After 27 years warming up audiences for The Oprah Winfrey Show, Sally Lou started her own business helping people connect to their greatest talents.
Tell us a little about your background…
I always knew I wanted to work in TV. When I was 14 years old, my mother took me to the filming of The Mike Douglas Show. It was filmed in my hometown of Philadelphia and my mom got tickets (she can’t remember how) and this ticket changed the trajectory of my life.
As I sat in the studio audience, I spotted a girl on the set with a clipboard. I didn’t know what she did but she was a woman, she looked busy, she wore a headset—I knew immediately that I wanted to do what she did.
I loved the smell of the studio, the clicking sounds of the lights, the camaraderie of the crew, the action, and the live excitement. The environment sucked me in and pleased all five of my senses, which is why my career started that day on April 12, 1976.
As a senior in high school, I interned at KYW radio, which happened to be in the same building as The Mike Douglas Show. I won an award for being one of the top students. I don’t remember being any more skilled than the other interns but the instructors clearly recognized I was passionate. I could barely contain myself each time I entered the building where Clip Board Girl lived!
I attended Lafayette College in Easton, PA. Lafayette College is part of my family’s DNA. My father, two sisters, and brother-in-law all attended. I was determined not to go there because I was going to go to a big university where I could study broadcast journalism, but every time I visited another campus, I always left thinking “It’s not Lafayette.” So I went to Lafayette and I made Lafayette work for me and my TV dream.
My junior year, I took a semester in Washington, DC to study journalism. I interned with a Capitol Hill stringer service and at NBC. While at NBC, I learned about a coveted TV internship in Chicago. When I returned to Lafayette for my senior year, I took two risks: I tried out for the first musical to ever be produced at my college, Chicago (a little foreshadowing!); and I applied for the Irving B. Harris Internship at WTTW-TV, the PBS station in Chicago. Sadly, I was not cast in the musical—but I did get the internship! And that is when I knew Chicago was going to be part of my story.
My internship put me in the same city as Oprah Winfrey. Oprah moved to Chicago in 1984 to host the local ABC show AM Chicago. I remember first meeting Oprah when she came to the PBS station to be a guest on our local show Chicago Tonight. She complimented my blouse.
Two years later, Oprah took her show national and I applied for the Audience Coordinator job. I interviewed with Oprah. She liked me and I liked her. She complimented my suit. For some reason I did not get the job that day, but one year later, the Executive Producer called me and offered me the same job. I never lost sight of my dream; I just had no idea how big the dream would be.
I was at The Oprah Winfrey Show for most of the iconic moments: the wagon of fat, Alaskan Men, the car show, favorite things, Tom Cruise jumping on the couch, the flash mob dance, Australia, and the 25th Season Surprise Spectacular at The United Center. But what mattered most to me was that I was literally living the dream I had manifested at 14 years old. I was the Audience Producer for the show and I was in the studio every day with my clipboard. I felt the camaraderie of the crew, tasted the excitement of the work we were doing, saw the impact of our work, heard the lights, cameras, and action, and enjoyed 12-hour days in a studio that smelled like home.
I traveled the world, was able to include my friends and family in my exciting career, and I had the great privilege of having a boss who is the single greatest teacher on the planet—not to mention a humanitarian, CEO, television and film star, producer, philanthropist… the list goes on. I felt the impact of that gift every day I entered the building. And every morning I climbed the marble staircase at Harpo Studios, I felt the power of my dream.
Funny that my nursery school teacher told my mother I would never make a friend because I was so shy. Having entertained over a half of a million people from the Oprah stage, I guess Mrs. Thompson was wrong! Her label inspired me not to become that person. Which is why I challenged myself 16 years later by auditioning for Chicago. I was OK when I was cut because I knew I would find my way to a stage. I just couldn’t see it then. I could only feel it. I knew one day I would be on a stage connecting with an audience.
I worked for Harpo Studios over a period of 27 years. I believe mothers have periods of time when we work hard and when we raise our kids hard. I am not a believer that we can do this at the same time. Something’s gotta give. I have experienced it from both sides.
After working in TV for 10 years, I left The Oprah Winfrey Show to have children and I stayed home to raise them. For another 10 years, I was a full-time stay-at-home-mom, but managed to stay relevant at Harpo by freelancing for whatever work they needed. I returned to Harpo full time for 12 years when my kids were all in school and left Harpo when my kids were almost all out of school.
My oldest daughter Marin just graduated from Vanderbilt University, my daughter Carly is a rising junior at Lafayette College (I tell her she’s my favorite since she goes to my alma mater) and my son Billy is 16 and a rising junior in high school.
I would never trade the stay-at-home years or the work years. I had the best of both at separate times. During the last few years of working full time, I began to feel the stress of juggling being a mom and having a career. I passionately loved my job. I almost felt selfish going to work every day and leaving my kids with a babysitter. I missed things in their lives. I wasn’t the best partner (that’s another story!).
But my career also allowed my family to experience once in a lifetime things—knowing Oprah, a 2-week Mediterranean cruise, a Hawaiian vacation, meeting Justin Bieber and Taylor Swift, being in the front row of the flash mob dance, and being in a TV studio at a young age.
I guess TV runs in their DNA because Marin is moving to New York City to be an NBC Page in the fall, Carly is a Film and Media Studies major, and Billy is a filmmaker and theater student. Seeing their focus on entertainment alleviates my guilt of my 70-hour work weeks. At least I can claim I motivated them!
What’s a favorite story from your Oprah years?
I love a good story and this one pretty much captures it all. I went back to The Mike Douglas Show to be in the audience but this time I was not there to see Clipboard Girl. I was there to see the cast from Welcome Back Kotter. John Travolta was my pretend boyfriend and I had a poster of him hanging in my bedroom. I was still 14!
As we sat in the studio audience, someone came out to announce that John Travolta cancelled at the last minute. My heart broke. Clipboard Girl couldn’t even get me to smile.
Fast-forward 28 years. I am in my office at work and prepping with my team for Oprah’s 50th Surprise Birthday Show. A producer calls me and tells me to get down to the studio immediately for some big changes. I grab my clipboard and run to the studio. I am pretty clumsy and I move fast. As I enter the studio at top speed, I bang into a body. As I look up, that body is John Travolta!
Here I was in the most celebrated television talk show studio of all time, with my clipboard and my pretend boyfriend who cancelled on me in 1976. In that moment I had gotten it all. Tears ran down my face and I couldn’t even begin to explain. Just gratitude.
When did you start thinking about charting a new direction for yourself?
A week after The Oprah Winfrey Show ended, I scheduled a long overdue dental surgery. I did not have time for such things during the most exciting season of television. As I sat in the dentist’s chair, something happened. My mind was still. I felt a shift. During my long surgery, I envisioned my next act. I didn’t call it lovespeaks, but I was certain love and speaking would be at the core of whatever I would do next.
One hundred stitches later, I thanked my doctor for giving me the time to be still. This was the start of understanding the benefits of stillness. Two months later, I was trained in Transcendental Meditation (TM) and I haven’t missed a day since. TM boosts creativity, reduces stress, and clears your mind. It connects you to yourself.
I was lucky to have the opportunity to stay on with Harpo after the show ended and super lucky because Oprah gave her employees the gift of TM. I had no idea when I was being trained in TM that TM would take the fear out of my next act. TM is everything to me. Another reason I love Oprah.
What is your next act?
I am the founder of lovespeaks, a connection agency and inspiration network.
With lovespeaks, I engage audiences with a message of connection to self and surroundings for the purposes of personal and professional development. I speak to women’s groups, corporations, students, and young professionals and I emcee live events. I use my story to help women write theirs. As long as there is an audience, a stage, and a microphone, I find a way to connect and inspire.
lovespeaks allows me to work on projects that move my heart. I emcee and raise funds for charities like Go Red for Women, Camp Edna, The Winnetka Club, and Minnie’s Food Pantry. And I have a ball speaking to women (my target audience) at Vera Bradley, Young President’s Organization, Jewish United Fund, and In Her Shoes Foundation.
The heart of lovespeaks comes from the pre-show warm-up from The Oprah Winfrey Show. Oprah gave me a stage that allowed me to connect with people and I will be forever grateful. What I love most about my next act is that it is so simple and so me. It doesn’t feel like work; it feels like breathing. That’s when you know you are doing your life’s work, when it’s not a struggle.
How did you choose this avenue for your talent?
I “leaned in” to my next act while still working at Harpo. I took a few speaking opportunities and realized the gift I had for warming up the Oprah Show audience translated to other stages and other audiences. As my Audience Producer role began to wane at Harpo, my opportunities to speak and emcee events outside of Harpo increased. And that is when I knew it was time for me to go.
I remember the moment I told Oprah I was leaving. It was not easy to leave the greatest boss in the world. I told her I could only work for her or for me. I have had other bosses and they never measured up (obviously). And so it wasn’t a choice, it was really about survival for me.
The job I loved was no longer needed and I was so lucky to have been given the opportunity to stay on at Harpo and try new things. But I am a true believer in Do What You Love. It’s the mission of my business. So I stayed true to what I believed in and I started lovespeaks because I knew I couldn’t let go of an audience.
What challenges did you encounter?
Finding audiences was my first challenge. I no longer had the Oprah brand to lean on. It was just me and that was daunting. I had to do something completely new for me—I had to network!
I remember attending my first networking event; I was terrified. Performing the pre-show warm-up at the United Center in front of 15,000 people or on Michigan Avenue for the flash mob dance in front of 24,000 was easy. Flying to Australia and warming up 6,000 people in the hot sun and another 6,000 as the sun set, was what I loved. Entering a room of 300 women I didn’t know, alone, without a microphone—not in my repertoire. But I have learned something along the way—once you connect with your audience, the fear goes away.
Whether it’s a speech, a meeting, or a social gathering, always make your audience part of what you are doing. Bring your audience in by connecting with them at the top of the show, the talk, and the event. It’s my number one rule on how to take the fear out of public speaking and suddenly I was relying on it in a whole new way. As I rode the elevator up to the Professional Women’s Club of Chicago networking luncheon, I made a friend in the elevator, which allowed me to enter the room with ease. A year later, I was their closing speaker.
What’s your secret to connecting with an audience?
My Oprah pre-show warm-up was where I let my “Loveman” light shine. When people got tickets to the show, they immediately called the person they loved the most and figured out a way to afford the flights, hotels, babysitters, and outfits. That was never lost on me.
I took those 15 to 30 minutes prior to the show and made sure every person in every seat felt the importance of the moment. Not just because they were at Oprah and would see Oprah and would maybe get a gift; it was the importance of being there with the person they loved the most, the person who stands by them in life.
That was what was most important to me. So I like to treat every day like it’s the Oprah warm-up. No matter where I am, I connect with people and let them know they matter.
Where do you find support in your new endeavor?
I felt a sisterhood of support from my former women Harpo colleagues when I started my business. So much so that I produced a lovespeaks video series featuring eight of my women co-workers who were all in the middle of their own reinventions. They were following their passion and building businesses that were based on their specific talent.
I believe that when we connect with the talents we had as young girls and use them in our careers today, our careers become very clear.
I was particularly good at puzzles when I was a young girl. I still like when things fit neatly together. I also used to enjoy interviewing my sisters on my tape recorder in our basement.
As an Audience Producer, seating an audience is like a giant puzzle with people. Entertaining an audience is like the newsroom I created in my basement.
I have made a career out of connection from the skills I fostered as a young girl and now it’s my business.
In terms of support from my children, well, let’s just say they liked the Oprah years! But my husband supports me in so many ways by driving me to my events (I am terrible with directions!) and helping me with the kids when I can’t be home. I jokingly call him “my assistant.”
When I think about giving up, I reach out to one of the many women mentors I have in my life and I get back on track. In addition to Oprah Winfrey, they include: Dorri McWhorter, CEO of YWCA; Kathleen Henson, Founder and CEO of Henson Consulting; Lindsay Avner, Founder and CEO of Bright Pink; Kelley Long, personal finance expert; and Alysa Burns, Principal and Owner of Alyssa Burns Communications. Their passion for what they do inspires me.
Part of my mission is to support women and so I use the hashtag #womensupportingwomen whenever I can through social media. But I also live the mission though my business. I have received so much support from women colleagues who have referred business to me and have supported me through social media. And I support them back.
Watch these video interviews with inspirational women: https://www.lovespeaks.tv/the-lovespeaks-series.html
What have you learned about yourself as you’ve launched lovespeaks?
What I know for sure is that my talent is mine. I own this talent of connection with an audience. It’s important to celebrate what your talent is. I can write a long list of what I am terrible at—math, directions, geography, and economics. I am the first to admit all the things I suck at. But I am also the first to admit that I am skilled at working a crowd with heart, empathy, and purpose. And that, my friends, is my niche. When you find your niche, celebrate it!
I am big on compliments. I compliment people all the time and I love complimenting strangers—especially on airplanes. It always makes for a better flight.
Women need to learn how to take compliments. Once you take a compliment, watch it become reality. Take and make compliments and your life becomes rich with benefits. In fact, it’s a scientific fact that compliments give people the same feeling as receiving cash in your hand. Treat compliments like currency and they become a game-changer. Just make sure your compliments are authentic—otherwise, they don’t work.
What advice do you have for women seeking reinvention in midlife?
First of all, get back to the basics and do what you love. Use the talents you were born with to reinvent. Even if you have been out of the workforce for a period of time, get back to doing what you love—volunteer your time if you have to. Take a class that puts you in the environment you want to be in. Build your skills and watch your career take off.
Another essential to all reinventions is making sure you have a network of women who support you. We can’t do it alone. Each decade brings a new twist to our story. We hardly have time to settle in to what we are doing when—BAM!— another decade arrives and we have to shift gears again. So often, we are not looking for reinvention as much as reinvention is looking for us. My advice is to tune in to the whispers of your reinvention before they turn into shouts. And make sure you have a team of fabulous women who will share resources with you and support your dream.
What advice do you have for women interested in pursing your path?
This is the same advice I would give to myself: Be clear on your brand and your deliverables. And take risks by putting yourself in an environment that completely makes you test your confidence and skills. I took an Adult Storytelling class at Actor’s Training Center in Wilmette, IL and I thought I was going to throw up on the first night. Here I was, someone who made a living speaking in public, and my stomach was in a knot. The point is: Do something that puts your stomach in a knot! It allows you to grow and take on something way bigger next time.
I am not a huge risk taker in the way most people think about risk. I am terrified of heights, airplanes, boats, trains, tunnels, bridges, open water, elevators and self-park parking lots to name a few. The one thing I am not afraid of just happens to be the number one fear people have—speaking in public! I have cornered the market on not being afraid of the one thing everyone else is afraid of. Make sure you are not afraid too if you want to get into this business.
I have had a microphone thrown at me on so many occasions where I was not prepared and had to entertain hundreds or thousands of people. The only preparation for that is practice. And yet, as much as I fly, I still hate it. I did climb the Sydney Harbor Bridge when I was in Australia. I keep the photo of it close to me as a reminder I can do anything. Risks always yield rewards.
What resources do you recommend?
I love StrengthsFinder 2.0 by Tom Rath. If you don’t know what your strengths are, read this book and you will learn what they are immediately. It is not shocking that my #1 strength is WOO—Winning Others Over. It’s defined as: “You enjoy the challenge of meeting new people and getting them to like you. Strangers are rarely intimidating to you. On the contrary, strangers can be energizing. You are drawn to them. You want to learn their names and ask questions, and find some area of common interest so that you can strike up a conversation and build rapport.” Omg WOO is lovespeaks and the Oprah pre-show warm-up! Gotta love StrengthsFinder 2.0!
I also highly recommend meditation to add balance to your life. A great way to begin is with the Oprah and Deepak Chopra 21-day meditation challenges. They are simply magnificent. They give me so much nourishment and support. Plus anything Oprah I’m IN!
What’s next for you?
In the second year of my business, I continue to develop what is next for me. I would like to spend more time writing—maybe a book. I have a few titles in mind; that’s my favorite part. I would like to do more on-camera TV work since it’s my natural habitat. And I would like to land a new corporate client that is in alignment with my mission—Lululemon and American Family Insurance are both on my wish list. I would also like to develop my mentoring and coaching business for young professionals and women re-entering the workforce.
Contact Sally Lou Loveman at email@example.com
Note: Professional photos by Rachelle Anne Photography