Howard University scored big this year by landing Oprah Winfrey as their commencement speaker on Saturday, May 12. Winfrey “brought down the house,” according to WTOPNews.com, with such stories as the one about the grandmother who urged her to befriend white people.
“She used to say, ‘I hope you get some good white folks that are kind to you.’ And I regret that she didn’t live past 1963 to see that I did grow up and get some really good white folks working for me,” Winfrey said, to laughter and a loud applause.
The Washington Post asked Karen Bradley, a University of Maryland professor of dance and an expert on nonverbal communication, to examine Winfrey’s body language to explain her appeal.
Bradley described Oprah as “entirely authentic.” Oprah’s emotions and actions are completely congruent, Bradley said. “That’s what we call presence or charisma.”
The phrase Bradley used that I found most interesting was “completely embodied.” Bradley defined this as “what someone is feeling internally is congruent with what they’re expressing.”
Apparently Oprah cried when receiving an honorary doctorate – yet did not seem embarrassed by her tears, instead turning to the audience to “use her emotions to feed her message.” She raised one hand when discussing blessings, “as if bestow a benediction on the crowd.”
Manipulative? Does sound suspicious. Is Oprah Winfrey aware of the power of her presence? Of course. Has she received public speaking training or coaching? Probably.
But I don’t think “completely embodied” can be faked. We’ve all seen speakers who gesture at the “right” times, who walk purposefully across the stage (or through the audience, a technique Phil Donahue popularlized) yet who don’t seem congruent, or charismatic, or “embodied.”
In fact, their bodies seem to be lying to us: saying and doing one thing, yet shining with a certain polish that makes us wince at the glare of their harsh light.
To be “completely embodied,” one must live IN one’s body, for starters. By “coming out” as someone who struggles with food, weight, and exercise, Oprah seems to have achieved something even beyond her impressive philanthropic, media, and publishing successes: She accepts her body without shame or self-pity. She lives in her body. And thus, when she gestures with her hand, or feels moved to tears, or speaks “from the heart,” her physical message and her verbal message are congruent — which feels satisfying to an audience, and inspires trust.
Yet another reason to be physically active, and to “embody” ourselves. It’s good for our health, sure — and it’s also good for our relationships, and our effectivness as leaders.