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What Bill Gates Can Teach You About Becoming An Engaging Presenter

Aug 28 2015

Standing up in a room of hundreds of professionals and being interesting, engaging and compelling is no easy feat. But business legend Bill Gates says he can get you on the right public speaking path in a few simple yet effective presentation tips — and you may take him up on it.

Fresh data from cloud-based presentation services platform Prezi shows that having premium presentation skills isn’t a luxury in business these days — it’s a necessity.

"In the information age — the knowledge economy — you are only as valuable as the ideas you have to share," says Carmine Gallo, author of the bestselling book, "Talk Like TED: The 9 Public-Speaking Secrets of the World's Top Minds."

"Poor presentation skills mean that leaders fail to inspire, products fail to sell, entrepreneurs fail to attract investors, and careers fail to soar. Great presentation skills will help you stand apart in the world of ideas."

All in all, 70% of U.S executives say that having good presentation skills is “critical” to their professional success, Prezi reports.

So what can the founder of Microsoft (with a personal net worth of $79 billion), and one of the most effective presenters on the business landscape today, teach you about engaging a business audience? Plenty. Take these cues from Gates to upgrade your presentation skills:

1. Use good props

There is a fairly famous story about Gates speaking at a Feb. 2009 TED talk. The topic was education and malaria. To illustrate his point, Gates released some mosquitos out of a glass jar into the audience, noting that mosquitos caused malaria. In doing so, Gates was cleverly implying that wealthier countries were largely insulated from diseases that permeate poorer countries.

“I brought some (mosquitos) here, just so you could experience this,” Gates told his audience. “We’ll let those roam around the auditorium a little bit. There’s no reason only poor people should have the experience.”

Gates let his audience sweat for a moment before revealing that the mosquitos, of course, were not infected. The audience ate it up.

2. Be “physical”

Gates is not a particularly imposing physical specimen, but he does take some physical ammunition with him to the podium when he speaks — specifically, a wide array of physical gestures that humanize him and help Gates connect with his audience.

Opening his hands to reach out to his audience, thrusting his forefinger in the direction of the crowd, pursing his hands together to make a particularly crucial point ... all help Gates (and can help you) engage his audience and capture its attention in a demonstrably non-verbal way.

To practice this technique, you may pretend that you’re talking to someone who doesn't speak English. By using non-verbal physical gestures, you learn to be descriptive with an audience.

3. Question your audience

Gates is famous for engaging his audience by asking the audience questions designed specifically to capture — and keep — their attention. Asking great questions tests your audience, and that’s a good thing: it makes for a more lively and memorable presentation. In his TED talk, Gates asks several questions, including if the audience knew the history of malaria and how to make a teacher "great," so he or she could educate the world on malaria and help solve the problem.

4. Turn a negative into a positive

Gates is a realist, and has seen his share of ups and downs in the business work. In one speech, Gates said of complaining clients, “Your most unhappy customers are your greatest source of learning.”

Grip your audience in the same way. Taking a negative and turning it into a positive is something any manager can remember walking away from your speech.

5. Take a (calculated) breath

Pausing between points is an underrated skill for speakers, who generally try to move things along too quickly. But Gates sets the tone and pace of his talk with well-timed pauses and even periods of longer silence — just to let his points sink in without any distraction. Take a page out of Gate’s “silent” book and do the same.

There’s really no big secret to becoming an engaging business presenter. Just stay calm, focus on genuinely connecting with your audience, and feel free to use props, non-verbal techniques, and other presentation tips from Gates' playbook.


Brian O’Connell is a writer with 15 years' experience covering business news and trends. A former Wall Street bond trader, he has written for dozens of top-tier national business publications, including TIME, MSN Money, Forbes, The Wall Street Journal, CNBC, The and CBS Marketwatch.

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