In 2009, I wrote the first book about the presentation skills of Steve Jobs. Jobs was one of the most exciting business presenters of our time. But if I had to choose the most-improved communicator today, it would be Bill Gates. In many ways, he's also the most intriguing and fascinating speaker to watch. Jobs may have reinvented the phone, but Gates is on a mission to reinvent the toilet, and that's a much harder pitch.
What Gates pulled off at a conference in China this week is an example of why you should watch a Bill Gates presentation--if you can get past the gross stuff. When Gates took the stage at a conference where companies showcase their sanitation innovations, he brought along a prop and placed it on a small table next to the podium. Gates didn't bring a toilet; he brought what goes inside the toilet.
"I shared the stage with a beaker of poop," Gates proudly exclaimed in his personal blog titled Potty Talk.
The stunt drew giggles from people in the audience. Gates expected it. He knows a fundamental rule of persuasion--if they're laughing, they're listening.
Once Gates hooked the audience with humor, he delivered the serious statistics. "This small amount of feces could contain as many as 200 trillion rotavirus particles, 20 billion Shigella bacteria, and 100,000 parasitic worm eggs ... These and other pathogens cause diseases like diarrhea, cholera, and typhoid that kill nearly 500,000 children every year."
Getting people to laugh and listen to a subject that is no laughing matter is a brilliant communication strategy that Gates has sharpened over the years--usually with props.
Gate's mosquito moment pulled the audience in
Unexpected props have become a Gates communication strategy that began in 2009 when he took to the TED stage to talk about malaria in poor countries. "Now, malaria is of course transmitted by mosquitoes," Gates said as he walked to the front of the stage where a jar was sitting on a table. As he unscrewed the jar lid, Gates said, "I brought some [mosquitoes] here, just so you could experience this. We'll let those roam around the auditorium a little bit."
Once laughter began to die down, Gates delivered the punch line: "There's no reason only poor people should have the experience." The audience of wealthy business leaders who could afford the pricey admission realized they had been pulled into the story. They laughed, cheered, and applauded.
Gates has a wicked sense of humor and uses it skillfully to make serious points. During an appearance on The Tonight Show. Gates presented Jimmy Fallon with two bottles of water. Gates said that one bottle contained sewage water that had been purified into drinking water while the other was regular water. He challenged Fallon to tell which was which. Fallon sipped from both and picked one as the regular bottled water. "You're wrong. They're both poop water," Gates said as the audience roared with laughter.
If they're laughing, they're listening.
Present information that's impossible to ignore
There's another communication strategy happening with Gates's props. The brain cannot ignore something that's unexpected, surprising, and novel. One neuroscientist who studies brain scans to measure a person's emotional response to television ads and movies once told me that if you want to grab someone's attention, the single best thing you can do is "change it up." In other words, give them something unexpected.
Nobody expected Gates to release mosquitoes in the middle of his PowerPoint on malaria. They didn't expect him to bring "poop water" on the set of The Tonight Show. And they certainly didn't expect him to bring a beaker of the real stuff for a speech on toilet innovation.
Of course, I don't expect you to bring mosquitoes or other disgusting things onstage with you just for shock value. But I do challenge you to find your "mosquito moment."
If you can blend surprise with humor, you'll have a found a magical formula to connect with your audience. Once you've hooked them, you can drop the serious message on them. They'll be tuned in and ready to listen.