woman whose 15 year old daughter had been murdered by her boyfriend for a segment on teen dating violence. Winfrey walked into the green room and asked the mother why she had agreed to appear on the show.
The mother said she wanted people to know that her daughter’s life was bigger than her death, that all anyone wanted to discuss was her murder and the violence that preceded it, when in fact her daughter had been a good student, a cheerleader, loved by her siblings and friends, and not just a victim.
After listening, Oprah responded: “Let me tell you what my intention is. My intention is to use your daughter’s life, to exploit her life not as a voyeur but to have you tell the story in such a way that every fourteen and fifteen year old girl can see themselves in your daughter’s life, see their friends in your daughter’s life, can see what abuse by your boyfriend looks like.”
It was the first of 45 shows for which Winfrey won an Emmy.
Since starting her career as a talk show host, the former Good Morning America news anchor has hosted 4,759 shows as of last count, conducting one-on-one interviews with over 37,500 people, from light-hearted affairs like Beyoncé demonstrating how to twerk to a Charlotte bank executive explaining why he brutally murdered his twin five year old daughters.
From listening to their dysfunctions, tragedies and triumphs Winfrey jokes that she’s earned an honorary PhD in human behavior.
Throughout these intense huddles with all walks of humankind, Winfrey noticed one common denominator, regardless of whether that person was a Grammy winner or a survivor of sexual assault: they needed validation that they had been heard and understood.
“I interviewed people who were victims of molestation, people who were molesters,” Winfrey said. “I interviewed Al Gore, George Bush, Barack Obama, Beyoncé. And at the end of every interview of everybody I ever talked to, in one form or another, they all say this: ‘Was I OK?’”
People would say it in different ways – Obama, at the end of his interview, quipped “Good for you?” – but Winfrey looked beyond the words and understood it to mean: Did you hear me? and Did what I say mean anything to you?
It has been instrumental in her ability to induce her guests into sharing the most intimate details of their lives. She achieved this, in part, by being bald-faced about her own struggles with being molested by a cousin and an uncle starting at the age of nine and growing up in abject poverty in Chicago, to the point where her maternal grandmother would dress her in potato sacks.
“This idea of validating and letting people know they were heard and that what they have to say matters to you was a huge breakthrough moment,” Winfrey recalled. “Because what I understood was people are more willing to share of themselves and share of their story if they feel safe, if they feel seen and if they feel heard.”
This truism holds for every confrontational situation or argument, Winfrey says, where the upset is really just a case of the aggrieved person feeling like they weren’t being listened to or valued. While it sounds blatantly self-evident, it’s easy to overlook our shared humanity in the heat of the moment.
"It’s why I was able to have and continue to have a connection with the audience that I serve because I know you want the same thing I want," Winfrey said. "Ultimately, you want to be able to live out the fullest, highest, truest expression of yourself as a human being."