How Oprah is likely to approach her “Divided America” segment on “60 Minutes”

Oprah, panel whisperer.
Oprah, panel whisperer.
Image: REUTERS/Brian Snyder
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On Sept. 24, Oprah Winfrey will make her first appearance as a special contributor on 60 Minutes. For her inaugural segment, called “Divided America,” she’s tackling a topic explored countless times since the 2016 US presidential election. But hopes for Winfrey’s interview with a panel of Americans of divergent political views are high. W Magazine, for instance, calls her “a voice that most Americans seem to trust” and suggests she’s exactly what journalism—and America—needs right now.

So what is it in Winfrey’s interviewing and moderating techniques that has us anticipating some kind of breakthrough conversation?

According to those who have analyzed her strategies in other high-profile interviews and in her years of hosting the Oprah Winfrey Show, her blockbuster daytime TV talk show that wrapped in 2011, Winfrey embodies empathy, vulnerability, and emotional honesty—values that only now are becoming fashionable among wide swaths of leaders.

An article in the Journal of Popular Culture argued in 1993 that Winfrey creates a sense of intimacy during her on-camera interviews by emulating the flavor and traits of women’s friendships. That author cited research that showed women were more likely to elicit and offer personal disclosures, and will be egalitarian in handling a conversation. Women were also said to listen uncritically to a conversation partner, whereas men were found to be more concerned with expressions of power and action.

Some sociologists now believe that men’s friendships actually may not be that different from women’s, but the lesson for moderators of tough conversations—in any setting—is the same: Consider thinking of your panel members as close confidants.

The website Speakerhub, which allows people to find and book special speakers, points out that Oprah tends to ask questions like “How did that make you feel?” to quickly bring attention to the emotional drivers of varying perspectives.

Winfrey also likes to ask her guests “What do you want people to know?” This classic question works so well because it creates space for someone who may hold unpopular or controversial views to speak without fear of judgement, and to explain what they feel is misinterpreted about their positions or experiences. She disarms defensiveness by remaining open to what people want to say. She’s expected to do the same thing on 60 Minutes, even though her personal political views are widely known.

Winfrey is a skilled non-verbal communicator, too. The Popular Culture essay notes how she physically leans in, gently touches people she’s speaking with, and maintains eye contact with a conversation partner.

Thanks to a local report from Grand Rapids, Michigan, where at least a portion of her “Divided America” segment was filmed, we know that the media mogul has already shown a desire to connect with her 60 Minutes panelists, who arrived at the taping not knowing who their VIP moderator would be. A woman from the Grand Rapids area who will appear on Sunday’s show says Winfrey took the whole panel out for drinks after a day of discussions—but first the superstar went back to her hotel to change, and wore sweatpants to the group outing.