Public Speaking Lessons from Bernie Madoff

Reading recently about Bernie Madoff’s polished communication skills, I was reminded of one of my favorite sayings:  “You can take a kitty cat and put it in the oven. But that don’t make it a biscuit.”

In other words, you are what you are.  You can learn to express your ideas better and to connect better with listeners. But all the public speaking training in the world won’t change your heart.

Madoff , who will spend the rest of his life in prison for defrauding investors of millions, was apparently a smooth communicator.   At least that’s the impression of Diana B. Henriques, the New York Times reporter and author of the newly published The Wizard of Lies: Bernie Madoff and the Death of Trust.

Henriques gave a fascinating interview about her experiences with Madoff for the website Huffington Post. Here are three communication lessons from Bernie Madoff.

Madoff Lesson 1: You Can Improve Your Skills Over Time

Henriques said that as a business journalist she had known Madoff many years before the scandal that sent him to jail.  But when she first interviewed him in jail, she was struck by how polished he had become since their last meeting.

When I first met him in prison, my first impression was how polished he had become since I had known him 15 years earlier, even in his prison uniform. Every crease is crisp, every button is buttoned. His belt is shiny, his shoes gleam. Very much the dandy, even in prison. And very much in control of our conversation. He had a very engaging, low-key style. Never took his eyes off of me. [He] leaned forward and was very interested in everything I had to say. A few little jokes, a little bit of flattery. But very much on-message.

This portrait of Madoff’s improved skills struck me in light of a conversation I had recently with a lawyer from a major Atlanta law firm who wanted to know if people could really improve their skills.  “Do people really work at this stuff?” he asked.

The answer is yes. With work and focus, you can improve.  Just ask Bernie Madoff.

Madoff Lesson 2:  Make People feel Good About Themselves

There’s an old saying that everyone’s favorite radio station is “MMFG-AM”: “Make Me Feel Good About Myself.”   Madoff understood that idea.

Henriques points out that unlike many con men,  Madoff was not charismatic. But he did know how to make you feel good.

Madoff was never the most charming man in the room. But, he could make you feel like you were the most charming person in the room. That was the magic. He could reflect back on you a very attractive image of yourself that made you feel good. I felt it. I’m sitting there interviewing him in this prison and I’m feeling like I’m one of the best reporters he’s ever known. He bounces it back — that feeling of, “Oh, you’re so interesting, you’re so competent, you’re so professional.” It’s an amazing gift.

Madoff was apparently the kind of listener who made great eye contact and knew how to seem interested.  Flattery, it turns out, will get you everywhere – including, eventually, prison.

Madoff Lesson 3:  You Can’t Polish Turd

Finally, Henriques said that Madoff was fascinating but not likeable.    “To be candid,” she said,  “he frightened me a little because he was so unpredictable and so untrustworthy.”

A well-spoken rat is still a rat.

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