Netflix just started airing a documentary on the king of Microsoft, Bill Gates. But some of the story hit the cutting room floor, and Mr. Gates wasn't having it. So the Seattle stalwart just shared some of these left out stories in his latest entry of Gatesnotes, his personal blog.

One interesting story was about a speech he once gave to Warren Buffett and a group of his business leader friends. It was 2001, and Gates had recently resigned as CEO of Microsoft to focus on software and philanthropy, and his friend Warren Buffett was curious about the journey Gates was on. So Buffett invited Gates to share that journey in a keynote to Buffett and some of his friends.

At the time, Gates was in the middle of negotiations over the notorious antitrust case that the U.S. government had brought against Microsoft, so the ex-CEO was up late the night before the speech, on the phone with lawyers. He didn't have time to write the full speech he was to give the next day.

Gates doesn't consider himself a good public speaker, so this had the makings of a potential disaster. But Gates, operating on fumes, was forced to pull out one of the oldest tricks in the public speaking book without knowing it.

According to Gates, the tactic led to Warren Buffett saying this afterward (complete with a big grin on his face): "That was amazing, Bill. What you said was amazing, and your energy around this work is amazing." Gates recounted grinning back at Buffett, as he had received three "amazings"--a first for Gates. 

What did Gates do to draw such accolades?

He focused on telling a simple, clear story he was passionate about.

Gates only had time to jot notes in between legal calls, "trying to simplify all we had learned into the clearest possible story," as he wrote in Gatesnotes.

As Gates described it, all his worries from the previous late night vanished as he became energized by the story he was telling. For the first time in giving a speech, as Gates admitted, all the facts and figures flowed together to serve a higher-order purpose--the telling of an uplifting story.

As a professional speaker, I can tell you that the lesson Gates stumbled on, quite by accident, is the key to effective public speaking. People aren't drawn to a litany of facts. They aren't riveted by mere information or even insight. They're compelled to listen to a story, one told clearly and passionately. A story with an attention-capturing beginning, a fascinating arc (yes, supported with data and insight), and a poignant end that ties it all together.

Listeners want to be enthralled. They want to feel something. Anything. They don't want you to be wallpaper, a talking head.

I've learned in coaching others that people can be intimidated by what it takes to deliver a clear, simple, compelling story within a talk. But you don't have to be. Here are a few simple steps to follow to help you craft a riveting talk.

Start with the big-picture message.

What is it that you have to say to the audience that will make them better for having heard it? What's your big idea? What's the theme of your message? Make sure this message is worthy before you proceed. It doesn't have to be a revelation, something that no human has ever heard before. A unique perspective on even an age-old problem will suffice.

Paint the arc in light brushstrokes.

What's the arc of your story? The major plot points that tie everything together? And this is key, what are the three or four epiphanies you want to share that become the anchor points of your talk? Epiphanies are what enthrall and evoke emotion and intellect. Lay these down to give your talk a frame around which to build.  

Then fill in the spaces with insight and information.

You have data to share. But the data isn't your story, it's what holds the story together. It lends your story credibility. Use too much and you lose them. Use too little and you never had them.

Sweat the opening and closing.

Use your best story within your overall story in the opening to set the tone, to establish the premise, to grab attention. Craft an ending that ties back to the beginning and puts a bow on the thread running throughout your entire talk.

You don't have to accidentally learn how to nail public speaking like Bill Gates did. It's no accident, you're now equipped with the knowledge. Time for a mic drop.

Published on: Sep 25, 2019
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