Anyone who has paid even remote attention to Oprah Winfrey over the past 25 years can see that she is a formidable woman. Intelligent, empathetic, ambitious, warm and just plain brilliant at making others feel heard . . . it’s difficult not to be inspired her amazing career.
I’ve been a longtime subscriber to O Magazine, a publication I actually feel has made me a better person (and how often can you say that?). The call to “be your best self” isn’t hollow rhetoric in the magazine, with smart features that go beyond most in the genre to actually show readers the path to inner enlightenment. Her afternoon show wasn’t on my TV dial quite as often, but there’s good reason it was dubbed “the world’s biggest classroom” since it always imparted valuable insights into the people around us and the way we should live.
Oprah’s retirement last week from talk-show life got me thinking about the enduring values she’s passed along, values that transcend lifestyle or career choice. But it struck me that freelancers in particular are in a good position to use many of Oprah’s transcendent lessons to improve our writing and our business.
How can we emulate this classy lady?
1) Be relatable: Oprah — wealthy and powerful as she is — didn’t intimidate her guests. In fact, she went to great pains to connect with them on as many levels as she could, sharing her weight struggles, family problems, sexual abuse and day-to-day trials as she listened to theirs. Depending on what freelancers are writing about, we may be able to bring some of our own humanity into the story to help make it more relatable to readers. And even if I’m writing straight journalism — where my opinions and personal experiences aren’t part of the story — sharing a tidbit or two of my life with my interview sources often enhances my connection with them. If they like me, they may share more information — which definitely makes for a better end product.
2) Be persistent: Oprah’s life was marked by setback upon setback, from her hardscrabble childhood being raised by her grandmother to the abuse she endured at the hands of other family members. Even after she was fired from her first broadcasting job in her 20s, she never gave up on herself or her big dreams. Persistence is literally a job requirement for successful freelancers because of the virtual guarantee we’re going to be rejected dozens or hundreds of times as we try to get our ideas and writing out in the world. Oprah never took her rejections personally, and we can’t either.
3) Be generous: Who hasn’t heard about (or been jealous of) Oprah’s amazing giveaway shows, when audience members were treated to brand-new cars and fabulous vacations? Of course she could afford it, but Oprah’s outward generosity only reflected her endless capacity to give more — of her money, yes — but of herself. The generosity freelancers can extend isn’t material, but we have much to give that isn’t wallet-related: the benefit of the doubt to MIA sources, a kind word to an editor who seems out of sorts, encouragement to fellow writers enduring their own struggles. It may not come back to you immediately, but the good karma generated can be priceless.
4) Work hard: On many levels, it’s undeniable that Oprah seems to live a charmed life despite her personal pain. But oh, how hard she’s worked to reach that pinnacle. It’s the rare writer who can achieve any meaningful success without pounding the computer keys day after day, night after night, giving up their social lives, TV watching, or even regular bathing. People tend to look only at the finished package — the success — and ignore the sheer level of grueling effort it took to get there. But we’d better be clear-eyed about this, freelancers. To a great degree, time invested = success earned, no magic involved.
5) Be versatile: Most of us have heard, if not already watched, Oprah’s newest venture — the OWN channel. When she announced a year and a half ago that her show would end in May 2011, she clearly intended to stay in the public eye beyond that, albeit in a different role. Many of the successful freelancers I know juggle a similar mix of projects, either as a way to supplement their primary income stream or keep up with ever-changing business needs in their niche. The ones working on e-books and podcasts along with their articles and blog posts are better positioned to catch the success wave wherever it takes them, and a versatile mindset can separate the successful from those doomed to languish.
I’m sure there are many other Oprah traits freelancers can steal to enhance our own businesses — pipe in and tell me your ideas!