Public Speaking Tip from Bill Gates

Normally, I wouldn’t recommend looking to Bill Gates for public speaking advice.  He didn’t make it to the top on eloquence.  But it’s his birthday today and I was curious about what he had to say about communication.

The answer? Nothing really.

But I did find this quote that seems relevant.

Gates said, “The vision is really about empowering workers, giving them all the information about what’s going on so they can do a lot more than they’ve done in the past.”

Of course, Gates is speaking about computers and how they can empower workers. 

But the same idea applies to good speaking. Great speakers understand that a good presentation isn’t about showing off or looking fabulous. It’s about empowering your audience, giving them the information they need so they can succeed.

A great speech lays out a simple path and points a direction toward success.

If you do that well, you don’t need to be eloquent. You can be more like, well, Bill Gates.

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We Speak to Help, Not to Get Credit For Our Work

When I was in high school, my math teachers’ tests always included the following instructions: “Show your work if you want full credit.” And so we would all do our best to show the teacher all the steps we took to get to the answer.

The idea, I suppose, was that the teacher wanted to examine our thought process and not just check that we got the right answer.  A good practice for growing young minds.

Unfortunately, many people have taken that “show your work” policy to heart when it comes to presentations. And it’s killing their audiences.

The goal in a presentation is not to get credit for your work.  The goal is to give your audience direction and help them achieve their goals.

I worked with the associate of a law firm who had planned to give a presentation to a client on recommendations regarding a litigation strategy.

His presentation amounted to a detailed recitation of the legal analysis he did in reaching his strategy.

I stopped him in the middle of his presentation. 

“Why are you telling me all of this?”

He paused for a moment and then said, “I want people to know everything I’ve done in preparing this strategy.”

Oh dear, I thought. He wants credit for his work.

Once you’re out of high school, people don’t care about how much work you’ve done. At least not when they’re listening to your presentations.  They care about how you can help them.

With that in mind, focus your presentations on the key things that will help your audience do their jobs better.

I asked the associate, “What are the three things your client absolutely needs to know about the litigation strategy?”

He thought for a moment then said, “They need to know the basic strategy, the risks, and the costs.”

“Then make those points and stop.”

A presentation is not your chance to impress the audience with how much work you’ve done. It’s your chance to help your audience by giving them what they need to know to do their job successfully. Do that, and people will love your presentations.

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IBM Ad Demonstrates How to Answer a Question

If you want a quick tutorial in how to answer a question well, check out the IBM ad where a skepitcal businessman grills a female colleague over the value of her “green proposal.”  Her answer is tight — two sentences.

Tight answers are far more persuasive than long ones. A two sentence answer says, “I know this and there’s no doubt.” There’s a sense of certainty that is disarming and inspires confidence.

Next time you know you’re going to be grilled. Prepare a list of questions you expect. Then come up with two sentence answers. You’ll inspire confidence.

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Can You Deliver Your Message in Six Words?

I’m fascinated by a website called “Six Word Memoirs.”  This is the site that invites you to submit your life story in six words. The results are interesting and often poignant, sort of like Haiku, but even shorter.    “Found myself but lost my hair.” “Followed dreams. Often broke. Still smiling.”  “Pancreatic cancer. Not dead. Now what?”

The memoirs are compiled in a book called “Not Quite What I Was Planning.”

It’s interesting and impactful to boil down your message to just six words.

Here’s something to try. Next time, you have a presentation, see if you can boil it down to six words.

Here is my message in six words. “Audiences love passion, focus and stories.”

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What is Public Speaking Hygiene?

Marketing guru Seth Godin posted yesterday about a concept called “marketing hygiene.”  It’s the idea that to sell a great product, you need to create an environment that is conducive to making people buy.  For example, you may have the best tomatoes in the world, but no one will buy them from you if your grocery store has roaches all over the walls. 

Godin’s post prompted me to think about the following question: “What is public speaking hygiene?”

Put another way, what is the environment that you need to create when you speak to ensure that people pay attention and buy into your ideas?

One thing in particular comes to mind.  The message needs to be presented simply. 

Let’s say that you’ve invented a wonderful new way for your listeners to double their investment. If you present the idea amid a complex jumble of incomprensibility, then your listeners will be too distracted to get your idea.  The complexity undermines the hygienic environment and makes it less likely for your message to get through and take hold.

On the other hand, what if you deliver your message as part of a simple three-part plan?  In that case, there’s no messiness to distract from the core idea.  There are no “cockroaches on the wall” to distract.  

The simplicity creates an hygienic environment that allows your message to jump out at the listener and take center stage.

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So How Can Billy Mays Improves His Gestures?

 Make ’em big and hold ’em steady.

Those are the keys to good gestures. The best gestures add to your size, making you come across bigger and with more presence. But they avoid being distracting — a la Billy Mays from yesterday’s post — by being steady.

The idea is to reach out and make yourself look big, kind of like Senator Barack Obama in the above picture. But you should also hold the gesture steady through a thought, so that you’re not thrashing the air and distracting your audience.

The main thing Mays could have done in the commercial discussed in yesterday’s post is simply calm down his movements. 

The question I have for everyone is this.  To be sure, Billy Mays’ gestures are distracting. But would it make sense for him to change them?

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Public Speaking Tip from Albert Einstein (Contest!)

“Any intelligent fool can make things bigger, more complex, and more violent. It takes a touch of genius — and a lot of courage — to move in the opposite direction.”

I love this quote from Albert Einstein because it touches on an important aspect of public speaking.

In business we see so many people stand up in front of audiences and give complicated presentations.  There are dozens of slides. And the slides have highly complicated diagrams.  

But, as Einstein might say, any intelligent fool can stand up and make a complicated presentation.

It takes courage to look at your audience and make just three simple points.

Why does it take so much courage? Perhaps there is a sense that we aren’t doing our jobs if we don’t make it all sound complex. “Surely,” the thought goes, “no one will think it is worth paying me to do something that seems so easy.”

Of course, that’s the wrong attitude when it comes to speaking. Everyone knows that what you do isn’t easy. But it’s your job as a communicator to make it simple for others. You’re being paid to make them understand. 

So have the courage to be simple.

Contest Question: Why do you think that so many business presentations are long and complicated?  Most interesting answer wins a copy of my book “Even A Geek Can Speak.”  Contest ends next Tuesday.


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Speaking Tip from Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

“If one is forever cautious, can one remain a human being?”

Those are the words of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, the Russian literary giant who died yesterday at age 89.  He won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1970 and was a brave dissident who spoke out against the Soviet regime.

Anyone who wants to be a great public speaker should heed his words. And while you’re at it, take a moment and read his obituary. Here is the one that ran in the New York Times. 

Like Solzhenitsyn, the best speakers say something important to their listeners.  The best speakers take a position. 

Too many speakers go in front of their audiences and refuse to take a stand.  If you think that a program needs to be terminated, then say so in simple terms. If you think that your competition has a great idea, then say so and propose a clear solution. Don’t be afraid to state your ideas powerfully and in simple terms.

Solzhenitsyn didn’t waffle. Great speakers don’t either.

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Great Pitches Propose Happy Endings for Clients

“We think we have a great story to tell here. We need to figure out how to best tell that story.”


On the phone was the president of a large real estate firm. We were discussing how to put together a pitch for the chance to win a major project.


And I was I was getting worried.


Why?  Because when someone tells me that they “want to tell their story” I get worried. When you’re delivering a pitch, the goal isn’t to tell your story. The goal is to show how you can help the prospect write a happy ending to their story.


Too many people in business think that the goal of a sales pitch is to describe their firm and capabilities. As a result, they waste time detailing qualifications or “telling their story.”


But a great sales pitch proposes a solution to a business problem.  That means that the best pitches don’t focus on the presenters.  The best pitches start by recognizing the big challenge that the prospect faces. Then they propose a way to help get past the challenge.


Let’s say that your prospect is a corporation looking for a firm to manage their 401-K plan. What is the business chellenge that the prospect faces? It could be several things. Perhaps the last manager of the plan did a poor job of employee relations. In that case, they’re looking for a vendor that will do a better job of keeping employees happy.  Perhaps the existing plan is too limited with too few choices for the employees. Perhaps the most important issue is putting in place something that will be inexpensive. 


The best pitch will be the one that focuses like a laser on how to resolve that challenge that the prospect sees.


To be sure, you can talk about how you’ve helped other clients solve similar problems. In that sense, you can talk about your qualifications.


But the focus should be on the prospect’s key problems and challenges.  Forget about your story.  Discuss how you can make the prospect’s story have a happy ending.


Here’s Elvis singing “Happy Ending” from the 1963 film, “It Happened at the World’s Fair.”



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Four Steps To Engaging Conference Calls

“When I’m leading a conference call, I know that there are people reading their email, working on memos and not paying attention. Are there any tricks to making people paying pay closer attention?”

Yes. Be more engaging.

It’s not the listener’s fault that your calls feel like a waste of time.

When people ask how to make people pay attention on conference calls, they’re usually asking it with some sense of exasperation. They feel like business world has somehow contracted Attention Deficit Disorder.  Technology has somehow turned the business world into a bunch of boorish children who can’t sit still and pay attention.

But if people aren’t paying attention on your conference calls, it’s your fault.  It’s your job to keep them engaged.

You keep them engaged in four ways.

  1. Start the call by stating a simple benefit for paying attention.  “During this call, I’d like to discuss how we can keep our customers despite the current price increase.” Make sure that the payoff for paying attention is clear. 
  2. Lay out a short and focused agenda. “During this call, I want to discuss three things:  why we’re losing customers, what we can do about it, and what is our timeline for fixing the problem.” If you give people a strong sense of what to expect, they will be more engaged because they know that the call won’t go on forever.
  3. Ask people questions and let them respond. Interactive is always better.  Conference call participants have a right to contribute. One-sided presentations multiply the chance of people tuning out.
  4. Be excited. Put a mirror on your desk. Do you look engaging as you speak? That facial animation will show up in your voice and keep people engaged. Your listeners can hear your smile.

Next time you have a conference call, remember that it’s the call leader’s job to keep everyone engaged.  And if they’re not paying attention, it’s not the fault of the listeners.

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