Kelly Vandever - Communications for Everyone

How Bill Gates Improved His Presentations – and so can YOU!

In Presentation Tips on August 27, 2010 at 8:35 pm

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On his blog, Presentation Zen author Garr Reynolds gives well-deserved credit to Bill Gates for improving his presentations over the years.  Being the master of gorgeous visuals, Reynolds of course addresses the tremendous improvement of Bill Gates’ slides.  Gates slides now include full screen pictures, minimal text and greatly simplified data.  Having attractive slides has an overwhelmingly positive visual impact on a presentation.  And since sight is the sense we as humans seem to trust the most, improving slides is very important.

Reynolds also points out from the 2009 presentation by Bill and Melinda Gates presentation and the 2010 Ted presentation by Bill Gates, that Bill’s delivery has gotten better.  As Reynolds notes, in 2010 Gates is no longer able to read his presentation so he make much better eye contact with the audience.  The truth I suspect is that Gates never needed a script in the first place with either presentation.  Gates knows this material well – it’s very much internalized.  The improved eye contact helps Gates make a better connection with the audience and he even appears more relaxed as a result.

There’s one other improvement between the 2009 and the 2010 speech that Reynolds doesn’t point out but which deserves attention:  In the 2010 presentation, Bill Gates skips what I call the “blah, blah, blah opening.”  In the 2009 presentation, Gates starts by saying, “Well, good evening.  It’s great to see all of you here.  If you came for the hockey game…” which is what I would classify as the blah, blah, blah start.  Gates spent 15 seconds saying trite, disengaging blather that was totally unneeded, did nothing to connect him to the audience, and provided no value to the topic on which he spoke.  Contrast that with how Gates started his TED talk where his first words were, “I’m going to talk today about energy and climate.”  Boom.   There it is.  No blah, blah, blah.  He got right to his talk.  Such a start is a vast improvement over lame references that get a nervous, uncomfortable laugh from the audience.  It makes the audience sit up and pay attention – and don’t we all appreciate it when we know a speaker isn’t wasting their time.

But to get an even bigger improvement, I’d like to challenge Gates to do something that few executives dare to do – but when done, is extremely powerful.  To improve even more, I suggest Gates start with a personal story.

The 2009 presentation started with a film, pointing to individual people who were “Living Proof” that financial aid to Africa is having a positive impact on real people.  The film had the words “Living Proof” tagging individuals featured in the film.  The film was very powerful.  Now, imagine the impact Gates could have had if he’d started with a personal story about his real life encounter with one of these individuals who is “Living Proof” that financial aid works.  It would be easy for him to tell such a story because he lived the event.  Being more at ease would help him and his audience.  In the 2010 speech on energy and climate imagine Gates really grabbing the attention of the audience by telling the story of seeing school boys studying under the street lights because they had no electricity.  Audience members would be naturally more drawn in to such as story.  While Gates dropped the blah, blah, blah start, which was a big improvement, a story would have been even better in engaging the hearts and minds of the listeners.

Executives and technologist are often reticent to include personal stories in their presentations.  After all, many of them are successful because of their wonderfully logical brains.  But all humans, technical and nontechnical, are wired by emotions.   Tapping into that emotion make for better connections and engagement.

Bravo to Bill Gates for being open to improving his presentation graphics and his speech style.  I’d love to see him take it up one more notch, so that next year, I’m blogging about his further transformation of audience engagement by telling a personal story.

So how about you?  Are you willing to get out of your comfort zone?  Can you change your slides so that instead of bullets, you have full screen picture, minimal text and simplified data?  Can you trust yourself to know your material and not rely on reading your notes when you address your audience?  Can you resist the temptation of starting with the blah, blah, blah opening?  Are you willing to be different and connect with your audience by telling a personal story?  If you are, send me links to your speeches so I can praise you in future blog post!  If you need help, come see me at Communications for Everyone and let’s talk!

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