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The Art & Science of Oprah Winfrey: Part III

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Part III: The Art

Oprah Winfrey's powerful appeal that draws 46 million viewers a week is based on empathy, a scientifically-proven human connection discussed in yesterday's post. To understand how she communicates that dynamic -- the art that leverages the science -- let's compare her style with that of other prominent talk show hosts, focusing on seven key presentation factors. Although each of these hosts is quite successful in his own right, none of them has nearly the emotional impact on his audiences as Oprah does on hers.

Roles. Because of her grounding in news, Ms. Winfrey conducts her interviews by immersing herself in her subjects' stories. David Letterman, Jay Leno and their contemporaries, Jon Stewart and Conan O'Brien, as well as their illustrious predecessor, Johnny Carson, began their careers as comedians and so, during their interviews, function as performers. Miss Winfrey assumes the role of a congenial conversationalist with her guests. Other talk show hosts strive to match or outdo their guests' stories. Only Larry King, with his origins as a newscaster, gives his guests their full due.

Interaction. Ms. Winfrey listens carefully to her guests and responds warmly to their stories. The TV listings call Larry King "avuncular," which describes his affability but sets him somewhat apart from his guests. The comedians who go for the laughs widen that gap.

Eye Contact. Ms. Winfrey spends most of her air time engaged directly with her guests, making eye contact. Her counterparts, because of their performance orientation, play to the studio audience or to the camera and therefore to the vast unseen universe of viewers, appearing glib but impersonal. Larry King is the one exception among the others; he spends most of his air time in eye contact with his guests. Eye contact appears sincere, impersonal does not.

Setting. Ms. Winfrey sits on a comfortable upholstered chair facing her guests with nothing but air between them. Most other talk show hosts, including Larry King, sit behind a desk, the perennial standard of talk show decor. A desk on a talk show is the equivalent of a lectern in a speech: a barrier that impedes empathy.

Posture. Ms. Winfrey sits relaxed and open in her chair. The desks force the other talk show hosts to either sit up ramrod straight or to slouch on the desktop.

Smiles. Many of Ms. Winfrey's guests are the recipients of her generosity or the generosity of her sponsors. These "makeover" episodes produce many smiles from the guests and Miss Winfrey smiles along empathetically. Most of the other talk show hosts, observing the venerable show business rule of never laughing at one's own jokes, play deadpan; except for Jon Stewart who, as an actor and a comedian, is a man of many funny faces. (Please see my prior post about Jon's expressiveness.)

Gestures. Ms. Winfrey rarely uses props, leaving her hands free to gesture expressively and expansively. Other talk show hosts handle coffee cups, pencils, pens, index cards, and photographs which lead to distracting mannerisms.

To paraphrase Stephen Covey, Oprah Winfrey demonstrates seven habits of a highly effective person -- and television superstar.

Read Parts I and II here.