3 Things I Learned from Oprah
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I got invited to be interviewed by Oprah Winfrey, for her Super Soul Sunday series. We actually taped the interview a few months ago at her ranch in Maui. It’s an hour long, one-on-one piece that will air on the OWN Network, Sunday, Sept. 29, at 11 AM ET/PT (with a world-wide simulcast, accessible via the Super Soul Sunday Facebook page, the OWN TV Facebook page, and Oprah.com).
I must say it was an eye-opening experience, from which I came away with three nuggets of wisdom:
1. People are impressed when they hear you’re on Oprah’s show.
You can see it in their eyes. Your stock rises.
2. Your friends are definitely NOT impressed.
I told a few of my pals, both male and female, “Hey, Oprah Winfrey invited me to appear on her TV show.” My friends blinked once, looked at me and said, “Why?”
I flashed immediately on a moment from that great PBS documentary, Inventing David Geffen. In the film, Geffen recounts the story of a Joni Mitchell/Crosby, Stills & Nash concert at the Hollywood Bowl in the 70s, for which he and his partner Elliot Roberts were the producers. Geffen’s and Roberts’ names were displayed prominently above the names of the artists.
I flew my mother out from Brooklyn and showed her my name at the top of the concert program. She said, “I don’t get it. What exactly do you do for these people?” I told her, “I’m their manager. I advise them on their careers.” She looked at me and said, “You?”
To the people closest to us, we will always be eleven years old.
3. Oprah did not get to be Oprah by accident.
When I understood that Oprah was going to be interviewing me, my first thought was, “I’d rather be interviewing her.” Seriously. Here is a woman who came from a childhood of unbelievable poverty and abuse and has risen, by dint of her own exertions, to become virtually the Queen and Female Inspiration of America—and she’s not done yet.
I figured I might get a few moments alone with her when the cameras weren’t rolling, but no more. So I boiled my curiosity down to one question that could be answered quickly and concisely. Sure enough that moment came, outdoors under a pepper tree while the lighting was being set up.
Oprah, you must have done thousands of interviews over your career and you’re obviously great at it. Do you have a concept for interviewing people? Is there some guiding principle that you use?
Oprah answered without hesitation:
I have an intention. For you, for instance, my intention is to talk about Resistance.
I could see she had a marked-up copy of The War of Art and a number of 3X5 cards with questions on them. She told me that this intention gives her what Victoria Labalme calls a “Through Line,” meaning a unifying trajectory that tracks though a subject from beginning to end.
I can start by asking, ‘What exactly is Resistance?’ Then ‘How did you come to identify it? What has it meant in your life? How can the concept help me and help my audience?’ I have that intention. I’ll deviate from it if you and I get on a roll on some other subject, but I’ll always bring the interview back to that original intention.
And that’s exactly what happened. I haven’t seen the finished interview; I have no idea how they edited it together. But it seems certain that the final product will be like any good narrative. It’ll have a beginning, middle, and end. It will hew to a theme (or, as Shawn would say, a controlling idea.) It will explore the theme through variations. And it will finish with a coherent wrap-up.
We’ll find out on September 29. Be there or be square!
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